True story of America founding father:
What’s so cool about Alexander Hamilton?
Born a penniless bastard in the Caribbean, he would become a Revolutionary War hero and the genius behind much of America’s government, all before dying in a duel at the age of 49.
Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda saw it right away after reading Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton.” The biography inspired Miranda to create the hip-hop musical ”Hamilton!” — a global phenomenon that is sold out on Broadway nearly through 2016 and about to go on national tour.
After listening to the album obsessively, we wanted to share some of the magic. Keep reading to see our guide (pulling from Chernow, Genius, and more) to key lines from the best musical ever.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a/ Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a/ Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence/ Impoverished, in squalor/ Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
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Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1755, in the West Indian capital city of Charlestown, located on the Caribbean island of Nevis.
His parents were unmarried, his father rejected him, and his mother died when he was 13.
By that point, many people would have given up. Not Hamilton …
HAMILTON: I’m ‘a get a scholarship to King’s College/ I prob’ly shouldn’t brag, but dag, I amaze and astonish
The orphan clerked for a trading company, read every book he could get his hands on, and honed his skills as a writer. After publishing a gripping essay in a local paper, community leaders paid for him to go to America to continue his education.
In 1772 he enrolled at Elizabethtown Academy in New Jersey. By 1773 he had impressed enough people to get a scholarship to King’s College (later known as Columbia University).
That’s when he really started making noise.
HAMILTON: Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?
Hamilton, age 19, anonymously published his first political essay in 1774 in defense of the Boston Tea Party, where Americans destroyed British tea to protest taxes.
The young firebrand gave a speech that summer that turned him into a hero of the cause.
In 1775, his anonymous essay “The Farmer Refuted” not only made the best case yet for revolution but explained how the colonists could win.
HAMILTON: As a kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war/ I knew that I was poor/ I knew it was the only way to/ Rise up!/ If they tell my story/ I am either gonna die on the battlefield in glory or/ Rise up!
Hamilton recognized war as the best chance to prove himself, and he did so with a vengeance.
Days after fighting started at Lexington and Concord in 1775, Hamilton signed up for a volunteer militia. His first military success came that summer when he helped move two dozen cannons to safety while taking fire from a British ship.
The next year he was named captain of an artillery company.
By 1777 he had distinguished himself so much that he was invited to serve as aide to General George Washington with a rank of lieutenant colonel.
GEORGE WASHINGTON: I’m being honest/ I’m working with a third of what our Congress has promised/ We are a powder keg about to explode I need someone like you to lighten the load. So?
Washington made Hamilton his right-hand man, and the decision quickly paid off.
The 22-year-old “rode with the general in combat, cantered off on diplomatic missions, dealt with bullheaded generals, sorted through intelligence, interrogated deserters, and negotiated prisoner exchanges,” writes Chernow.
Hamilton may have looked to Washington as a father figure. He certainly benefited from the older man’s composure and cool-headedness.
Not surprisingly, his rapid rise made people jealous. Among them was his lifelong rival, Aaron Burr, who was dismissed from Washington’s staff after only 10 days.
ELIZA SCHUYLER: Laughin’ at my sister as she’s dazzling the room/ Then you walked in and my heart went “Boom!”
Eliza Schuyler, daughter to General Philip Schuyler, was staying near Washington’s headquarters in 1780 when she fell in love with Hamilton.
Hamilton fell hard, too. As fellow aide Tench Tilghman reported: “Hamilton is a gone man.”
He married her by the end of the year. By January 1782, they had their first child.
As for Eliza’s sister, the one-year-older Angelica, she would remain very close with Hamilton his whole life.
HAMILTON: We gotta go, gotta get the job done/ Gotta start a new nation, gotta meet my son!/ Take the bullets out your gun!
Hamilton’s greatest victory in the Revolution came in the fall of 1781 at the Battle of Yorktown, in which he led the capture of an enemy fortification using only bayonets.
But Hamilton was increasingly torn between military heroics and his new family in New York. With the war effectively over, the 26-year-old resigned his commission.
In the next few years, he worked overtime as a lawyer, founded the Bank of New York, helped shape the US Constitution through his essays in “The Federalist,” and got appointed to be America’s first treasury secretary under President George Washington.
Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room/ Diametric’ly opposed, foes/ They emerge with a compromise, having opened doors that were/ Previously closed/ Bros
Hamilton’s plan for a national bank was one of many controversial actions. Since it involved the federal government assuming state debts, the wealthy southern states felt it unfairly helped the poor northern states.
In the later-famous “dinner table bargain,” Hamilton privately convinced southerners Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to support the bank in exchange for moving America’s capital to Virginia.
History would credit Hamilton for almost single-handedly creating the US financial system.
HAMILTON: I hadn’t slept in a week/ I was weak, I was awake/ You never seen a bastard orphan/ More in need of a break/ Longing for Angelica/ Missing my wife/ That’s when Miss Maria Reynolds walked into my life
Hamilton’s public success would be undermined by missteps in his personal life.
In 1791, for roughly nine months, Hamilton had an affair with 23-year-old Maria Reynolds, the wife of Joseph Reynolds. She was everything Eliza wasn’t: a blonde bombshell from meager roots.
Joseph Reynolds knew about the affair, and Hamilton ended up paying him repeatedly to keep the romance quiet. In the end, Hamilton’s mysterious payments would be a source of dire controversy as would the revelation of his affair.
How does Hamilton the short-tempered/ Protean creator of the Coast Guard/ Founder of the New York Post/ Ardently abuse his cab’net post/ Destroy his reputation?/ Welcome, folks, to/ The Adams administration!
Then things started going south in his public life, too.
President John Adams was opposed to Hamilton from the beginning, resenting his power in the party and blaming him for political machinations that may have hurt his vote count. The commander-in-chief mocked and criticized the “Creole bastard.”
Hamilton responded with an over-the-top pamphlet criticizing Adams’ conduct and character, which ended up hurting both Adams and Hamilton.
Hamilton likewise hurt himself when he published a lurid account of his extramarital affair, which he did to convince people that his mysterious payments had been related to blackmail, not embezzlement.
Soon Hamilton traded insults with future president Monroe, and almost fought a duel with him.
PHILIP HAMILTON: I’m a Hamilton with pride/ You talk about my father, I cannot let it slide
Hamilton’s family got tragically caught up in the chaos when his hotheaded oldest son, Philip, challenged a critic of his father to a duel.
Philip, taking his father’s advice, peacefully fired his gun into the air at the duel.
His opponent responded by fatally shooting the 19-year-old.
AARON BURR: How does Hamilton/ An arrogant Immigrant, orphan/ Bastard, whoreson/ Somehow endorse Thomas Jefferson, his enemy/ A man he’s despised since the beginning/ Just to keep me from winning?
Hamilton faced a painful choice in the presidential election of 1800 when two of his rivals, Jefferson and Burr, got the same number of votes, as many looked to him to sway the congressional deadlock that followed.
The former treasury secretary ended up supporting Jefferson, believing him to be more reasonable than Burr. Hamilton wrote about Burr: “He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement.”
Burr, now the sitting vice president, was offended to say the least.
A few years later, when Burr heard that Hamilton had accused him of “despicable” actions, he demanded a retraction. Things escalated quickly, and pretty soon they had committed to a duel.
HAMILTON: I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory/ Is this where it gets me, on my feet, sev’ral feet ahead of me?/ I see it coming, do I run or fire my gun or let it be?
The duel between Burr and Hamilton took place in the early morning of July 11, 1804. They rode separate boats across the Hudson River to New Jersey to a popular dueling location.
Hamilton repeatedly told people his plan to fire in the air, taking the same non-violent action he’d recommended to his son. At the duel, he is thought to have shot first but fired away from his opponent.
Burr responded with a shot into Hamilton’s abdomen. Burr would later say that if he’d been a better shot, he would have fired right into Hamilton’s heart.
Hamilton, only 49 years old, was paralyzed until his death a day later, on July 12, 1804.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Hamilton hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves: As Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in the musical, “His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him.”
The latest insult? Although he got his face on the $10 bill in 1928, even that may be over soon as the government talks about switching in someone else.
We can only hope that may finally be changing after Chernow’s 2004 bestselling biography and Miranda’s 2015 Broadway megahit.
In a wonderfully weird twist, Alexander Hamilton is a global phenomenon once more.
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