Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton

"The existence of slavery makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason or experience."

Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804)
King's College 1774–1776
Trustee 1784–1804

Hamilton was one of the founding fathers of the nation. He joined James Madison and John Jay in writing The Federalist Papers, essays considered the defining discourse on American government. As the nation's first secretary of the treasury, he laid the groundwork for the American economic system. An advocate of a strong central government, he promoted pro-business policies that spurred the growth of New York as a financial center. He helped found the Bank of New York and the New York Evening Post. He was throughout his life opposed to slavery and openly scornful of those who defended "the peculiar institution."

Hamilton was born in 1757 on the island of Nevis, British West Indies, as John Adams put it, "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar." He was orphaned at 12. Family friends sent him to New York in 1773, where he tried unsuccessfully to secure advanced standing at Princeton. He entered King's College in the fall of 1774, where he pursued studies in mathematics, wrote pamphlets in support of the Continental Congress, and gave speeches applauding the Boston Tea Party. While committed to the revolutionary cause, he was not someone to leave his bets uncovered. In April 1775, when a revolutionary mob arrived at King's College looking for Myles Cooper, the college's loyalist president, it was Hamilton who was said to have delayed the mob with a lengthy speech, abetting Cooper's escape to the safety of a British frigate. The following spring Hamilton became an aide-de-camp to General George Washington and later still distinguished himself as an artillery officer.

In 1784, Hamilton and fellow state legislator John Jay (Kings College 1764) were instrumental in reviving King's College as Columbia College. Hamilton served as a regent of Columbia from 1784 to 1787, and as a trustee from 1787 until his death on July 11, 1804, when he was shot in a duel by his political rival Aaron Burr. Hamilton is buried in the Trinity Church cemetery. The Alexander Hamilton Medal, presented each year by the Columbia College Alumni Association, is the highest tribute awarded to a member of the Columbia College community. Winners include Columbia president Dwight D. Eisenhower and alumni Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Read more about Hamilton in the Columbia Encyclopedia.


A description of Hamilton's challenge to racism can be found in the e-seminar, Slavery and Emancipation: The Struggle for Freedom, with Professor Eric Foner.

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