The Ten Dollar Founding Father Without a Father
by Dave Hsiung
Amy Hunt, ’12, this newsletter’s intrepid editor, knew of my interest in the American Revolution and told me I absolutely had to check out a particular video on YouTube. With a good deal of skepticism—having been underwhelmed by some recommendations my son Benjamin has made over the years—I clicked on the link. And I was stunned, amazed, and delighted—even after watching the video four times in a row.
Lin-Manuel Miranda performed “The Hamilton Mixtape” at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word on 12 May 2009. I bet you have never learned about Alexander Hamilton’s early years in quite this way.
For information about Lin-Manuel Miranda, visit the website for his Broadway musical, In the Heights.
Miranda got this history correct. Hamilton was born in 1757 in the British West Indies, the second of two illegitimate sons of James Hamilton and Rachel Faucett Lavien. Hamilton’s father left the family when Alexander was eight, and his mother died three years later. As an apprentice to an international merchant company, Hamilton showed such ability that the owners put him in charge of the business. Miranda does not go into Hamilton’s subsequent history—enrollment at King’s College (now Columbia University), aide-de-camp and field officer for George Washington during the War for Independence, author of 56 of the 85 essays that make up The Federalist, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and more. He does, however, refer to the final event in Hamilton’s life. If you don’t know it, I won’t give it away here.
To find out more about Hamilton, you can tackle the massive biography by Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2005). I haven’t read that tome, but I can recommend an engaging and thought-provoking essay on Hamilton and Aaron Burr: “The Duel,” Chapter 1 in Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Knopf, 2001). For a sample of Hamilton’s own writings, try his most famous works—the essays in The Federalist. You can get them from the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library.
What’s next? If you see the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as an interpretive dance, let me know!