In his short life, Hamilton had a number of accomplishments: aide to Gen. Washington during the Revolutionary War, co-author of the Federalist Papers, and first U.S. Treasury Secretary among distinctions.
Unlike the other "Founding Fathers", who were raised on southern plantations or in wealthy northern towns, Hamilton was born into poverty on the small island of Nevis (near St. Croix) in the Caribbean. It is this location that Chernow, in his biography, is at his best in vividly describing Hamilton's younger years. After moving from one location to another with his parents and older brother an amazingly sad set of events occurred over the course of four years. Chernow writes:
“Let us pause briefly to tally the grim catalog of disasters that had befallen these two boys between 1765 and 1769; 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. James, sixteen, and Alexander, fourteen, were now left alone, largely friendless and penniless.”
Eventually, Alexander got a job as a clerk in a trading office. Two years after these horrible event (in 1771) he was befriended Dr. Hugh Knox, a newly appointed Presbyterian minister in St. Croix. (I was surprised to learn that Knox was ordained by Rev. Aaron Burr, the father of the man who would be Hamilton's nemesis and killer in later years).
Rev. Knox saw potential in the young sixteen year old and made his collection of books available to Hamilton, and encouraged him to read, write and learn. Another biographer, Joseph Murray, (in 2007) explained that,
"Knox preached a brand of religious fundamentalism that that must have resonated in Hamilton's mind that was so inherently geared to structured and well-ordered reasoning. The library that Knox brought with him offered Hamilton broad new vistas of ideas and knowledge. Finally, here was a man of great intellect, a source of answers, and ready to engage in intellectual pursuits. Knox's friendship awakened in Hamilton a religious fervor, stimulated his intellectual development and gave direction to his powers of expression."
Rev. Knox encouraged Hamilton to write an essay for a local paper and eventually worked with others to establish a fund (four annual shipments of West India produce) to send the young Hamilton to a college in one of the Colonies to the north.
Hamilton did not hesitate to take the offer and quickly enrolled at King's College in New York City. While he was there, the Revolutionary War began and he enlisted with the Continental Army, rose quickly through the ranks, and soon became an indispensable aide to Gen. Washington and the patriot cause. Chernow explains:
"In fewer than five years, the twenty-two-year-old Alexander Hamilton had risen from despondent clerk in St. Croix to one of the aides to America's most eminent man."
For me, I was amazed to see how quickly circumstances in Hamilton's life had changed. They had changed so quickly for the worse with the death of so many family members before he was fourteen. Then, at the age of sixteen with the help of Rev. Knox, his circumstances changed so quickly for the better, leading to his amazing rise through the ranks of the Continental Army.
Reading this gave me many lessons to think about here: mentoring, our need for God in times of difficulty, the shortness of life and the kindness of strangers among others.