06 December 2017 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Librarian, Faculty, Student/Researcher

Beyond the Musical: Who Was Alexander Hamilton?

"All the world acknowledge that, in America, the most eloquent orator, and the most skillful and perspicuous political writer, was Hamilton."

"All the world acknowledge that, in America, the most eloquent orator, and the most skillful and perspicuous political writer, was Hamilton"

This December, the Broadway hit Hamilton is making its way across the pond and gracing the stages of the West End in London. History buffs and lovers of musicals have both been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to experience this phenomenally acclaimed program, live and in person.  

While Alexander Hamilton may have been an “eloquent orator” and “perspicuous writer,” in the words of an 1804 edition of The Literary Magazine, and American Register, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed musical brings him to life in a clever, funny and dramatic performance.

Miranda’s dynamic, well-researched show is a thoughtful introduction to the critical role Alexander Hamilton played in U.S. history, invigorated for contemporary audiences with music and language that would have definitely not been used by a statesman in the 18th century. More hardcore scholars, as well audience members who get bitten by the research bug, might be interested in supplementing the performance of Hamilton with some deeper historical investigation.  

Delving into the politics of Alexander Hamilton

In the musical, there is particularly harsh rhetoric from Alexander Hamilton about President John Adams. We’re pretty sure Hamilton did not express his disdain for Adams in rap the way Miranda portrays him in the musical. But primary source materials like those curated in the ProQuest’s American Periodicals database provide abundant insight into the rivalry between the founding fathers, particularly regarding Hamilton’s push for a strong federal government.

Consider this letter written by Hamilton, where he undermines Adams’ legitimacy as a public office holder:

Everybody is aware of that defect in the constitution which renders it possible that the man intended for Vice President may in fact turn up President. Everybody sees that unanimity in Adams as Vice President and a few votes insidiously withheld from Washington might substitute the former to the latter. And everybody must perceive that there is something to fear from the machinations of Anti-federal malignity.

This quote also insinuates Hamilton’s monarchist tendencies; not in the way of a hereditary monarchy, but he advocated for an elected monarchy. He supported a system featuring an elected executive with extended powers who would hold a lifetime term. Adams wasn’t the only adversary of Hamilton’s vision. The Connecticut Republican Magazine succinctly summed up criticism of Hamilton’s controversial contribution at the Constitutional Convention:

Discerning Republicans have long suspected Alexander Hamilton of a predilection for Monarchy. The systematic tendency of his measures has appeared to be directed to that favorite point. This suspicion, however, has been treated by Federalists as a party calumny. But the very system, which he proposed in the Convention for forming the constitution of these United States, although long concealed has come to light. ...Republican in name, but Monarchical and Aristocratical in substance.

The challenges of holding public office

Were Hamilton’s politics really as elitist and anti-democratic as they are often portrayed? Was he the ambitious, idealistic immigrant who believed in a United States where anything was possible, as depicted by Miranda?  Were his statements and motivations taken out of context and exaggerated by his political rivals and the media? 

Primary source materials, such as periodicals and letters, can provide deeper insights and enable researchers to draw their own conclusions.

For example, in a brief biographical article written by Hamilton himself, his idealism was tempered with a heaping dose of cynicism:

Public office in this country has few attractions. The pecuniary emolument is so inconsiderable, as to amount to a sacrifice to any man who can employ his time with advantage in any liberal profession. The opportunity of doing good, from the jealousy of power and the spirit of faction, is too small in any station to warrant a long, continuance of private sacrifices.

In a letter to the French aristocrat and military officer Marquis de Lafayette, Hamilton encouraged his close friend to be undeterred by obstacles and corruption and remain true to his values and ideals: " My wishes for your personal success and that of the cause of liberty are incessant. Be virtuous amidst the seductions of ambition, and you can hardly in any event be unhappy."

Hamilton’s death and legacy

Through the ups and downs of his political actions and personal relationships, Hamilton had profound impact in the founding of the American republic. In his own time, Alexander Hamilton was very much in the public eye, from his early, immense popularity, to the personal scandals that brought him down.

The famous duel that ended Hamilton’s life was the result of a long and bitter feud with his political rival Aaron Burr. Numerous letters written by Hamilton detail a multitude of grievances he had with the then-Vice President. Their battle of words and ideas escalated into a violent battle of honor and decorum.

While it remains unclear who fired first, only one man was shot. Alexander Hamilton took a bullet to the ribs, resulting in fatal damage to his internal organs.

An open letter “To the American Public” appears in the July 21, 1804 issue of The Port-folio magazine suggests Hamilton’s impulsive nature and passion for his beliefs may have been his undoing:

The shocking catastrophe which has recently occurred, terminating the life of Alexander Hamilton, and which has spread a gloom over our country, that will not be speedily dissipated, demands that the circumstances which led to it, or were intimately connected with it, should not be concealed from the world. When they shall be truly and fairly disclosed, however some may question the soundness of his judgement on this occasion, all must do justice to the purity of his views, and the nobleness of his nature.

Remembered as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury and one of the nation’s forefathers most responsible the government’s economic frameworks, Hamilton’s story and legacy continue to live on, in the hit musical, and in primary source historical documents.

For further research:

ProQuest American Periodicals Series
This includes digitized images of the pages of American magazines and journals published from colonial days to the dawn of the 20th century. Titles range from Benjamin Franklin's General Magazine and America's first scientific journal, Medical Repository; popular magazines such as Vanity Fair and Ladies' Home Journal; regional and niche publications; and groundbreaking journals like The Dial, Puck, and McClure's.

ProQuest Congressional
ProQuest U.S. Serial Set digital collections include primary source documents dating to Hamilton’s tenure as Secretary of the Treasury, such as his notes encouraging the promotion of manufactures and his plan for a national bank, as well as later publications commemorating him and reflecting his enduring importance to Americans.

Encouragement to manufactures: notes by Alexander Hamilton, December 05, 1791

National bank, Alexander Hamilton’s plan, Dec, 14, 1790

Final report of the Alexander Bicentennial Commission pursuant to section 6, of Public Law 601, 83d Congress to establish a commission for the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Alexander Hamilton, April 30, 1958

ProQuest Historical Newspapers
Historical newspaper content is among researchers’ most sought-after primary source material. Every issue of each title includes the complete paper, cover-to-cover, with full-page and article images in easily downloadable PDF format.  With more than 45 premier historical titles, this digital newspaper archive empowers researchers to digitally travel back through centuries to become eyewitnesses to history.

From Ebook Central

Castaldi, R. (Ed.). (2014). Immanuel Kant and Alexander Hamilton, the Founders of Federalism: A Political Theory for our time.

Hamilton, A., & Hamilton, A. (2001). The Revolutionary Writings of Alexander Hamilton.

Harper, J. L. (2004). American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy.

Kaminski, J. P. (2016). Alexander Hamilton: From Obscurity to Greatness.

Kaplan, L. S. (2001). Alexander Hamilton: Ambivalent Anglophile.

Works cited:

ALEXANDER HAMILTON. (1804, 10). The Literary Magazine, and American Register (1803-1807), 2, 491.

AN ORIGINAL LETTER OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON. (1804, 11). The Literary Magazine, and American Register (1803-1807), 2, 647.

Burra H, A. (1801-1827)"THIS PAPER IS CONSECRATED TO THE MEMORIAL OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON," The Port – Folio.  vol. 4, (no. 29, Jul 21, 1804), pp. 225.

Hamilton, A. (1817, 12). LETTER FROM ALEXANDER HAMILTON, ESQ. TO THE MARQUIS DE LA FAYETTE. The Port - Folio (1801-1827), 4, 469

Morris, I. W., & Hamilton, A. (1905, LETTERS OF HON. ALEXANDER HAMILTON AND REV. WILLIAM SMITH, D.D., TO HON. JAMES WILSON, 1789. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1877-1906), 29, 210.  

Sun. (1802, 11). OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON's PROPOSED MONARCHY. Connecticut Republican Magazine (1802-[1803]), 1, 89.