He was the illegitimate son of James Hamilton (of a prominent Scottish family) and Rachel Faucett Lavien (daughter of a doctor-planter on Nevis and the estranged wife of a merchant). Orphaned and impoverished at around the age of 12, the brilliant, ambitious youth arrived in the North American colonies late in 1772 and studied (1773–74) at King's College (now Columbia). In the troubled times leading to the American Revolution, he wrote articles and pamphlets espousing the colonial cause so well that the works were popularly attributed to John Jay.
In the war he became a captain of artillery, attracted George Washington's notice, and, as Washington's secretary and aide-de-camp, performed invaluable services. Desiring more active duty, he left Washington's staff in 1781 and performed brilliantly in the field at Yorktown. His marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of Gen. Philip J. Schuyler, connected him with an old and powerful New York family. He practiced law in New York City and was a member of the Continental Congress.
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