Who was Alexander Hamilton?
Updated: Nov 9, 2021
This quick blog has been inspired by Hamilton: the Musical that I was lucky enough to see on the weekend in Sydney. I was supposed to go back in May but my sister went into labour with my Nephew so we of course had to delay our visit but it was worth the wait!
I’ve put this blog together because the most common questions I’ve been asked when people see I’ve been to Hamilton is firstly who is Hamilton and secondly why would we, as Australian’s, be interested in such an American story?
Both are valid questions so here is my rundown.
“Hamilton: An American Musical” is the official name of this Broadway show but most people just know it as “Hamilton“ and for the Australian production the tag-line has been lost.
When you read the tag line, if you are not American it can be a little off putting, especially if you are not in the mood for American patriotism which is why I assume it has been removed from the Australian show.
Why then did I go to see this show? Put simply I really enjoyed the musical when I watched it on Disney+ last year. The story can be hard to follow, and the text is very heavy so I must admit I wasn’t a fan right away. I went away, did some reading about the man Alexander Hamilton and once I knew the story better, I found I enjoyed it a lot more.
There is a lot to be said for having to go away and learn about a topic to understand the show but as someone who loves history, especially when a story is able to reach a wider audience (i.e., pop culture) and when they raise important questions about history I am 100% there so taking the time to understand the story and the significance of some of the creative decisions has enhanced the experience for me but I can understand why many people wouldn’t bother taking the time to see the bigger picture and I don’t blame them as this is a VERY American story.
Once you understand the story the music becomes intrinsic to the telling of the tale. I have spent the last year with the songs “My Shot”, “Non-Stop” and “The Room Where it Happened” blasting in my car as I drive to work each day revving me up for a big day at the Museum! The style of this show is so different to many musicals. The music is a mix of rap, pop and musical theatre which is what I think keeps the audience engaged rather than just sticking to period pieces of musical theatre.
Perhaps because I was already a fan, I really enjoyed the show when I saw it here in Sydney. Those I saw it with were less excited and outright found it hard to keep up with so they lost interest, or they couldn’t understand the significance of Eliza (Hamilton’s wife) part in the story, as that does slow it down a bit.
It was only at the end of the live show that I realised the true significance of her part. I knew that it was thanks to Eliza that Hamilton’s story had been recorded (then forgotten but let’s ignore that for the moment) and though the parts with her in the show may seem to slow the pace of the production at the end tribute is paid to her work in preserving his story.
Hamilton is referred to as one of the forgotten fathers of America. Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography on Hamilton inspired Miranda’s musical and I think for most people it wasn’t until this musical was created that they actually knew anything about Hamilton. I purchased this book at the show, so it is now on my to-be-read pile!
So Who was Hamilton?
Alexander Hamilton was a founding father* (see below) of the American nation and he was an immigrant (rather ironic given current issues facing America). He was born out of wedlock in the West Indies and after he was orphaned as a child he was taken in by a prosperous merchant. As a teenager he was sent to New York for his studies and got involved in the American Revolutionary War as a senior aide to George Washington.
Following the war, he was instrumental in the unification of the Thirteen Colonies which is what formed the basis for the USA. He became the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury but ultimately resigned from politics to practice law before getting back involved in politics.
Hamilton was active in ending the slave trade which makes the modern interpretation of Miranda’s show that much more apt (all the main parts – expect for King George are played by actors that are not Caucasian). Act Two also paints a very different light to one of America’s most revered President’s Thomas Jefferson as Hamilton and he did not see eye-to-eye on most issues.
The list of contributions Hamilton made to the new American nation is vast but some of the main things are:
Founded the US Coast Guard
Founded the New York Post newspaper
Founded the Federalist Party (this was the first political party in the USA as it went against the main governing body. It was mainly supported by bankers and conservatives. It was dissolved in 1824 and was succeeded by the Republican Party).
Created the nation’s first banks
Established friendly trade relationships with Britain
One interesting thing about Hamilton is that he intended to declare war on the French Republic and while he mobilised the troops John Adams, who was President, enacted a diplomatic solution which enraged Hamilton. This sort of shows his rasher side which is emphasised a bit in the musical.
For everything he did for the American nation, until this Broadway show was created, he was little represented across America. Having said that he is apparently the most represented person on American money. His portrait has featured on all kinds of denominations since the 1860’s and since 1928 he is on the $10 bill. This was set to change in 2015 with Hamilton replaced by a female portrait but this never eventuated given the success and popularity of the Broadway show which opened in August 2015.
His historic home is now the Hamilton Grange National Memorial in Hamilton Heights which is where the family estate was located but other than this you won’t find much reference to Hamilton across the USA.
I had heard his death was worth exploring and it is interesting but also a bit confusing. In 1800 there was a Presidential election and from what I can decipher Hamilton wanted to replace the party leader and sitting President, John Adams. This didn’t happen with Adams losing the election to Thomas Jefferson anyway. Jefferson’s running mate and successful Vice President was Aaron Burr whom Hamilton did not hold in high regard.
Jump forward four years to 1804 and Burr was defeated in the race supposedly thanks to Hamilton’s support for his opposition, Jefferson! Letters in which Hamilton openly opposes Burr were supposedly published in the newspapers which served to upset Burr.
This wasn’t a new conflict and had been going on for years so when an amicable solution could not be reached the two men agreed to a duel, yep an old fashioned duel where clearly violence was the answer.
The duel occurred on the west bank of the Hudson River in new Jersey at dawn on 11 July 1804, with Burr firing a lethal shot. Witnesses never determined who fired first but 13 hours later Burr, who was still Vice President, had officially killed Hamilton.
Duelling had been outlawed so this was an illegal undertaking but both parties had constructed things in a way to get around the rules. For this reason, Burr was never convicted of murder but it signalled the end of his political career.
In the show they sort of make out that Hamilton was a womanizer but he was married to his wife Eliza until his death and following his death she was devoted to preserving his memory so there was a great love between the two. The couple had eight children and interestingly their eldest son died in a duel three years prior to this father (this is depicted in the show and the man sitting next to me cried during this scene).
The show also makes out that Hamilton had a much closer relationship with his sister-in-law than he should. Historians have never agreed that the couple had a relationship more than that of in-laws.
There are of course a few other historical inaccuracies, but this is not meant to be an autobiographical tale rather it is a form of entertainment. As I always say if it engages the masses and makes them want to learn more about history than I do not see any issue with a few minor tweaks here and there to make the story more entertaining and faster paced (I do not agree with this for Museum’s which are direct forms of education while something like a musical is not).
Overall, this telling does bring a very complex and long tale together in an entertaining way.
One final note before I end, I just want to pay tribute to King George III who pops up throughout the musical. His presence in this tale seems odd as he pops in and out, but it is a light hearted role and if you know your English monarchs then you’ll know that King George III is “the mad one” and this portrayal hams that up! I have a great interest in the British monarchical history so this role helped me place the events of the musical on the historical timeline.
Speaking of timelines, if you are going to see the musical I recommend purchasing the program as it comes with a very detailed historical timeline that will help fill in any blanks you may have!
I obviously highly recommend this musical so, as Molly would say, do yourself a favour and check it out!
Who were the Founding fathers?
These seven men have been remembered as playing key roles in the creation of the American nation. These men were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and of course Alexander Hamilton. Do you know all of the others?
Not all of these men would become President. Obviously Hamilton was never President but neither were Benjamin Franklin (not going to lie, I thought he was as his name comes up so often) and John Jay.
Keep an eye out and I’ll share a quick run down on each founding father in a coming blog.
________________________________________________________________________________Sources and Further Reading:
Ron Chernow, "Alexander Hamilton", (Penguin Books, 2005)
Angela Serratore, "Alexander Hamilton's Adultery and Apology", Smithsonian Magazine (25 July 2013) <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/alexander-hamiltons-adultery-and-apology-18021947/>
Barbara Maranzani, "5 Things You May Not Know ABout Alexander Hamilton", History.com, (16 October 2020), <https://www.history.com/news/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-alexander-hamilton>
The American Presidents Book (New York, Dover Publications, 2009)
"Alexander Hamilton", History.com Editors (5 December 2019, updated 16 October 2020); <https://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/alexander-hamilton>
"Alexander Hamilton", Britannica <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-Hamilton-United-States-statesman>
Website: Hamilton Grange National Memorial, <https://www.nps.gov/hagr/index.htm>