The Education of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton grew up on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. The island was famous for its sugar plantations.

He didn’t attend the Anglican schools on the island but he got some home schooling. He learned French from his mother and read all the books he could get his hands on. Hamilton’s mother bought books for him and his brother James. It’s unclear what kind of education Rachel Hamilton had, but she made sure her sons read Machiavelli and Plutarch, along with some poetry and sermons. The boys became orphans when their mother died after an illness; their father James Hamilton left the family when the boys were younger.

Young Alexander was taken in by a merchant named Thomas Stevens. Hamilton became best friends with Stevens’ son Edward. He also got a chance to use his natural curiosity by doing interesting work. The firm Beekman and Cruger supplied whatever the sugar planters needed. Hamilton always viewed his apprenticeship there as the most useful part of his education. He learned to track freight, chart courses for ships, and calculate prices in different currencies throughout Europe.

Despite his interest in business, Hamilton wanted to move up in society. He hoped to go to college like his friend Edward Stevens who was studying in New York. In a letter to his friend, Hamilton wrote, “my ambition is so prevalent that I…would willingly risk my life, tho’ not my character, to exalt my station.” Fortunately for Hamilton, some of his poems and a letter he wrote describing a storm on the island were published in The Royal Danish American Gazette when he was seventeen. The local businessmen were so impressed with his writing that they raised money for him to sail to America and attend college.


Painting of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792

Though Hamilton was naturally intelligent, his lack of formal schooling meant that he needed to take some extra classes before applying to college. He studied Latin, Greek, and advanced math at Elizabethtown Academy (near Princeton). After completing those classes, he applied to Princeton. The school, however, wouldn’t let him take as many courses as he wanted. Hamilton attended King’s College in New York in 1773. King’s College was more conservative than Princeton and many staff members were Tories who supported the British monarchy.

Hamilton was in a hurry to catch up to other students who started college at a younger age than he did. Some speculate that he altered his birth year from 1755 to 1757 so he would seem closer in age to his fellow students. He spent his free time auditing classes and reading books in the university library.

While in college, Hamilton and his friend Robert Troup formed a club. The club focused on writing and debating—skills that Hamilton later drew on during his political career. The club also helped Hamilton refine his political views. He wrote anti-British pamphlets that clashed with the views of his college professors. Fortunately, his first political tract—a defense of the Boston Tea Party–was anonymous.

Andrew Jackson’s Apprentice: U.S. President Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was the first president born in the official United States of America. His ancestors were Dutch. Van Buren’s father managed a tavern in Kinderhook, New York. Politicians often dropped by for a drink and talked about their ideas. Listening to them gave young Martin an early interest in politics. His family couldn’t afford to send him to law school, but he studied on his own while he worked as law office clerk. Soon he entered state politics.

Van Buren got his nickname “The Little Magician” for his talents as a shrewd negotiator and political organizer. By the election of 1836 Van Buren had already helped to organize the new Democratic Party. His former party, the Democratic-Republicans, was crammed with members who just wanted to argue with each other. The new Democratic platform extended Andrew Jackson’s policies of limited federal government and promotion of states rights.

Official White House Portrait of Martin Van Buren

Official White House Portrait of Martin Van Buren

Though Van Buren was a gifted politician, he is largely regarded as a failure as president.

The economic crisis he inherited from Jackson only got worse under his watch. Not all of the factors were within his control: for example, England also had an economic depression and English banks stopped dealing with the United States. Unemployment among American workers soared and so did poverty.

Unlike future democratic president Franklin Roosevelt, Van Buren never offered the American people federal assistance. He thought the government should leave people alone. He did, however, want to make sure that the government had money. He proposed an independent treasury so the government wouldn’t have to keep its money in struggling individual banks.

The establishment of the U.S. Treasury would have been a victory for Van Buren, but it took him years to convince Congress to pass the bill. By then the public blamed him for the economic crisis and Van Buren was not re-elected.

The Childhood of President Theodore Roosevelt

Official White House Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt

Official White House Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as one of the most athletic U.S. presidents. When he was a child, Theodore’s father worried about his son’s health. From the day he was born in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt, nicknamed “Teedie” or Teddy, suffered from asthma attacks. Since Theodore’s mother Mittie was often ill, his father Theodore Roosevelt Senior walked up and down the halls of the family’s house as the boy struggled to breathe. Other times, Theodore’s father ordered a horse and carriage in the middle of the night so Theodore could get some fresh air. Theodore Roosevelt later wrote that “I could breathe, I could sleep, when he had me in his arms.”

Since Theodore and his three siblings all had health problems, their father arranged for them to have private tutoring. Their father did his best to make learning fun by creating plays for them and reading stories. Theodore liked stories about men fighting in battles and stories about animals.

When the family went on vacation at Oyster Bay in Long Island, New York, Theodore noticed birds he had never seen before. He began to study their colors and the sounds they made. Theodore’s father had a professional taxidermist teach the boy how to stuff and mount dead birds for his natural history collection. Other family member and friends were less enthusiastic about Theodore’s collection, but his father thought anything that helped his son learn about the world was worthwhile.

Since the Roosevelt children didn’t attend school, their parents included a lot of field trips and traveling in their education. Theodore’s father helped establish the American Museum of Natural History and the Children’s Aid Society for poor children. He took his children with him when he visited children’s hospitals. By the time he went to college, Theodore toured many European countries and also went to the Middle East. During the Middle East tour, he loved finding exotic animals that didn’t live in the U.S.

Theodore’s father also encouraged his son to make his body as strong as his mind. He told Theodore, “You have the mind, but…you must make your body.” After two boys picked a fight with him and he lost, Theodore realized that his father was right. A gym was set up in the family home for Theodore to practice weight lifting and gymnastics. He also took up boxing. It took a long time, but Theodore eventually became more athletic.

In college Theodore continued his exercise program and his interest in animals. When Theodore’s father died, he decided to change his major from natural history to history and government. He wanted to honor his father’s memory by doing something useful. Though not everyone in his family supported his decision, Theodore thought a career in politics would allow him to help the most people.

Further Reading:  The Theodore Roosevelt Center:

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ch. 2