Hamilton is a musical currently performing on Broadway. It debuted in 2015 to rave reviews, and it's been playing to sold-out audiences at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York ever since. It is about the life and times of American "Founding Father" Alexander Hamilton. It covers the adult portion of Hamilton's life, from his arrival in New York to his untimely death at the age of 47.
It's been a while since high school. Can you refresh me on who Alexander Hamilton is?
Certainly! Alexander Hamilton was one of America's Founding Fathers, but unlike many of them, who were land-owning gentry or grew up in stable environments, Hamilton struggled during his early years. He was born out of wedlock in the West Indies, and he was orphaned at the age of 11 when his mother died from yellow fever. From there, a cousin took him in. But after the cousin committed suicide, Hamilton was taken in by a wealthy merchant, and he got a job as a trading firm clerk.
If Hamilton was born in the Caribbean, how did he come to America?
Hamilton was impressive enough that several community leaders sponsored him to get higher education in New York. He enrolled in Kings College (which would later become Columbia University). He joined the American Revolution in 1775.
Did he see any action?
Yes, he did. Among other battles, Hamilton fought in the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton. He climbed quickly in rank, and eventually served as General George Washington's chief staff aide for four years. He was with Washington during the brutal winter encampment at Valley Forge, and he later commanded battalions at the Battle of Yorktown, widely seen as the key final battle of the Revolutionary War.
What were his major post-war contributions?
He was a part of the Constitutional Convention, where he advocated for a strong, centralized federal government. He signed the Constitution as a delegate from New York, and he authored the bulk of the Federalist Papers, which expounded on the Constitution and advocated for its ratification. He served as the country's first Secretary of the Treasury. He spearheaded the creation of a national bank, and he continued advocating for a strong federal government under the Federalist Party.
Didn't Hamilton die during a duel?
Yes. In 1804, Hamilton dueled Aaron Burr, who was Vice President of the United States(!) under Thomas Jefferson at the time. The duel was over accusations that Hamilton had spoken extremely ill of Burr--both during his Vice Presidency and his campaign for New York governor. Contemporary accounts of the duel indicate that Hamilton "threw away" his shot as an honorable gesture, whereas Burr took careful aim and shot Hamilton in the abdomen. He died a day later.
Can I visit Hamilton's grave?
You can. He's buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery on Wall Street in Manhattan--appropriate, considering his influence on U.S. financial systems. He has a massive tombstone bordering the southern fence that's visible from the street; you can't miss it.
As a nation, we're currently tearing down statues of old white men. Is there anything negative I need to know about Alexander Hamilton before I get on board with him?
Owing to his womanizing, Hamilton had one of the first high-profile sex scandals in American history, which ended any future prospects of becoming President. He was an elitist who initially advocated for the President and Senators to have lifetime appointments, although he relented and ratified the Constitution.
He did not own slaves, although he did facilitate the trading of slaves on behalf of his in-laws. During the Revolutionary War, he supported a plan to grant slaves their freedom if they fought in the Continental Army. Part of his rationalization was that "their natural faculties are probably as good as ours." In his later life, he was a leading member of the Manumission Society, which seeked to end slavery and the slave trade in New York State.
All of which is to say, he was a flawed man who should not be idealized. Whether that's enough to cancel him outright is your prerogative.
It's probably a bad idea to erect statues of people in the first place, considering how our moral standards evolve over time.