Alexander Hamilton, a founding father and the first secretary of the treasury of the United States, died 214 years ago today from a gunshot wound. He was of indeterminate age.
The bullet came from Vice President Aaron Burr, a member of his political party who challenged the Revolutionary War hero to a duel. The confrontation in 1804 stemmed from their long-standing rivalry, which intensified after, Burr claimed, Hamilton foiled his candidacy for New York governor. The duel occurred in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River, at dawn.
Two eyewitnesses, William P. Van Ness and Nathaniel Pendleton, wrote that they “conceive [the duel] proper to add that the conduct of the parties in that interview was perfectly proper as suited the occasion.”
Hamilton, who scholars believe was born in 1755 or 1757, was perhaps one of the most important Founding Fathers who only recently re-emerged into the American consciousness.
Born in the Caribbean and raised by his mother, Hamilton quickly made a name for himself after moving to New York City in 1773. Swept up in the rebellious fervor of the day, the Kings College student became an outspoken critic of England, that tiny nation across the sea that regulated the price of tea in the colonies.
During the American Revolution, Hamilton was a confidant of George Washington, commander of the Continental Army until 1781. Hamilton could “transmute wispy ideas into detailed plans and turn revolutionary dreams into enduring realities,” Ron Chernow wrote in his 2004 biography. “As a team, they were unbeatable and far more than the sum of their parts.”
After the colonies won their independence, Hamilton defended British loyalists in court. Hamilton’s admirers describe the statesman as a “nonstop” force to be reckon with who wrote 50 of the 85 Federalist Papers to promote a strong central government that endures today.
Though Hamilton was known to oppose slavery, scholars dispute whether Hamilton was truly an abolitionist. As Ankeet Ball argues, “Hamilton detested the institution of slavery with fervor, but whenever the issue of slavery came into conflict with Hamilton’s central political tenet of property rights, his belief in the promotion of American interests, or his own personal ambition, Hamilton allowed these motivations to override his aversion to slavery.”
He mostly left the public eye after his torrid extramarital affair became known. Hamilton in 1797 published a 98-page pamphlet to quell rumors, writing that “the charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation,” Hamilton wrote. Reynolds, the husband of Hamilton’s mistress, financially extorted him to keep the liaison secret.
“My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me,” Hamilton wrote.
The pamphlet “humiliated [Hamilton’s] wife and permanently ended any hope he might have had of becoming president of the United States,” though he did maintain some political influence until his death, according to Sarah Pruitt, a historical narrative writer.
Hamilton mostly faded from the public’s memory until the Tony-award-winning 2015 musical reminded Americans of his influence and leadership.
Hamilton left behind a wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, seven children and a legacy — something he never got to see.