by Kim Borges
Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757–1804) was a politician, military commander, legal scholar, author, lawyer and a banker. A co-founder of the Federalist Party and one of three authors of The Federalist Papers, Hamilton played an influential role in American democracy and philanthropy from an advocacy perspective. He founded the U.S. Coast Guard and “New York Evening Post” newspaper and also served as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury.
Alexander Hamilton identified the small Caribbean island of Nevis, formerly known as the British West Indies, as his birthplace; however, there are no surviving records confirming this claim (Chernow 2004, 7). He traveled to St. Croix before arriving to the United States in his early teens.
Hamilton attended King’s College – today, Columbia University – but did not graduate, leaving to begin his military career. He ascended through the military ranks, with a promotion to lieutenant colonel making him part of George Washington’s “family” of aides (Brookhiser 1999, 29). Hamilton worked alongside Washington for four years during the Revolutionary War before later serving on his cabinet in the Treasury leadership role.
Regarded as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Hamilton was a prolific writer. He penned a significant portion of Washington’s presidential farewell address (The Address of General Washington, 1796). More notably, he collaborated with James Madison and John Jay to publish the Federalist Papers, 85 articles and essays addressing a variety of legislative and economic topics and promoting the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Their works were initially published under pseudonyms to maintain the authors’ anonymity (Federalist Papers, 1877-1878). The impact of the Federalist Papers has endured for centuries after their authorship, impacting America’s executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, known as Eliza or Betsey, from a prominent family which placed him in the world of “upstate New York grandees” (Brookhiser 1999, 47). Alexander and Eliza had eight children.
Hamilton died in 1804 of a gunshot wound following a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. Ironically, three years earlier, Hamilton’s eldest son Philip was also killed in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, the same place Alexander would be mortally wounded (Brookhiser, 1999, 210).
In 2015, Hamilton made an unexpected and significant resurgence into American popular culture 200 years after his death with the release of a musical telling his complex life story.
Beyond his birthplace, there are several aspects of Hamilton’s life shrouded in mystery and involving great speculation, including his birthdate, the identity of his father and even his death.
Before meeting James Hamilton, Rachel Faucette, Alexander’s mother, was married to Johann Michael Lavien, a Dutch merchant, with Faucette’s mother Mary “auctioning her daughter off… to the highest bidder” at age 16 to a man more than a dozen years older (Chernow 2004, 10). Rachel gave birth to son Peter in 1746. When their union declined, Lavien had Rachel jailed to humiliate her for abandoning their home (Chernow 2004, 11). Following her release, Rachel fled to St. Kitts, leaving Lavien and Peter behind. Chernow notes, “In doing so, she relinquished the future benefits of a legal separation and inadvertently doomed the unborn Alexander to illegitimacy” (Chernow 2004, 12).
The fourth of 11 children, James Hamilton encountered his own early challenges. Hamilton’s family owned the Grange, a Scottish castle near Kilmarnock and Kerelaw Castle in Stevenston (Chernow 2004, 12-13). Considered mediocre compared to his siblings, James struggled financially due to poor business decisions, with friends and family repeatedly rescuing him (Chernow 2004, 15.)
Rachel and Hamilton met had each experienced multiple setbacks resulting in their social and economic decline. Due to the significant expense and prolonged time to obtain a divorce, Rachel and Hamilton were never formally married but bore two sons, James and Alexander.
Tragedy was a constant in Alexander’s early life, with his father abandoning the family when he was just 10, leaving him and James to help support their mother. Rachel died from yellow fever in 1768 and the boys became orphans. By the time Alexander Hamilton was 14, Chernow notes, “their father had vanished, their mother had died, their cousin and supposed protector had committed bloody suicide, and their aunt, uncle and grandmother had all died” (Chernow 2004, 26). James and Alexander were on their own and essentially penniless.
Alexander moved to the United States, provided with a home by Thomas Stevens, a friend’s father. He clerked with a law firm before joining the military and was quickly promoted, ultimately serving as an administrative aide to Commanding General George Washington. He and Washington built such a rapport that Hamilton served as the nation’s first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, a role in which he championed creating the first national bank.
Hamilton married Elizabeth (Eliza, Betsey) Schuyler in 1780. Chernow notes, “For the first time in his life, Alexander Hamilton must have had a true sense of belonging” (Chernow 2004, 149). He and Elizabeth had eight children. They purchased 32 acres and built a home they named the Grange in honor of Hamilton’s paternal Scottish lineage.
Hamilton engaged in an extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds which became public following an extortion plot by Maria’s husband. When letters between Hamilton and Maria were shared with James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson – Hamilton’s chief adversary (Serratore, 2013) – Hamilton admitted the indiscretion in “Observations of Certain Documents” to reduce concern his perceived involvement in financial fraud circumstances could destroy his career and damage the nation’s fledgling economy (Serratore, 2013). Eliza stood by her husband.
Hamilton practiced law on and off until his death, a profession where “his skill and successes put him in great demand” (Brookhiser 1999, 56). His vehement views placed him at odds with several notable political figures, previously noted Thomas Jefferson, his former writing collaborator James Madison and Aaron Burr, among others. His disagreements with Burr would prove fatal, with Burr assassinating Hamilton in a July 1804 duel.
Eliza’s father Phillip Schuyler died just three months after Alexander. His financial affairs were in slightly better order than Hamilton’s. Eliza was forced to sell the Grange at public auction and applied to Congress for the veteran’s benefits her husband had waived (Brookhiser 1999, 215). Despite her initial financial challenges, Eliza later rebought their home and helped establish the Orphan Asylum Society, New York City’s first private orphanage. She passed away in 1854 at the age of 97.
Known as the “Father of the Federalist Papers,” Hamilton is credited with writing 51 of the 85 articles and essays promoting ratification of the U.S. Constitution with co-authors James Madison and John Jay, although they all published under the pseudonym “Publius” to protect their anonymity (Federalist Papers, 1787-1788). There are 15 submissions whose authorship is in dispute between Hamilton and James Madison (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2012).
The catalyst in writing the Federalist Papers occurred following a Philadelphia meeting of delegates from the 13 colonies as they debated revisions to the 1776 Articles of Confederation. The revisions were part of a greater struggle the colonies faced of wrestling with the concept of becoming one unified and free government after the tyrannical reign they had experienced under King George III.
The ratification of this new document extended beyond laws. “The call for a new constitution came, not from a years-long struggle of over taxes, but through the side door of commerce” (Brookhiser 1999, 60) involving taxes and tariffs. Hamilton and Madison were in agreement that the existing government was “constituted in a bad way” (Brookhiser 1999, 53). While the approaches to their writings varied – “Hamilton was driven by problems, Madison by theories” (Brookhiser 1999, 53), they shared a common goal of persuading New York citizens to ratify the document to help create a stable, sustainable government.
At their core, the Federalist Papers advocated for cohesiveness and the commitment to country first versus self-serving factions. In examining the essays, Richard Epstein discusses their focus on human frailties, noting, “The division of individuals between good and bad, virtuous and devious, is not something forever fixed in concrete, but is something which could vary, and perhaps substantially, with changing external events. The task, therefore, is to develop a system that improves the odds that good people will be able to survive in bad times and that enables them to flourish in good ones” (Epstein 1993, 17).
In 1788, the proposed Constitution was initially ratified by the minimum nine states required and later approved by 11, beginning the work of a new, unified government. The articles penned by Hamilton, Madison and Jay were critical in helping to interpret and explain the intentions of the original framers of the Constitution. They remain relevant today as the only writings of their kind, still referenced by all three branches of government for centuries after their authorship.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
What is a legacy? It’s a question that surrounds the impact of Alexander’s writings and advocacy efforts, as well as Eliza’s philanthropic commitment to preserve her husband’s memory. As noted above, Hamilton’s writings were – and still are – critical to the foundation of our democracy. Hamilton’s role as a staff officer “gave him a ringside seat on the country’s problems, and a particular perspective on possible solutions” (Brookhiser, 1999, 39).
Eliza’s philanthropic efforts involved co-founding the Orphan Asylum Society with Isabella Graham and Johanna Bethune. She did so to help protect New York City’s poorest and most vulnerable children (Graham Windham website), what her own beloved Alexander had been following desertion by his father and the death of his mother.
Eliza was deeply involved in supporting the city’s first private orphanage, raising funds to support the nonprofit and serving as its director beginning in 1821 (Graham Windham) and engaged until her 90s. The Orphan Asylum Society was renamed Graham Windham and has grown from initially serving 16 children to providing a variety of programs and service to nearly 5,000 today. It’s the oldest nonprofit and non-sectarian child welfare agency in America (Graham Windham website).
Graham Windham received a significant boost in 2015 – 165 years after Eliza’s death – when “Hamilton: An American Musical” made its debut. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of the statesman, Tony and Emmy Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda penned a uniquely sung and rap style format production to tell the story of one of America’s Founding Fathers.
The incredible success of the “Hamilton” musical – it garnered a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations in 2016 and 11 wins, netted box office profits of $600,000 a week and generated 215 million soundtrack plays on Spotify (Hallemann 2016, 1) – has helped raise Graham Windham to new awareness levels.
It’s been noted, “The runaway success of Hamilton has consequently changed the fortunes of Graham Windham by almost every measure” (LeDonne 2016, 4), with social media increases increasing from 38 twitter impressions to 200,000 webpage views (LeDonne 2016, 5). The production also helped the nonprofit net a significant increase in donations. And the Hamilton philanthropic effect extends beyond the public’s response to the cast itself.
The concept of legacy resonates throughout Miranda’s musical, but particularly at the end, with each actor giving a tribute to the contribution made to society. Hamilton dance captain Morgan Marcell notes:
“Really the only thing we, as humans, regardless of occupation want to do is leave some sort of legacy. We just want to make a difference. Alexander Hamilton wrote his way into the foundation of our country. Eliza Hamilton secured hers through philanthropy. The least we can do is honor their legacy and try to create our own.” (Hallemann 2016, 2.)
Marcell and Phillipa Soo, who portrays Eliza in “Hamilton,” established “The Eliza Project,” an initiative supporting Graham Windham youth by providing a variety of programs, including masterclasses in arts education. Students participating in the classes shared their talents at a 2015 luncheon raising more than $400,000 for Graham Windham’s “Graham SLAM” initiative helping youth to achieve self-sufficiency (Brody, 2015). Marcell has also established “Share Your Stories,” a pen-pal exchange program between Graham Windham children and show cast members (Hallemann 2016, 4).
From a broader service perspective, show creator Miranda and the cast hosted a series of matiness to introduce 11th graders to the theatre at an economical rate. By June 2016, this partnership among the Rockefeller Foundation, New York City’s public school system and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History had reached 20,000 students (Hallemann 2016, 5).
Miranda’s philanthropic support from Hamilton also expanded to Puerto Rico after the island was devastated in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria. Miranda and cast traveled to Puerto Rico to perform shows, donating all proceeds to foundations located on the island. Miranda and his family enlisted support from celebrities to raise $43 million for the Hispanic Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund and conduct a Three King’s Days toy drive netting 40,000 gifts (Paulson, 2018).
What type(s) of philanthropic impact can someone make after they pass away, and in what ways can this occur?
Key Related Ideas
- Federalist Papers: A collection of 85 essays anonymously published by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay written in support of ratifying the U.S. Constitution.
- “Hamilton: The Musical”: A Broadway musical based on Hamilton’s life launched in 2015 which has won 11 Tony Awards.
- U.S. Constitution: A document created in 1787 comprised of seven articles. The first three address the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Since its adoption, the document has been amended 27 times.
Important People Related to the Topic
- Aaron Burr (1756–1836): Aaron Burr served as the nation’s third vice president. He was also a U.S. Senator representing New York. Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler preceded and succeeded Burr in the role. In 1804, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
- Elizabeth (Eliza, Betsey) Schuyler Hamilton (1757 – 1854): Eliza was Alexander’s wife and mother of the couple’s eight children. She established New York City’s first orphanage.
- John Jay (1745–1829): A co-author of the Federalist Papers with Hamilton and Madison, John Jay served as the Governor of New York and was appointed the first U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs and the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826): Thomas Jefferson was the chief author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the third president of the U.S. and its first Secretary of State. He and Hamilton were bitter rivals stemming from their disagreements on legislative and economic reforms.
- James Madison (1751–1836): A co-author of the Federalist Papers with Hamilton and Jay, James Madison served as the nation’s fourth president, the fifth U.S. Secretary of State and was a cofounder of the Democratic-Republic Party.
- Lin-Manuel Miranda: Lin Manuel-Miranda is a Tony-award winning writer of a 2015 hip-hop style Broadway musical telling the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life and reintroducing him to millions of Americans more than two centuries after his death.
- George Washington (1732 –1799): George Washington served as the Continental Army’s Commanding General leading troops to defeat the British at the Battle of Yorktown. He served as the first U.S. President. Alexander Hamilton served alongside Washington in both roles.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- The Orphan Asylum Society/Graham Windham: The Orphan Asylum Society was co-founded by Eliza Hamilton and is New York City’s first private orphanage. Today, it’s known as Graham Windham and is the oldest nonprofit child welfare agency in America.
- The Eliza Project: The Eliza Project is an arts education initiative supporting Graham Windham youth through masterclasses, theatre performance experiences, fundraising events and more.
- Brody, Leslie. 2015. “‘Hamilton’ Cast Helps Children in Need.” The Wall Street Journal. Dec. 29, 2015. https://www.wsj.com/articles/hamilton-cast-helps-children-in-need-1451442302
- Brookhiser, Richard. 1999. Alexander Hamilton American. New York: THE FREE PRESS, Simon & Schuster Inc.
- Chernow, Ron. 2004. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press.
- Epstein, Richard A. 1993. “The Federalist Papers: From Practical Politics to High Principle.” 16 Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8976/93b289b22b44fbf7f77738e0e8cad0e52504.pdf
- Graham Windham website. 2019. https://www.graham-windham.org/about-us/history/; https://www.graham-windham.org/elizas-story/
- Hallemann, Caroline. 2016. “How the Cast of Hamilton Made Philanthropy Their Mission.” Town & Country, June 8, 2016. https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-andculture/news/a6439/hamilton-cast-gives-back/
- Hamilton Alexander, Madison, James and Jay, John. 1788. The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. New York: J.&A. McLean.
- LeDonne, Rob. 2016. “How ‘Hamilton’ Reinvigorated a 210-Year-Old Children’s Charity.” Observer Music. March 30, 2016. https://observer.com/2016/03/how-hamilton-reinvigorated-a-210- year-old-childrens-charity/
- Paulson, Michael. 2018. “Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Passion for Puerto Rico.” The New York Times. Dec. 26, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/26/theater/hamilton-puerto-rico-lin-manuelmiranda.html
- Serratore, Angela. 2013. “Alexander Hamilton’s Adultery and Apology.” Smithsonian.com. July 25, 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/alexander-hamiltons-adultery-and-apology18021947/
- The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 2012. “The Federalist.” 6th Columbia University Press. https://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/history/north-america/us/federalist-the
- Washington, George, Hamilton, Alexander and Madison, James. 1796. The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America on His Declining the Presidency of the United States. Philadelphia: American Daily Advertiser.
This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.