A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)
Oddly, after his family situation had disintegrated, Alexander’s life seemed to improve immensely. His experience as bookkeeper in his mother’s store landed him a job as a clerk with the international trading firm of Nicholas Cruger, a New Yorker whose business hub was on St. Croix.
The boy’s exceptional skills and endless learning capacity soon saw him running the firm upon the owner’s absence. As a teenager, Hamilton was inspecting cargoes, advising ships’ captains, and preparing bills of lading. Under Cruger’s tutelage, Hamilton mastered the intricacies of global finance and experienced first hand how the material interests of peoples and countries interwove in the complicated fabric of international trade. The bustling port of St. Croix, which was a melting pot of residents and visitors from all over the world, early formed a picture of a global village in Hamilton’s mind. He also saw the darker side of international dealings, as the island was a center for the slave trade. Hamilton came away with a deep hatred of slavery, and he eventually co-founded an abolitionist society in New York. In the meantime, the youngster drank in everything he saw. Nothing Hamilton experienced ever went unused.
Whereas Nicholas Cruger exposed Alexander Hamilton to material realities, the Reverend Hugh Knox provided him with a strong spiritual and intellectual grounding. Knox–who took Hamilton under his wing shortly after Rachel’s death–was a Scottish Presbyterian minister at odds with the mainstream of his faith because of his firm belief in free will over the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination. For someone like Hamilton who was otherwise predestined to a life of obscurity, we can see how Knox’s philosophy would have appealed to him. The Reverend’s encouragement and influence undoubtedly led Hamilton to dream big dreams. Knox, a brilliant sermon-writer and occasional doctor, took the young orphan under his wing and tutored him in the humanities and sciences. When he was able to get away from the office, Hamilton further expanded his intellect in Knox’s library, where he read voluminously in the classics, literature, and history. Hamilton, who had early fancied himself a writer, published an occasional poem in the local paper, and impressed the residents of the island with a particularly vivid and florid account of a hurricane in 1772.
By 1773, his mentors had raised enough money to send him to America to continue his education. It was clear to all who encountered the young man that he was much too brilliant and determined to remain in what Hamilton himself termed “the grovelling condition of a clerk.” Cruger, Knox, and other wealthy islanders, sent Hamilton off in June of 1773 to New York to study medicine, most likely in the hope that he would return to the island and set up his practice there. But Alexander Hamilton was never to see the West Indies again.
Featured image: John Trumbull, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons