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Hamilton Takes Command

In 1775, the 20-year-old Alexander Hamilton took up arms to fight the British. Soon the brash young soldier would display the courage and savvy that would take him to the apex of power in the new U.S. government

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“ALEXANDER HAMILTON is the least appreciated of the founding fathers because he never became president,” says Willard Sterne Randall, a professor of humanities at ChamplainCollege in Burlington, Vermont, and the author of Alexander Hamilton: A Life, released this month from HarperCollins Publishers. “Washington set the mold for the presidency, but the institution wouldn’t have survived without Hamilton.”

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Hamilton was born January 11, 1755, on the island of Nevis in the West Indies, the illegitimate son of James Hamilton, a merchant from Scotland, and Rachel Fawcett Levine, a doctor’s daughter who was divorced from a plantation owner. His unmarried parents separated when Hamilton was 9, and he went to live with his mother, who taught him French and Hebrew and how to keep the accounts in a small dry goods shop by which she supported herself and Hamilton’s older brother, James. She died of yellow fever when Alexander was 13.

After her death, Hamilton worked as a clerk in the Christiansted (St. Croix) office of a New York-based import-export house. His employer was Nicholas Cruger, the 25-year-old scion of one of colonial America’s leading mercantile families, whose confidence he quickly gained. And in the Rev. Hugh Knox, the minister of Christiansted’s first Presbyterian church, Hamilton found another patron. Knox, along with the Cruger family, arranged a scholarship to send Hamilton to the United States for his education. At age 17, he arrived in Boston in October 1772 and was soon boarding at the ElizabethtownAcademy in New Jersey, where he excelled in English composition, Greek and Latin, completing three years’ study in one. Rejected by Princeton because the college refused to go along with his demand for accelerated study, Hamilton went instead in 1773 to King’s College (now ColumbiaUniversity), then located in Lower Manhattan. In events leading up to the excerpt that follows, Hamilton was swept up by revolutionary fervor and, at age 20, dropped out of King’s College and formed his own militia unit of about 25 young men.

In June 1775, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia chose Virginia delegate Col. George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army then surrounding British-occupied Boston. Hurrying north, Washington spent a day in New York City, where, on Sunday, June 25, 1775, Alexander Hamilton braced at attention for Washington to inspect his militiamen at the foot of Wall Street.

Two months later, the last hundred British troops withdrew from Manhattan, going aboard the 64-gun man-of-war Asia . At 11 o’clock on the night of August 23, Continental Army Artillery captain John Lamb gave orders for his company, supported by Hamilton’s volunteers and a light infantry unit, to seize two dozen cannons from the battery at the island’s southern tip. The Asia’s captain, having been warned by Loyalists that the Patriots would raid the fort that night, posted a patrol barge with redcoats just offshore. Shortly after midnight, the British spotted Hamilton, his friend Hercules Mulligan, and about 100 comrades tugging on ropes they had attached to the heavy guns. The redcoats opened a brisk musket fire from the barge. Hamilton and the militiamen returned fire, killing a redcoat. At this, the Asiahoisted sail and began working in close to shore, firing a 32-gun broadside of solid shot. One cannonball pierced the roof of FrauncesTavern at Broad and Pearl Streets. Many years later Mulligan would recall: “I was engaged in hauling off one of the cannons, when Mister Hamilton came up and gave me his musket to hold and he took hold of the rope. . . . Hamilton [got] away with the cannon. I left his musket in the Battery and retreated. As he was returning, I met him and he asked for his piece. I told him where I had left it and he went for it, notwithstanding the firing continued, with as much concern as if the [Asia] had not been there.”

Hamilton ’s cool under fire inspired the men around him: they got away with 21 of the battery’s 24 guns, dragged them uptown to CityHallPark and drew them up around the Liberty Pole under guard for safekeeping.

On January 6, 1776, the New York Provincial Congress ordered that an artillery company be raised to defend the colony; Hamilton, unfazed that virtually all commissions were going to native colonists of wealth and social position, leaped at the opportunity. Working behind the scenes to advance his candidacy, he won the support of Continental Congressmen John Jay and William Livingston. His mathematics teacher at King’s College vouched for his mastery of the necessary trigonometry, and Capt. Stephen Bedlam, a skilled artillerist, certified that he had “examined Alexander Hamilton and judges him qualified.”

While Hamilton waited to hear about his commission, Elias Boudinot, a leader of the New Jersey Provincial Congress, wrote from Elizabethtown to offer him a post as brigade major and aide-de-camp to Lord Stirling (William Alexander), commander of the newly formed New Jersey Militia. It was tempting. Hamilton had met the wealthy Scotsman as a student at ElizabethtownAcademy and thought highly of him. And if he accepted, Hamilton would likely be the youngest major in the Revolutionary armies. Then Nathanael Greene, a major general in the Continental Army, invited Hamilton to become his aide-de-camp as well. After thinking the offers over, Hamilton declined both of them, gambling instead on commanding his own troops in combat.

Sure enough, on March 14, 1776, the New York Provincial Congress ordered Alexander Hamilton “appointed Captain of the Provincial Company of Artillery of this colony.” With the last of his St. Croix scholarship money, he had his friend Mulligan, who owned a tailor shop, make him a blue coat with buff cuffs and white buckskin breeches.

He then set about recruiting the 30 men required for his company. “We engaged 25 men [the first afternoon],” Mulligan remembered, even though, as Hamilton complained in a letter to the provincial congress, he could not match the pay offered by Continental Army recruiters. On April 2, 1776, two weeks after Hamilton received his commission, the provincial congress ordered him and his fledgling company to relieve Brig. Gen. Alexander McDougall’s First New York Regiment, guarding the colony’s official records, which were being shipped by wagon from New York’s City Hall to the abandoned Greenwich Village estate of Loyalist William Bayard.

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