The smash Broadway musical “Hamilton” has almost single-handedly resuscitated interest in founding father Alexander Hamilton and restored his sometimes misunderstood reputation.
But how real is the man portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning show? Chicago's Newberry Library gives us a historical perspective with some priceless artifacts, some of which were held by Hamilton himself.
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“Hamilton” the musical was inspired by historian Ron Chernow's 2004 biography, but the first biography of Alexander Hamilton was written by his son, John. Below, read the first chapter of that historic biography. You can read the entire text here.
“THE LIFE OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON”
By his son, John Church Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton was born in the island of Nevis, on the eleventh of January, seventeen hundred and fifty seven. On his father's side his origin was Scottish, and his lineage may be traced in “The Memoirs of the House of Hamilton,"* through the Cambuskeith branch of that House to a remote and renowned ancestry.
His grandfather, "Alexander Hamilton of Grange," (the family seat situate in Ayrshire,) about the year seventeen hundred and thirty, married Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Sir Robert Pollock, and had a numerous issue, of whom, James, his fourth son, was the father of the subject of this memoir.
Being bred a merchant, and the West Indies opening an extensive field to commercial enterprise, he left Scotland for St. Christopher's, where, though at first successful, through a too generous and easy temper he failed in business, and was, during the greater part of his life, in reduced circumstances.
In the early period of his reverses, he was supported by his friends in Scotland, and in his advanced age, by his son Alexander, lie died in St. Vincent’s in the year seventeen hundred and ninety-nine, having declined, by the advice of his physicians, the earnest solicitations of his son to join him in the United States.
On his mother's side Hamilton's descent was French. His maternal grandfather was a Huguenot, a race to which America owes many of her most illustrious sons, who in this remote region, and after a lapse of two centuries, proved, during the war of independence, how proudly they had cherished the virtuous and determined spirit of their progenitors.
His name was Faucette. In the general expatriation of his protestant countrymen, which followed the revocation of the edict of Nantes, he emigrated to the West Indies, and settled in Nevis, where he successfully pursued the practice of medicine.
He was a man of letters and of polished manners; whether his original profession was that of a physician, or it was assumed after his emigration, is not ascertained.
Hamilton was the offspring of a second marriage. His mother's first husband was a Dane, named Lavine, who, attracted by her beauty, and recommended to her mother by his wealth, received her hand against her inclination.
The marriage proving unhappy, she applied for and obtained a divorce, and removing to St. Christopher's, there married the father of the subject of these notices, and had by him several sons, of whom Alexander was the youngest.
His mother died when he was a child; but the traces of her character remained vividly impressed upon his memory. He recollected her with inexpressible fondness, and often spoke of her as a woman of superior intellect, highly cultivated, of elevated and generous sentiments, and of unusual elegance of person and manner.
On her decease, the indigence of her husband threw their only surviving child upon the bounty of his mother's relatives, Mr. Peter Lytton and his sister, (afterwards Mrs. Mitchell,) who resided at Santa Cruz, where he received the rudiments of his education, commencing at a very tender age.
As an instance of which, rarely as he dwelt upon his personal history, he mentioned his having been taught to repeat the Decalogue in Hebrew, at the school of a Jewess, when so small that he was placed standing by her side on a table.
Many endearing traits of that generous and independent temper which were so conspicuous in his after life, appeared during his childhood. Hence, though his superiority occasionally awakened the envy of his comrades, it was soon disarmed by the amenity of his manners.
There is reason to believe, from the low standard of education in the West Indies, that the circle of his early studies was very limited, probably embracing little more than the rudiments of the English and French languages, the latter of which he subsequently wrote and spoke with the ease of a native.
It is not, however, to be inferred, that his boyhood was spent in indolence; — with a strong propensity to literature, he early became a lover of books, and the time which other youth employ in classical learning, was by him devoted to miscellaneous reading, happily directed by the advice of Doctor Knox, a respectable Presbyterian divine, who, delighted with the unfolding of his mind, took a deep interest in his welfare.
The fervent piety of this gentleman, whose society he frequently enjoyed, gave a strong religious bias to his feelings; and the topics of their conversation, opened to him an early glimpse of those polemical controversies which have called forth the highest efforts of intellect.
In the autumn of seventeen hundred and sixty-nine, he was placed in the counting house of Mr. Nicholas Cruger, an opulent merchant, and most worthy man, then residing at Santa Cruz. Foreign as such an avocation was to his inclinations, he nevertheless gave to it all his habitual assiduity, and soon mastered its details; but the inward promptings of his mind looked far beyond it. He thought of immortality, and fondly contemplated from his island home, those fields of glory and summits of honour which displayed themselves to his imagination from beyond the deep.
The kindness of an early friend preserved the following letter, written at this time to his school-fellow, Edward Stevens, in which his youthful aspirations are fully developed.
St. Croix, Nov. 11, 1769.
This serves to acknowledge the receipt of yours per Capt. Lowndes, which was delivered me yesterday. The truth of Capt. Lightbowen and Lowndes' information is now verified by the presence of your father and sister, for whose safe arrival I pray, and that they may convey that satisfaction to your soul, that must naturally flow from the sight of absent friends in health ; and shall for news this way, refer you to them.
As to what you say, respecting your soon having the happiness of seeing us all, I wish for an accomplishment of your hopes, provided they arc concomitant with your welfare, otherwise not ; though doubt whether I shall be present or not, for to confess my weakness, Ned, my ambition is prevalent, so that I condemn the groveling condition of a clerk, or the like, to which my fortune condemns me, and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station. I am confident, Ned, that my youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate preferment, nor do I desire it; but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. I'm no philosopher, you see, and may be justly said to build castles in the air ; my folly makes me ashamed, and beg you'll conceal it ; yet, Neddy, we have seen such schemes successful, when the projector is constant. I shall conclude by saying, I wish there was a war.
P. S. I this moment received yours by William Smith, and pleased to see you give such close application to study. Addressed to Edward Stevens, in New-York."
Such was Hamilton before he had reached the age of thirteen. During the period which followed the peace of Paris, an unusual impulse was given to the commerce of the West Indies, and an active traffic being kept up by a free intercourse with the American colonies, the duties of his counting house became very laborious.
His aptitude in conforming himself to his situation was such, and his advancement so rapid in the confidence of his respected principal, that before he reached his fourteenth year he was left by Mr. Cruger, who made a visit [in 1770] to the American continent, at the head of his extensive establishment.
Such of his letters as are preserved in the books of his employer, written to various persons in the islands, in Europe and in America, display a capacity for business, which shows that this unusual trust was not misplaced.
This occupation was the source of great and lasting benefit to him; he felt himself amply rewarded for his labours, by the method and facility which it imparted to him; and amid his various engagements in after years, adverted to it as the most useful part of his education.
The little leisure which he could command from his mercantile duties was devoted to study: his knowledge of mathematics was enlarged; he became fond of chemistry; and although his proficiency in it was small, he often urged it as a pursuit well adapted to excite curiosity and create new combinations of thought.
Among the books to which he had access, he preferred those which treat of some branch of ethics. His favourite authors were Pope and Plutarch ; on the latter of which there remain several curious observations from his youthful pen ; but even these were often laid aside for the more profound researches of severer writers.
He often also, at this time, exercised himself in composition on moral topics, to which he afterwards occasionally resorted as a relaxation from the arduous labours of his professional life; and thus, by his varied studies, his mind became rich in materials awaiting his call.
His aversion to mercantile pursuits, and his aspiring temper, leaves little reason to suppose that he could have conformed his life to the sphere in which it commenced. While "arms" seemed to have been his predominant passion, the world was at peace. Fortune appeared to have cut him off from every avenue to political distinction, and thus without a theatre of action, or prospect of preferment, it would be difficult to pronounce what, at this time, was his probable destiny ; but an event which would seem to be the last that could bode good to any being, lifted the veil.
In August, seventeen hundred and seventy-two, soon after he had returned from a commercial expedition to St. Eustatia, the Leeward Islands were desolated by one of those terrific hurricanes which so often visit the tropics. Before the terrors of the scene had worn off, and while its effects were still visible, a description of it appeared, which though published in the neighbouring island of St. Christopher's, attracted universal attention at St. Croix; and such was the impression it produced, that the governor and some of the principal persons of the island made an especial effort to discover its author, and ultimately traced it to Hamilton.
This simple incident decided his fate. His wishes were consulted, and it was determined to send him to New-York to complete his education.
A short time after he left the "West Indies in a vessel bound for Boston, where he arrived in the month of October, 1772, having escaped during his passage an imminent peril; for, as he approached the American continent, the vessel was discovered to be on fire, which was with difficulty extinguished.
He proceeded thence to New-York, where, through the kindness of his friend Dr. Knox, he was introduced to Doctors Rogers, Mason, and other gentlemen of distinction.
His relations had provided him with ample funds, and had made arrangements for future remittances. It only remained for him to choose the place of his instruction. By the advice of these friends, he joined a celebrated grammar school at Elizabethtown, which was conducted under the patronage of Governor Livingston and Mr. Boudinot, in whose families he became intimate.
The principal of this school was Francis Barber; a man of strong sense, considerable attainments, and respectable connections. Fired by the prospect of distinction, and by his love of country, he broke up his school at the commencement of the revolution, — entered the army, soon rose to the rank of colonel, and in the course of the contest was often and much distinguished. Among his school-fellows were Jonathan Dayton, afterwards Speaker of the House of Representatives, Brockholst Livingston, and other individuals, who subsequently acquired celebrity.
His industry at this school kept pace with his enlarged prospects. During the winter, while at the house of Governor Livingston, he was accustomed to labour until midnight. In summer, it was his habit to retire at dawn to the quiet of a neighbouring cemetery, where he was often seen preparing his lessons for the day. By these exertions, he made rapid progress.
During this time, his habits of composition were continued: his essays occasionally touched upon political topics.
He wrote an elegy on the death of a young lady in whose family he was intimate, which is remembered as possessing much merit. He also composed a prologue and epilogue for a play, which was performed by the officers of a company of British soldiers stationed in the vicinity of Elizabethtown.
His friend, Mr. Boudinot, having lost an infant, he sat up to watch the corpse the night prior to its interment. During the performance of this gloomy office of friendship, he wrote some consolatory verses, which were presented to its mother as a tribute of regard, and were long preserved with great interest.
Before the end of the year, he was deemed by his instructor qualified to enter college; and after returning to New York, proceeded with Mr. Hercules Mulligan, Mr. H. Mulligan was a brother of Mr. M., of the firm of Kortwright & Co., to whom West India produce was consigned, to be sold and appropriated to the support of Hamilton. He outlived most of the revolutionary race, and had been very active in its earliest scenes. He was chosen by the citizens of New- York one of the revolutionary committee of one hundred ; and after the battle of Long Island, left the city, was captured on his journey, and detained there during the war. After Hamilton entered the family of Washington, Mulligan became the confidential correspondent of the commander-in-chief, house he subsequently lodged, and from whom many of the incidents of his youthful life are derived, on a visit to Doctor Witherspoon, then president of the college at Princeton.
On his introduction to this distinguished individual, he underwent a private examination. He then stated his desire to be admitted to either class which his attainments would justify; but upon the condition that he might be permitted to advance from class to class, with as much rapidity as his exertions would enable him to do. The president, after listening to this novel proposition, replied that it was a subject resting in the discretion of the trustees, and promised him an early decision. On his return to New-York, an answer was received from the president, that the established usages of the institution forbade a compliance with his wishes, but expressive of regret that he could not be admitted on his own terms, " inasmuch as he was convinced that the young gentleman would do honour to any seminary in which he should be educated." He then entered Kings, (now Columbia College,) in the city of New York, and under the auspices of that liberal institution, with the aid of a tutor, proceeded in the plan which he had marked out for himself, having been received as a private student, and not attached to any particular class.
To his collegiate studies, he soon added that of anatomy, attending the lectures of Doctor Clossey; — a branch of knowledge which he was anxious to acquire, having been led from his early fondness for chemistry, to entertain the idea of selecting the practice of medicine as his permanent pursuit.
Here, together with his earliest companion, Stevens, and his long-cherished and devoted friends, Robert Troup and Nicholas Fish, he joined a debating club, which continued and furnished the most important intelligence. On the evacuation of that city, Washington complimented him by taking his first breakfast with this patriotic tailor.
“At this time," says Colonel Troup, in a letter to a friend, " the general was attentive to public worship, and in the habit of praying on his knees night and morning. I lived in the same room with him for some time, and I have often been powerfully affected by the fervor and eloquence of his prayers. He had read many of the polemical writers on religious subjects, and he was a zealous believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. I confess, that the arguments with which he was accustomed to justify his belief, have tended in no small degree to confirm my own faith in revealed religion."
This religious temperament is strongly contrasted with the bold and energetic character of his ambition, but they may be traced to a common source. The ardour of his feelings clothed every object of his attention with a powerful interest; and the wise instruction of his youth had taught him that the flame of devotion does not burn less purely for being kindled on the same altar with the fires of a virtuous emulation.
A hymn, written at this time, entitled the “Soul entering into Bliss," has been preserved, possessing not a little poetical merit, and strongly illustrative of the state of his feelings.
This train of sentiment did not cast a melancholy shade over his character. Constitutionally happy, he mingled gaily with his friends; and often, as Mr. Mulligan relates, “used to sit the evening with his family, writing doggerel verses for their amusement, and was always amiable and cheerful." His talent for satire was also frequently exercised.
"John Holt," says Troup, " who then published a Whig paper in New-York, had, by his zeal in the American cause, drawn upon himself the invectives of all the ministerial writers ; these invectives Hamilton burlesqued in doggerel rhyme, with great wit and humour. He also presented me with a manuscript of fugitive poetry, which I considered as a strong evidence of the elasticity of his genius, and have often lamented that it was lost with my books and papers during the war."
But the term of his youthful studies was fast approaching its close. The repeated invasions of the rights of the colonists, gave an impulse to the public mind, which could not be restrained; and the unbounded prosperity which they had so long enjoyed was soon to be succeeded by the desolating scenes of civil war.
A brief sketch of the events which led to this result, as connected immediately with the province of New- York, the youthful theatre of Hamilton's life, must, for a short space, interrupt the progress of this narrative.
* “Historical and Genealogical Memoirs of the House of Hamilton, with Genealogical Memoirs of the several branches of the family." By John Anderson, Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. 1825.
Note: This story orginally appeared on "Chicago Tonight" on Sept. 27.
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