The Life and Legacy of Alexander Hamilton

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Part 2: Revolution on His Mind

He entered King's College in 1774 and did indeed study medicine. King's College (what is now Columbia University) was in New York City. In the year that Hamilton began, New York and other states sent delegates to the Continental Congress, to discuss what to do about Great Britain's increasing unwillingness to give Americans freedoms thought that they deserved. The members of the family who looked after him in America, the Elias Boudinot family, supported rebellion.

Hamilton went to Boston after hearing about the famous Tea Party and spent a good bit of time examining the arguments that the Sons of Liberty and other revolutionaries had against the Mother Country. New York, unlike Massachusetts, strongly opposed rebellion. A tremendous argument sprung up in the newspapers of the day. An inspired Hamilton added his opinion to the mix. Published as "A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress," it was a hit with those who wanted to break free from Britain and drew notice from the Loyalists who opposed such a rebellion.

Hamilton knew which he side he would choose if the struggle turned to violence. And when fighting began at Lexington and Concord, he took up arms against Great Britain. Hamilton was appointed commander of an artillery company and impressed Henry Knox, who held the same post in the Continental Army, in the Battle of Brooklyn. When General George Washington and his men retreated after that defeat, Hamilton and his men went with the army. They fought in the Battle of White Plains (also an American defeat) and accompanied the Army on the famous crossing of the Delaware River, who ushered in an era of victory punctuated by the twin victories at Trenton and Princeton.

As would continue to be the case throughout his life, Hamilton impressed another person of authority, in this case Washington, who offered Hamilton a position as one of his aides-de-camp. From this vantage point, Hamilton was able to see the rest of the war develop. He was in charge of much of the paperwork—including battle orders, supply orders, and officer appointments—for the rest of the war.

It wasn't always paperwork that Hamilton did for the Continental Army, however. In 1777, he led a small group of men on a mission to destroy a Pennsylvania flour warehouse so the invading British couldn't make use of it. The mission met with resistance, and Hamilton was nearly killed. His horse was shot, leaving him no chance of a quick getaway. He swam across the Schuylkill River and escaped.

Hamilton was with Washington and his men during the terrible winter at Valley Forge. there, he saw the results of the weak central government that eventually plagued the Articles of Confederation: The congress couldn't authorize money for the military because such approval had to come from the states, all of whom had to agree on how much would be spent. Troubled by this, Hamilton began to think about what kind of government would better serve the country that America hoped to become.

It was at Valley Forge that Hamilton played an extremely valuable role—as an interpreter. He had learned French when he was young, and this knowledge came in very handy when French commanders joined the American cause and also when Germany's Baron von Steuben (who also spoke French but no English) offered to train the American troops. Hamilton was the go-between in both cases, securing French money, troops, and ships and translating von Steuben's orders for the beleaguered American troops.

Hamilton eventually convinced Washington to let him back on the battlefield, and the young Alexander was present at the American victory at Monmouth. He also continued to serve as Washington's most trusted adviser (a position that would carry over when Washington was elected President).

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