In the British West Indies there is a little island called Nevis. The cliffs along its coast are high, and the waves beat against them day and night.
A hundred and fifty years ago there were more French than English people in Nevis; but the English were hurrying as fast as they could to occupy the island, because it was so fertile and was such a fine shipping station.
Among the merchants who went there to try their fortunes was James Hamilton. He was a Scotchman by birth. His people were distinguished, and he himself was a generous and agreeable gentleman.
Everybody liked James Hamilton; he prospered greatly in his new home, and married a beautiful French lady, and they had several children. Then the children died, one by one, until all were gone except the youngest son.
This boy was born on January 11, 1757, and he was named Alexander, after his grandfather in Scotland. He was a winsome baby; he had fine linen and silken garments, and it was said that he had an easy life before him.
Very soon, however, Alexander's father lost all his money, and could hardly keep his family from starving; but the beautiful French mother was always cheerful and gay, and tried to make the child happy. She took long walks with him in the sunshine; and when his little legs were tired with tramping over the sand, she sat down by him on the white beach and told him stories in her own French language.
One day this loving mother became very ill; then she died, and Alexander saw her carried away and buried by the side of his little brothers and sisters; but he never forgot his mother, nor the language she taught him to speak.
When he first went to school, he was so small that he stood on the table by the side of his teacher while learning the Ten Commandments. He did not go to school very long, because his father had no money to pay for his teaching.
When he was only twelve years old, he was sent to the island of Santa Cruz to clerk in the counting-house of Mr. Nicholas Cruger. There were rows of desks in the counting-house where clerks were busy writing, and ironchests where money was kept, and scales where workmen weighed bags of sugar, boxes of indigo, and bales of cotton; and outside the wide doors stood carts and wheelbarrows to carry the merchandise to the waiting ships in the harbor.
Alexander was very busy in the counting-house. He wrote down the long lists of goods for the ladings, and the dates when the ships sailed, and when they came back to port again. His master, Mr. Cruger, was a thrifty merchant. "Method is the soul of business," he often said, as he bustled about the counting-room.
Alexander did not like clerking very well; he wrote to a young friend in Nevis: "I would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station."
Those were brave words for a boy of twelve years, were they not? He would not risk his character to improve his fortune!
I think you will find that Alexander Hamilton always prized his character more than life itself.
Now, although he did not like his work, he did not shirk it. He was so diligent that, when only fourteen years old, he was left in charge of the counting-office while his employer was absent in Boston.
He was small for his age; he must have looked like a child playing at keeping store as he went about with a quill pen over one ear, taking note of what the other clerks did. Some letters still exist which he sent to Boston, telling how the business was getting along; they are neat and exact; they must have pleased his employer very much.
When the duties of the day were over, Alexander studied in books which he borrowed from his friend, the Rev. Mr. Knox. He was fond of arithmetic and history, and he liked to read the lives of the great men who have helped to make the world better and happier.
Now, just about this time, a hurricane swept down upon the Leeward Islands; ships were tossed upon the rocks by the wind, trees were torn from their roots, and villages were lifted up and thrown into the raging sea. It was all so terrible that the bravest men fled in terror into the caves; but Alexander was not afraid; he watched the storm from a high ledge of rocks, and he thought it was so grand that everybody should know just how it looked; so he wrote all about it, and sent the account to a newspaper.
When people read it, they were astonished at the language. The description of the hurricane was so beautiful that many who had hidden in the caves wished they had stayed in the open to watch it.
Who on the island could write so well? Nobody knew. The governor set to work to find out; and when he learned that the pale little clerk in the counting-house was the author, he said that such a bright boy should have an education.
Now, people were so eager to contribute money for this that Alexander soon had enough to pay his expenses at school for several years; then, because there were no good schools in the island, it was decided to send him to one of the large cities in America.
And so, clad in a new suit of clothes, Alexander Hamilton climbed the gang plank of a British packet bound for Boston. The sailors shouted; the ropes were drawn up; there were hands waving farewell, and soon the tall cliffs of the island were lost in the mists of the sea.