Hamilton – An American Musical: The Facts Behind the Music. Part 1: “Alexander Hamilton”

Hamilton – An American Musical made its Broadway debut in the summer of 2015.  Even before it left the off-Broadway Public Theater the show was a huge success.  The original cast recording (and a subsequent mixtape – some new songs with remixes and covers of the originals) were also hot items.  As a history buff with a special affection for the Revolutionary period, I was all about this show.  The music and lyrics made it even better.  With shows in New York, Chicago, London, and a U.S. tour selling out consistently, I think it’s safe to say that you don’t have to be a history nerd or Revolutionary War expert to like the show.

I completely understand that Lin-Manuel Miranda was creating this art based on history when writing the musical, and I have no issue with the creative dramatic license he used in the interest of telling a good story.  Being the nerd I am, however, I wanted to delve deeper into the fact and fiction of the musical telling of Hamilton’s life.  (I also have considered using this idea as an assignment for students in the classroom.)

Using Ron Chernow’s biography (Miranda’s inspiration for the musical) and primary source documents, I’ve set out to pull the facts from the musical interpretation.  This is the first in a series of what I hope will be an interesting, educational, and historical companion to an amazing musical.

————-

The first song in the musical is Alexander Hamilton, and I felt that the first four lines beg for an explanation.

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….

Interestingly enough, I found that Hamilton himself penned a letter to his old friend William Jackson in the summer of 1800 on the subject of his birth.[1]  His mother’s family was French, and came to the island of Nevis in the Caribbean, possibly to escape religious persecution.  Hamilton’s mother, Rachel, married a well-off merchant named John Michael Lavien.  Though Hamilton says only that the marriage was unhappy and ended in divorce, Chernow wrote that the relationship was abusive and Rachel left St. Croix for St. Kitts, abandoning her husband and their only son.[2]

Hamilton wrote that following the divorce, Rachel met James Hamilton, his father.  Among the youngest of many children “of a respectable Scotch Family” according to Hamilton, James came to the Caribbean in search of making a fortune as a merchant. (He was not successful.)

Trouble arose when John Lavien wished to remarry.  In 1759, he filed for divorce from Rachel, writing in the official summons that she had “given up to whoring with everyone.” Making things worse for Alexander, Lavien demanded that Rachel be denied any legal rights to his property so that her “whore-children” could not take it from his child.  Lavien was granted the divorce and allowed to remarry, but Rachel was prohibited from remarrying.[3]  Because she could not legally remarry, Alexander (and his brother) would remain illegitimate in the eyes of the law – a bastard son of a whore.  (Later in the song is the explanation of why he’s an orphan – the song does not keep the events in chronological order.)

Some lines later, John Laurens sings that our “ten-dollar founding father without a father” was placed “in charge of a trading charter” when he was 14.  After Hamilton shows up on stage a few seconds later, Eliza sings, “When he was ten his father split….”  There is a question as to whether Hamilton was born in 1755 or 1757.  (Current scholarship leans towards 1757, however.)  Miranda, consciously or not, remained true to both in these cases. James Hamilton took his family back to St. Croix for business purposes in 1765, but shortly thereafter, he abandoned them there and never returned[4] – Hamilton was ten when his father split, if we use the birth date of 1755.  Hamilton, a clerk at Kortright and Cruger, was placed in charge of the trading charter in 1771, when Cruger went to New York for five months for medical reasons[5] – he was fourteen then, using the birth date of 1757.

While at Kortright and Cruger, Hamilton probably did see enslaved humans “being slaughtered and carted away across the waves,” as Jefferson sings.  According to Chernow, they handled shipments of enslaved Africans at least once a year, and did so at least once during Hamilton’s time in charge.[6]

After some more biographical lyrics, Madison appears on stage to sing about the hurricane that shaped Hamilton’s early life.  This hurricane struck at the end of August 1772, when Hamilton was 15 (or 17) years old.  After surviving the storm, in which “it seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place,” he penned a letter to his father explaining the “horror and destruction” brought upon the island. (Though James had abandoned his family, Alexander attempted to keep contact with his father sporadically throughout his life.)  This letter found its way to the offices of The Royal Danish American Gazette, where it was published on October 3rd.[7]  When “the word got around,” a group of businessmen on the island, along with his guardian and a cousin, sent him (i.e. paid his way) to North America so he could get a proper education.[8]

After those lines of the song, we have to go back in time.  Eliza sings of Hamilton’s father leaving the family and of Alex and his mother bed-ridden and half-dead.  Then the entire company sings, “Alex got better but his mother went quick.”  Indeed, Rachel died in February 1768, (before the hurricane) effectively leaving Alexander and his brothers as penniless orphans.

Washington appears on stage next and sings about how Hamilton “moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide, left him with nothin’….”  After Rachel’s death, Alexander and his brother did move in with their 32-year-old widower cousin, Peter Lytton.  Lytton had many problems of his own, and in July 1769, he “stabbed or shot himself to death,” according to court records.  Lytton had a child with his mistress, and in his will he provided for his mistress and child, but not for the Hamilton brothers, leaving them with nothin’.[9]

As the song builds towards Hamilton sailing for the mainland, Burr sings that Alexander “started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord.”  Miranda is not incorrect, but he does go out of chronological order again.  Hamilton actually started working at Beekman and Cruger – his late mother’s landlord – before his cousin’s death.  Beekman and Cruger had supplied his mother with provisions for her shop before her untimely death.[10]

The company ends the song singing about Hamilton arriving in New York – “the ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him,” Burr raps.  But Hamilton actually sailed into Boston.  He did go directly to New York after disembarking, but he did not stay there long; he wound up at Elizabethtown Academy in New Jersey.[11]

 

In the next part, we’ll meet Aaron Burr in the second song of the musical, “Aaron Burr, Sir.”

Read Part 2

[1] I will link to any of the sources that are available, but will not cite them otherwise.
[2] Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.  Pages 11-12.
[3] Ibid., 20.
[4] Ibid., 21.
[5] Ibid., 31.
[6] Ibid., 32.
[7] Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister and local newspaper editor at St. Croix, passed the letter on to the larger paper where Hamilton’s words were more widely read.
[8] Chernow, 38.  Thomas Stevens was his guardian at this point, and his cousin was Ann Lytton Venton.  Chernow says these were “probably” his “chief donors.”
[9] Ibid., 26.
[10] Ibid., 27.
[11] Ibid., 41-42.

 

Image credit: Alexander Hamilton, painted by John Trumbull. National Portrait Gallery

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s