CLOSE

11 Life Lessons From Alexander Hamilton

If you’re looking to the Founding Fathers for a role model, you could do worse than Alexander Hamilton, the self-taught orphan from the Virgin Islands who went on to create the U.S. financial system, the Coast Guard, and, in a break from politics, The New York Post. Inspired by the hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, author Jeff Wilser (who has previously contributed to mental_floss) dug through the prolific Hamilton’s documents and letters—as well as those of his colleagues and biographers—to create Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life, a tome full of wisdom from everyone’s favorite treasury secretary.

Here are 11 life lessons you can learn from Hamilton (excluding the best advice of all, which is “don’t duel”):

1. GENIUS COMES FROM HARD WORK.

“Men give me some credit for genius,” Hamilton once told a friend (at least according to later reports). “All the genius I have lies in this, when I have a subject in hand I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.”

Hamilton’s absurd work ethic was a theme throughout his life—over the course of a few months, he wrote 51 essays included in The Federalist Papers (compared to James Madison’s 29 and John Jay’s five). He did it all while keeping his day job working full time as a lawyer.

2. DON'T PROCRASTINATE.

A prolific writer, Hamilton didn’t let little things like sleep get in his way. In 1791, Congress was in an uproar over whether or not a national bank would be constitutional and George Washington had only 10 days to decide whether or not to veto the controversial bill that came before him. Hamilton—with the help of his wife, Elizabeth (often called Eliza)—stayed up all night and dashed off some 40 pages in favor of the bill, rebutting anti-bank arguments from men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Hamilton could always be counted on to get his work done on time, if not early. “I hate procrastination,” he wrote in a letter in 1795.

Indeed, when Congress demanded a complete audit of his books in 1792 in order to check for corruption, Hamilton was required to present a detailed survey of the financial system he created, including balances between the government and the central bank and a tally of purchases of government debt. He was given a deadline just four months away, but he managed to whip up a 21,000-word report that he turned in two weeks early. (The numbers checked out.)

3. MARRY RICH.

In a letter to his friend John Laurens written when he was 22, Hamilton shows more than a passing interest in landing a sugar mama. Discussing what he would require in a future spouse, he mentions money multiple times, saying in one instance, “as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better … money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world—as I have not much of my own and I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry—it must needs be that my wife, if i get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies.” Though he may have been joking around a bit, the man was pragmatic to a fault.

4. DON’T FIGHT FOR A CAUSE YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN.

As a lawyer, Hamilton was occasionally asked to defend behavior he didn’t really condone. He took no issue with defending British soldiers who were prosecuted for crimes they committed during the Revolutionary War's occupation of New York City because he felt that the law was on their side. But in a case early on in his career, he defended someone he knew to be guilty and came to regret it: He successfully defended a woman who had stolen a fan. “I will never again take up a cause in which I was convinced I ought not to prevail,” he later decided.

5. DON’T TAKE ON DEBT YOU CAN’T PAY.

Despite being a crusader for the national debt, Alexander Hamilton wasn’t always a proponent of borrowing money. “The creation of debt should always be accompanied by the means of extinguishment,” he argued in 1790 during his campaign to have the U.S. federal government assume states’ debt from the war. In other words, debt is all good and fine—as long as you have a way to pay it back.

6. LOOK SHARP.

Alexander Hamilton wouldn’t have been caught dead in athleisure. “A smart dress is essential,” he declared in a 1799 letter. He was talking about soldiers—he raised America’s first standing army and personally designed George Washington’s uniform during the Quasi-War between the U.S. and France from 1798 and 1800—but the advice applies to any endeavor. As a self-made man, Hamilton was all about dressing for the job you want.

7. DON’T FORGET TO SPEND TIME WITH YOUR FAMILY.

While he was busy helping a fledgling nation come into its own, Hamilton still found time to be a family man. (He and his wife, Eliza, had eight children.) “Experience more and more convinces me that true happiness is only to be found in the bosom of one’s own family,” he wrote to Eliza in 1801. According to his family doctor, in the midst of his business as a statesman, whenever someone in his family got sick, Hamilton rushed home to nurse them back to health—literally; he insisted on administering all the medicine himself.

8. DON’T LET THE HATERS GET YOU.

Hamilton was a famously decisive figure. While he was a beloved adviser to George Washington, he was loathed by some of the other Founding Fathers. In 1790, he encouraged George Washington to raise a militia to stamp out the Whiskey Rebellion—ultimately a peaceful end to the tax conflict—but it wasn’t a popular stance. “The very existence of government demands this course,” he maintained. Taxes were the only way to pay off the government’s then-$54.1 million federal debt.

He was right, but that didn’t mean either the public or his fellow politicians agreed. Thomas Jefferson called the whole thing “Hamilton’s Insurrection.” Luckily, he never treated government like a popularity contest (even if he did have that dueling problem). “I have learned to hold popular opinion of no value,” he wrote to Washington in 1794.

9. EMBRACE ADVERSITY.

Alexander Hamilton was never too far from conflict, as the Whiskey Rebellion incident underscores. His greatest accomplishments—the creation of the U.S. banking system, founding what would become the U.S. Coast Guard, encouraging the manufacturing industry—turned out to be visionary, but weren’t readily accepted by contemporaries like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams. But he saw conflict as a time to shine: “A man of real merit is never seen in so favorable a light as through the medium of adversity; the clouds that surround him are shades that set off his good qualities,” he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1780.

10. HONOR YOUR COMMITMENTS.

Hamilton considered his word his bond, in both politics and his personal life. In a letter to his then-9-year-old son, Philip, in 1791, he wrote that “a promise must never be broken, and I will never make you one, which I will not fulfill as I am able.”

11. FORGIVE YOUR ENEMIES.

Following his ultimately fatal duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton lay in bed in intense pain for several hours before he finally passed. As Wilser tells it, he took one of his final moments to absolve his opponent. “In one of Hamilton’s final lucid moments, he said, ‘I have no ill will against Colonel Burr … I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened.’” Even in moments of great pain, he maintained his integrity.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
A Brief History of Black Friday
iStock
iStock

The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.

HOW DID BLACK FRIDAY BECOME SUCH A BIG SHOPPING DAY?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

SO RETAILERS WERE ALWAYS HOPING FOR AN EARLY THANKSGIVING?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

BRILLIANT! HOW DID THAT WORK OUT?

Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.

By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

WHY CALL IT BLACK FRIDAY?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

SO WHERE DID THE WHOLE "GET IN THE BLACK" STORY ORIGINATE?

Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

DO RETAILERS REALLY NEED BLACK FRIDAY TO TURN AN ANNUAL PROFIT?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

IS BLACK FRIDAY REALLY THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

DO PEOPLE REALLY GET INJURED ON BLACK FRIDAY?

Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.

In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

HOW CAN THIS KIND OF THING BE AVOIDED?

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.

Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hess Corporation
arrow
Pop Culture
A Speedy History of the Hess Truck
Hess Corporation
Hess Corporation

Unless you know someone crazy about air fresheners or caffeine pills, holiday gifts purchased at gas stations don’t usually provoke much excitement. But if you were one of the millions who grew up in the northeast, the annual release of the Hess toy truck at Hess gas stations—usually green, always labeled with a Hess logo, always boxed with batteries—was and is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The idea for an affordable, quality children’s toy sold at service stations at thousands of Hess locations in 16 states was courtesy of Leon Hess, the college dropout-turned-fuel magnate who began selling oil door-to-door in 1933 and graduated to gas stops by 1960. Hess decided he would trump the cheap merchandise given away by gas stations—mugs, glassware—by commissioning a durable, feature-heavy toy truck modeled after the first oil tanker he ever bought for his company. Unlike most toys of the era, it would have headlights that really worked and a tank that kids could either fill up or drain with water.

Most importantly, Hess insisted it come with batteries—he knew the frustration suffered by kids who tore into a holiday present, only to discover they’d have to wait until it had a power source before it could be operated.

The Hess Tanker Truck went on sale in 1964 for $1.29 and sold out almost instantly. Hess released the toy again in 1965, and then introduced the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. For the next 50 years, hardly a year went by without Hess issuing a new vehicle that stood up to heavy play and offered quality and features comparable to the “real” toys on store shelves. Incredibly, fathers would wait in line for hours for an opportunity to buy one for their child.

The toy truck became so important to the Hess brand and developed such a strong following that when the company was bought out in 2014 and locations converted to the Speedway umbrella, new owners Marathon Petroleum promised they would keep making the Hess trucks. They’re now sold online, with the newest—the Dump Truck and Loader, complete with working hydraulics and STEM lesson plans—retailing for $33.99. Bigger, better toy trucks may be out there, but a half-century of tradition is hard to replicate.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios