Alexander Hamilton

John Trumbull American

Not on view

Alexander Hamilton (1755/57–1804) was born out of wedlock in the British colony of Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean. Abandoned by his father, Hamilton and his mother moved to the nearby island of Saint Croix, then a Danish colony of profitable sugar plantations fueled by slave labor. Following his mother’s death in 1768, Hamilton worked as a clerk in a counting and shipping house, quickly learning the fundamentals of finance and trade. His intellect attracted the attention of Saint Croix’s elite, who raised funds to send him to New York City for a formal education in 1773. Hamilton never returned to the West Indies, but his early exposure to its vast networks of transatlantic trade had a lasting impact on his political philosophy and career.

After fighting alongside George Washington in the American Revolution and serving as his legal and financial advisor, Hamilton was appointed the first Secretary of the Treasury in 1789. His economic policies favored a strong central government, expanded trade with Britain, and the foundation of a national bank. In 1791, five New York merchants representing the Chamber of Commerce commissioned John Trumbull to paint a full-length portrait of the treasury secretary to commemorate his civic and mercantile accomplishments. Hamilton, however, requested to be depicted as if "unconnected with any incident of my political life." To please both patrons and sitter, Trumbull drew on compositional conventions of European portraiture but carefully avoided elaborate accessories and political symbols, painting Hamilton in an unofficial setting as an elite citizen of the new republic.

Alexander Hamilton, John Trumbull (American, Lebanon, Connecticut 1756–1843 New York), Oil on canvas, American

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