Alexander Hamilton: His Early Life and Republican Ideas

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

Alexander Hamilton, as much as Thomas Jefferson, believed wholeheartedly that the most natural form of government was a republic in which everyone would have the freedom to exercise their natural rights. Is it true that he believed in republicanism in his early days, much before he entered the political arena?

 A portrait of Alexander Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton believed that hierarchy and aristocracy were the fictions created by the powerful. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Alexander Hamilton’s Family

Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1757, on the island of Nevis, in the British West Indies. His father, James Hamilton, had some vague connections to some even more vague noble families of Scotland. His mother was Rachel Faucett Lavien, of French Huguenot descent.

Unhappily for young Alexander, their second son, Rachel was married not to James Hamilton but to Johan Michael Lavien, a planter on the island of St. Croix whom she had married in 1745, and then deserted in 1750 for the embraces of James Hamilton.

Rachel Lavien eventually succeeded in getting a divorce from her lawfully wedded husband, but not for the purpose of marrying James Hamilton. Hamilton set up a lackadaisical business on the island of St. Croix, and then, with the excuse of business matters on yet another island, St. Kitts, James Hamilton took ship and never reappeared.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Hamilton: The Ambitious Young Boy

A portrait of young Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton joined a merchant firm when he was 12. (Image: The New-York Historical Society/Public domain)

Undismayed, Rachel Lavien set up her own retail business, and farmed her son Alexander out to the merchant firm of Beckman & Cruger at the tender age of 12. Far from suffering by this, Alexander Hamilton flourished. He had a ready intelligence, read whatever he could lay hands upon, and by the time he was 14, his employer, Nicholas Cruger, was leaving orders and sales in his hands. But he was also bored.

Life in the British sugar islands of the West Indies was a dead-end street for someone with those ambitions. The West Indies were a cockpit of political rivalries between the great European powers, especially between the British and the French, and their value lay in the single commodity the West Indies grew better than anywhere else in the world: sugar.

Sugar Plantations of the West Indies

In an age before anyone could even dream of refrigeration, the preservation of foodstuffs could often mean the difference between a community’s life and its death. Salt was the great preservative of meat, but it was not until the West Indian islands yielded the bonanza of sugar did a comparable means of preserving fruit and vegetables become available to Europeans.

As early as the 1660s, the West Indian sugar crop was yielding over three times the value of tobacco cultivation in the Chesapeake Bay. By 1770, the British sugar islands were exporting 132,000 tons of sugar, 11 million gallons of molasses, and 41 million liters of rum.

Compared to the North American colonies, per capita wealth on a sugar island like Jamaica was £1,196. In New England, per capita wealth was £32. That is, per capita wealth for free white people.

Learn more about the origins of slavery in the British Empire.

The Slaves of the British West Indies

The riches to be realized from the sugar trade created greater and greater concentrations of land and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and all of it produced by the labor of black slaves in numbers and conditions that made slaveholding in the North American colonies look trivial.

By the 1750s, slave imports in Jamaica reached 6,000 a year, and by 1780, 91 percent of the population of the entire British West Indies were black slaves. In that world, the futurity of fatherless working boys was decidedly bleak. Squeezed between the great planters at the top and the vast armies of brutalized slaves on the bottom, a fortuneless adolescent with no connections to appeal to was in a decidedly poor position.

Hugh Knox: Hamilton’s Guide

But in 1772, Hugh Knox, a Scots-Irish Presbyterian missionary educated at the New Jersey Presbyterian college located in Princeton, arrived in St. Croix. He took the 15-year-old Hamilton under his wing, and discovering what gifts the boy had, determined that he would be sent to Princeton for an education.

Hamilton’s haphazard pattern of reading did not promise much success at Princeton, nor did the admissions interview he had with Princeton’s president, John Witherspoon. Hamilton cockily proposed that Witherspoon allow him to test into whichever class his attainments would entitle him and advance from class to class with as much rapidity as his exertions would enable him to do.

Hamilton at the King’s College

A drawing of King's College.
Hamilton joined the King’s College when he couldn’t clear the interview at Princeton. (Image: Emmet Collection of Manuscripts/Public domain)

Witherspoon and the Presbyterian dominies who oversaw the college would have none of it. But rather than back down, Hamilton took off for New York City, where he applied to the president of the rival King’s College—now Columbia University—on the same terms, and this time was admitted. And, as he had expected, Hamilton conquered the curriculum at King’s College in just two-and-a-half years.

But he never actually took his degree,because by that time, in 1775, the American Revolution had begun, and Hamilton was already well into the thick of revolutionary activities.

Learn more about the American Revolution.

Hamilton’s Revolutionary Spirit

He made his first mark as early as the summer of 1774, speaking at anti-British rallies for the Sons of Liberty, and publishing his first revolutionary tract in December. His message was simple and blunt, and straight out of the playbook of Enlightenment politics. “That Americans are entitled to freedom is incontestable on every rational principle,” Hamilton announced.

Hierarchy and aristocracy were the fictions created by the powerful, not the arrangement sanctioned by nature. Arbitrary and unnatural concentrations of power tempt men to tyranny. The life of the subject is often sported with, and the fruits of his daily toil are consumed in oppressive taxes that serve to gratify the ambition, avarice, and lusts of his superiors.

These were the thoughts of a young man, who eventually became one of the Founders of the republic.

Common Questions about Alexander Hamilton’s Early Life and Republican Ideas

Q: Why didn’t Alexander Hamilton take his degree from the King’s College?

Alexander Hamilton never took his degree from the King’s College because by 1775 the American Revolution had begun, and he was already well into the thick of revolutionary activities.

Q: Who was Hugh Knox and what role did he play in Alexander Hamilton’s life?

Hugh Knox was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian missionary. He arrived in St. Croix in 1772 and was impressed with the 15-year-old Alexander Hamilton. He decided to send the young boy to Princeton.

Q: How old was Alexander Hamilton when he joined the merchant firm of Beckman & Cruger?

Alexander Hamilton was 12 years old when he joined he merchant firm of Beckman & Cruger.

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