detail of a portrait of alexander hamilton showing him from the mid-forehead to top of his chin

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Alexander Hamilton: Nontraditional Student

The nontraditional study movement has been highly praised and angrily damned as a modern educational innovation. Alexander Hamilton, himself a most unconventional learner, was a chief proponent of nontraditional education almost 200 years ago.

image with the words The Elective in white on a blue background to the right of a white acorn on the top, and the words The Elective Reader Survey 2022 on the bottom

History, as they say, is written by the victors. And in the case of Alexander Hamilton, he was decidedly not history’s winner for more than 200 years. It might seem strange now, in a world turned upside down by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton, to imagine Hamilton ever being anywhere but near the center of our discussion about American history. He was George Washington’s right-hand man!. He wrote most of The Federalist Papers!. He was in the room where it happens!. But he also had the misfortune of dying young (he was 47 when shot in his fateful duel with Aaron Burr, in 1804) while his powerful nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, lived for another 22 years. And in that time, Jefferson made sure the “ten-dollar Founding Father” was also the forgotten Founding Father, all but wiping Hamilton from popular memory (and poisoning whatever remained).

But no one of Hamilton’s stature can stay forgotten forever. While Hamilton and the 2004 Ron Chernow biography that inspired it did the heavy lifting to restore his reputation, there had been flickers of a Hamilton reconsideration among historians for years. One of those was this piece written by Bruce B. Detlefsen for the Spring 1977 issue of The College Board Review. While it places Hamilton back in the conversation about the founding of the nation, it takes as its scope his education—and the nontraditional path he took to gaining it.

This piece is interesting to read today, in our post-Hamilton world, not only because it hits many of the beats of the musical but also fills in some gaps about how Hamilton became, well, Hamilton. It’s also a valuable reminder that education can happen, anywhere, everywhere, and under less-than-ideal conditions—so don’t throw away your shot.

a portrait of alexander hamilton on a brown background

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Henry Cabot Lodge

An 1806 portrait of Alexander Hamilton by artist John Trumbull

Imagine a state government requiring colleges to admit students as sophomores, juniors, or even seniors if the students scored well on placement examinations given by each college. This may sound like legislation now under consideration, but it's not new at all. New York State enacted such a law in 1787.

It is not known for sure who wrote this statute; however. there is good reason to believe the author was Alexander Hamilton—and no doubt whatever that Hamilton was largely responsible for its adoption.

Hamilton was a member of the New York State Legislature and Board of Regents simultaneously in 1787. He served on a special Regents committee that proposed sweeping changes in the laws governing all levels of education at that time, sponsored the Board proposals in the Legislature, and rallied the support that led to their approval. The new laws included this provision concerning college admissions:

When any scholar who shall be educated at any of the said Academies, on due examination by the President and Professors of Columbia College, or any other College subject to the visitation of the said Regents, shall be found competent, in the judgment of the said President and Professors, to enter into the Sophomore, Junior and Senior classes of such Colleges, respectively, such scholar shall be entitled to an admission into such of the said classes for which he shall be so adjudged competent, and shall be admitted accordingly, at any one of the quarterly examinations of such respective classes.

It is doubtful that the statute ever became the determining factor in many, if any, admissions decisions. The only college in New York when the policy took effect was Columbia, which did not need to be prodded into liberalizing its placement practices. The first nine students admitted to Columbia, beginning with DeWitt Clinton in May of 1784, started out as juniors, not freshmen. Colleges that opened later were pretty much free to do as they chose, since the state made no serious attempt to supervise them until well into the nineteenth century. By this time, the law had been taken off the books.

Why did Hamilton show so much interest in an educational decision of this sort? The issue arose at a time when he was preparing for the Constitutional Convention coming up in Philadelphia only a few months later. Moreover, Hamilton was not known for waging, as Thomas Jefferson did, a "crusade against ignorance." The best answer may be found in his own unsuccessful attempt to get a college degree prior to the Revolutionary War. Hamilton was, in fact, one of America's earliest "nontraditional" students before he became one of the nation's Founding Fathers.

Hamilton spent little time in the classroom as a youngster. He was born in the West Indies in 1755 and grew up poor as the second of two illegitimate sons of James Hamilton, a merchant who never prospered, and Rachel Faucett Levine. His mother had a small collection of books, and Hamilton apparently learned to read at home. There were some schoolmasters in the islands with whom he could have studied arithmetic and science. But he shed no light on this, saying only that he had attended a school "run by a Jewess." Hamilton may not have liked the school very much, since he was so small that the teacher lifted him onto a table whenever he was called upon to recite the Ten Commandments in Hebrew.*

the spring 1977 cover of the college board review magazine

Hamilton probably began working at the age of 10. His mother got him a job in a St. Croix import-export office run by Nicholas Cruger, who had moved to Christiansted from New York City. Hamilton learned the business well enough to be put in charge of the office when Cruger later became ill and spent several months in New York recovering. Hamilton was then 16 years old; however, he was determined to rise above shopkeeping and to achieve grandeur somewhere, somehow. As he wrote to a boyhood friend, Edward Stevens, in 1769:

My Ambition is prevalent that I contemn the grov'ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho' not my Character to exalt my Station. Im confident, Ned my Youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity.

Stevens had recently left St. Croix to study medicine at King's College, the forerunner of Columbia in the colonial period. College seemed out of the question for Hamilton, however, and he completed his letter by saying, "I wish there was a War."

Not a War, But a Hurricane

Hamilton's fortunes took a turn for the better in 1772, not because of a war, but because of a hurricane—plus the arrival in Christiansted of Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister, sometime teacher, alumnus, and booster of the College of New Jersey. This was the Presbyterian-founded college that eventually became Princeton University.

Three months after Knox had settled in Christiansted, St. Croix and the neighboring islands were hit by a devastating hurricane. Hamilton wrote an account of what he had witnessed, such as buildings being leveled, people being killed, and survivors seeking shelter among the ruins. He also recorded his own "reflections and feelings " in language that suggests he underwent a profound religious experience during the storm and emerged from the calamity chastened and in awe of the Lord. This outpouring of piety may well have been heartfelt—but it also could have been calculated to impress Knox, which it did. Knox promptly decided that Hamilton was a bright, God-fearing young man who would be a credit to the clergyman's alma mater. He sent the hurricane account to the local newspaper, and sympathetic readers responded by donating money to help this needy teenager get to the American mainland for a college education.

Cruger also contributed to the venture in two important ways. He set up a trust fund to help Hamilton pay his college costs. And he arranged for Hamilton to stay, temporarily at least, with an acquaintance in New York. The acquaintance was Hercules Mulligan, a tailor and anti-English political activist who would open Hamilton's eyes to the colonists' grievances in the tumultuous period leading up to the Declaration of Independence.

As precocious as Hamilton was, he could not enter college directly since he lacked the grounding in Latin and Greek that determined admissions in those days. For example, the College of New Jersey specified that "None may expect to be admitted into the College but such as being examined by the President and Tutors, shall be found able to render Virgil and Tully's Orations into English, and to turn English into true grammatical Latin, and so well acquainted with Greek as to render any part of the four Evangelists in that language, into Latin or English, and to give the grammatical construction of the Words."

The kind of entrance examination Hamilton would have to take can be determined from a letter a student at the college wrote in 1774. "The studies you will be examined on," the student told a brother applying for admission, "are Virgil, Horace, Cicero's Orations, Lucian, Xenophon, Homer, geography, and logic. Four books of Virgil's Aeneid together with the Bucolics and Georgics and four books of Xenophon are only looked for; but I would advise you if you come to college to study the whole of Xenophon .... Try to accustom yourself to read Greek and Latin well as it is much looked to here and be accurate in geography; study if you can the five common rules of arithmetic, interest, rebate, equation of payments, barter, loss and gain, fellowship, compound-fellowship, the double rule of three, comparative arithmetic, geometrical progression, vulgar and decimal fractions, and the square root."

Studied from Dawn Past Midnight

Hamilton was sent to a private academy in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, to bone up on the classics before applying to college. The teacher was Francis Barber, a 21-year-old, Princeton-born graduate of the College of New Jersey. Hamilton was supposedly a grind while at the academy, studying from dawn until past midnight. But he found time to form friendships with three College of New Jersey trustees who lived nearby, including Whig theoretician William Livingston, the future first governor of the State of New Jersey. While Barber taught Hamilton the great books of the past, Livingston instructed him in the political issues of the day and extolled the virtues of republicanism, as would Hamilton later.

engraving showing aaron burr shooting alexander hamilton in a duel

Getty Images

Vintage engraving of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton at Weehawken, New Jersey, that resulted in Hamilton's death.

Hamilton decided after less than a full year at the academy that he had mastered the skills needed to pass the College of New Jersey entrance examination given at Princeton by the president, then John Witherspoon. Witherspoon held a doctor of divinity degree from the University of Edinburgh and had been a Presbyterian minister in Scotland before coming to New Jersey in 1768 to upgrade the academic program at the college and, no less important, to help reconcile rival Presbyterian factions in America that had been at odds since the "great schism" of 1741.

Hamilton passed the exam with flying colors. But he then set a condition for attending the college that apparently startled Witherspoon. Hamilton, then 18, or older than many graduates of colonial colleges, told the president he would enroll only if he could move through the four-year curriculum as fast as his abilities allowed, rather than proceeding at the same pace as other students. Witherspoon replied that such a request could be granted by the trustees alone and that he would discuss it with them. Two weeks later, Hamilton was informed that his demand had been denied.

What Hercules Mulligan Said

Hercules Mulligan accompanied Hamilton to Princeton and later recorded the sequence of events in this way:

I introduced Mr. Hamilton to him [Witherspoon] and proposed to him to Examine the young gentleman which the Doctor did to his entire satisfaction. Mr. Hamilton then stated that he wished to enter either of the classes to which his attainments would entitle him but with the understanding that he should be permitted to advance from Class to Class with as much rapidity as his exertions would enable him to do. Dr. Witherspoon listened with great attention to so unusual a proposition from so young a person and replied that ... he would submit the request to the trustees ... & in about a fortnight after a letter was received from the President stating that the request could not be complied with because it was contrary to the usage of the College and expressing regret because he was convinced that the young gentleman would do honor to any seminary at which he should be educated.

In its early years, the college had often admitted students as upperclassmen because the institution could not afford to be rigorously selective, and those who did enroll had attended schools that were so dissimilar that it made no sense to start everyone out at the same class level. But the trustees had been trying for several years to end this practice in order to enhance the college's reputation and to increase tuition revenues. The board ruled in 1767 that, effective two years later, all students would have to complete four years of study in order to receive a baccalaureate. This blanket edict was soon rescinded, however, after parents protested. As a result, placement decisions continued to be made on an individual basis.

Princeton records contain no reference to any action by the trustees in Hamilton's case. But Hamilton may have suspected subsequently that he had been treated unfairly. His arch-rival in later years, Aaron Burr, was graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1772, at the age of 16, after three years. And James Madison, a coauthor of The Federalist, got his bachelor's degree from the college in 1771 in just a little more than two years.

One wonders what Hamilton was thinking when, as an artillery officer in 1777, he directed cannon fire at Nassau Hall during the Battle of Princeton.**

cast of the musical hamilton performing at the 2016 tony awards

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of 'Hamilton' perform onstage during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City.

Hamilton applied next to King's College and started there as a private student, meaning he was not attached to any particular class. Private students were on campus regularly but paid teachers directly for whatever courses they took or private tutoring they received and were not officially listed as degree candidates. Different accounts say Hamilton entered King's College in different years. In all probability, he was a nonmatriculated student in 1773-74 and entered the regular college program a year later. Mulligan said Hamilton became a sophomore at that time. But the only available record simply shows that he was one of 17 students added to the "Matricula of King's College" in 1774.

Time ran out too quickly for Hamilton. Radical Patriots preparing for the American break with Great Britain took over the college building in April of 1776 and converted it into a hospital. All classes were suspended soon after, and higher education came to a halt in New York until the college reopened in 1784 as Columbia. The result was that Hamilton had no degree until Columbia awarded him an honorary A.M. in 1788, when he was a trustee of that institution.

 

* This was reported by his son, John Church Hamilton. However, a later biography by Allan McLane Hamilton dismisses the story as a "misstatement." According to Allan McLane Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton did not know Hebrew, but rather studied "Semitic history." He did not say where.

** Tradition has it that Hamilton ordered the shot that smashed through a portrait of King George II in the college chapel. This part of the story may be fanciful. But Hamilton did help to flush British troops out of the building.

References

Material contained in this article is based on such primary sources as the journals of the New York State Legislature in the State Library and the early minutes of the Board of Regents in the State Education Department, plus various books published over the years. The books include:

Hamilton, John Church. The Life of Alexander Hamilton. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1840.

Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton, Youth to Maturity, 17551788. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957.

Morris, Richard B. Alexander Hamilton and the Founding of the Nation. New York: The Dial Press, 1957.

Morris, Richard B.. Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Pratt, Daniel J.. Annals of Public Education in the State of New York. Albany: Weed, Parsons & Company, 1875.

Syrett, Harold C., and Jacob E. Cooke (eds.). The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. Princeton, 17461896. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946.