There’s no escaping the name Alexander Hamilton. After the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” debuted eight years ago, his legacy became enshrined in pop culture. But even before “Hamilton” put his name in lights, Alexander Hamilton’s wielded a huge influence on America. As one of our founding fathers, his work paved the way for the ratification of our Constitution, the creation of a national bank, and even established Washington, DC as the nation’s capital.
But did you know that he was an immigrant?
Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. His father abandoned the family when he was a child and his mother died when Hamilton was still young. Despite these challenges, Hamilton moved to New York to pursue higher education. There, this immigrant from the Caribbean bravely fought in the Revolutionary War, and his ideals and prolific writings about democracy and governance still influence America today. The story of an immigrant who came to America with next-to-nothing in his pockets is symbolic of the stories of so many of America’s immigrant communities. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics sum it up perfectly: “Immigrants, we get the job done!”
1. Alexander Hamilton was credited for Washington, D.C. becoming our nation’s capital.
From the towering monuments to the beauty of the Capitol and the White House, it’s hard to imagine anywhere else being the American seat of government. But did you know that the Nation’s Capital capital wasn’t always DC?
Alexander Hamilton is largely credited for Washington, DC becoming the capital. His work in the Compromise of 1790 — also known as the Dinner Table Bargain — was instrumental in bringing the capital city to the Potomac. Here’s how the story goes: Alexander Hamilton was working on getting his debt plan passed through Congress. Hamilton had seen how the states had argued about the Articles of Confederation (which preceded the Constitution). He believed that, if the federal government did not have the ability to levy taxes on the states, the US economy would collapse. However, his debt plan got blocked, particularly by southern states that believed it unfair (Virginia, for example, had already paid off its debt). These states feared financial ruin if they were to become liable for the debts of other states.
States were also fighting over where to place the permanent capital. At the time, the capital city was Philadelphia, where most of the discussions about the Constitution were held. Representatives from southern states were beginning to worry that the capital would be in the north, leaving them in the periphery of the new nation.
In the summer of 1790, Thomas Jefferson (a Virginia native) decided to host a dinner with Hamilton and fellow Virginian James Madison to discuss the situation. By the end of the dinner the deal was sealed: Hamilton would support moving the capital city to a more southern location along the Potomac. In return, Madison agreed to no longer block Hamilton’s debt assumption plan in Congress and promised Virginia’s critical votes. Hamilton’s debt plan was crucial for helping the U.S. stabilize its credit. You can hear all about it in the song “The Room Where It Happens” from the Broadway musical “Hamilton”!
2. Alexander Hamilton was instrumental in ratifying the U.S. Constitution.
From our earliest days, America’s politics was rife with debate. The newly formed nation, having just defeated the British, was presented with its biggest challenge: establishing a working government. Democratic Republicans and Federalists differed strongly in their proposed government systems. The battle was between giving power to the individual states or to the federal government. Sound familiar?
When the final draft of the Constitution was completed, few threw their support behind it. However, facing economic collapse, major uncertainty in governance, and a significantly weakened military force, it was vital that the newly formed U.S. create a robust government system to avoid collapse. Alexander Hamilton, along with James Madison and John Jay, took it upon themselves to fight for the Constitution. They wrote a series of essays titled The Federalist Papers as letters in New York newspapers. The Federalist Papers presented clear, articulate arguments supporting the ratification of the Constitution. In total there were 85 essays in The Federalist Papers — John Jay wrote five, James Madison wrote twenty-nine, and Alexander Hamilton wrote fifty-one.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact of The Federalist Papers and the role Hamilton played in ratifying the Constitution. The Federalist Papers were key in convincing the states to ratify the Constitution, and without them, America would not be the country it is today.
3. Even though he was never president himself, Alexander Hamilton is a key figure in American history.
Throughout both the Revolutionary War and George Washington’s presidency, Alexander Hamilton was Washington’s right hand man — an immigrant worked as our first president’s closest aide! Hamilton also established a name for himself as the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.
As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton laid the foundations for our financial system. He established the national bank (the predecessor of the Federal Reserve), passed his federal debt assumption plan, and strongly advocated that the government must support the private sector.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, Hamilton was known as a strong military leader. Hamilton used his cunning strategy and courage on the battlefield. His leadership skills were evident in a number of battles including at Kip’s Bay, White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, and even at the famed Battle of Yorktown. He also served as George Washington’s aide-de-camp and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Following the war, George Washington was chosen as the first president of the United States. But the newly formed government still needed a lot of work. Hamilton was selected by Washington as his right-hand man. Hamilton advised Washington in several major decisions including maintaining neutrality in the French Revolution. Hamilton also wrote George Washington’s farewell address.