Hamilton historical facts that didn't make the musical
Alexander Hamilton died more than 200 years ago, but thanks to the smash success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton musical, the first U.S. treasury secretary is once again a household name. The show’s creator and star has said he was inspired to write Hamilton after reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of the Founding Father, and Chernow even serves as a historical consultant on the production. Miranda’s rap-influenced lyrical style allows him to jam pack the musical with loads of information, but inevitably some details still get left out. Here are 10 facts, for the man on the $10 bill, from Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton that didn’t make it into Miranda’s Hamilton.
1. Hamilton may have had a different father
One of the first lyrics in Hamilton refers to its eponymous protagonist as “the $10 Founding Father without a father.” This refers to the fact that James Hamilton abandoned his family in St. Croix to seek his fortune elsewhere. Later, after his mother’s death, the young Alexander Hamilton was taken in by a man named Thomas Stevens, while his brother James was apprenticed to a carpenter. Hamilton developed a close friendship with Stevens’ son Edward, and the two looked so similar they were often mistaken for brothers. Chernow goes so far as to speculate that they really were brothers.
“This parentage would explain why Hamilton formed an infinitely more enduring bond with Edward Stevens than with his own brother,” Chernow writes. “It might explain why James Hamilton, Sr. left his family behind, assumed no further responsibility for them, and took no evident delight in Alexander’s later career.”
Somehow, though, the hit Broadway musical Stevens doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
When Hamilton celebrates New York as “the greatest city in the world,” it’s not quite historically accurate (it took the Big Apple a while to pass Boston and Philadelphia as America’s cultural capital), but then again, it’s being told from Hamilton’s point of view. Even as an orphan immigrant, Hamilton found a home in New York. It shaped him politically, and his later treasury policies greatly aided the city’s merchant class. When the new U.S. Constitution was officially ratified, thanks in large part to Hamilton’s efforts, New York merchants threw a parade in his honor. “So exuberant was the lionization of Alexander Hamilton that admirers wanted to rechristen the city ‘Hamiltoniana,’” Chernow writes. Later, Hamilton’s enemies also derided the city as “Hamiltonopolis.”
Underneath these silly city names, the connection between Hamilton and New York was real. After a young adulthood full of globe-trotting and fighting in the Continental Army, Hamilton finally found a home in New York. Later, his economic& policies and political maneuvering did much to help NYC eventually become “the greatest city in the world.” Chernow has a particularly beautiful description of Hamilton looking back at New York as he rode up the river to his duel with Aaron Burr:
“At one point, Hamilton glanced back at the raucous, lively city that had given this outcast of the West Indies a home. During the past decade, New York’s population had doubled to 80,000, and the vacant downtown lots had disappeared. The sight of the growing city apparently touched something in Hamilton, for he pointed out the beauties of the scenery and spoke of the future greatness of the city.”
3. “Laurens, I like you a lot”
In Hamilton, John Laurens is portrayed as the protagonist’s best friend and the best man at his wedding. To further emphasize their familial connection, Laurens is played by the same actor as Hamilton’s son Philip. The two may have been even closer than friends, however. Chernow excerpts a letter Hamilton wrote to Laurens in 1779, sayin “I wish, my dear Laurens, it might be in my power by action rather than words to convince you that I love you.”
Noting that “sodomy” was a capital offense in all 13 colonies, Chernow refrains from suggesting that Laurens and Hamilton were ever physically intimate, instead noting that “Hamilton developed something like an adolescent crush on his friend,” and that their relationship was “the most intimate friendship of his life.”
Unfortunately, Laurens was shot down by a British soldier near Charleston in 1782. Chernow notes that this not only deprived Hamilton of a lifelong ally who may have helped him in his later struggles with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams, it also affected him psychologically. “After the death of John Laurens, Hamilton shut off some compartment of his emotions and never reopened it,” Chernow writes.
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4. Hamilton and Madison
Hamilton’s relationship with James Madison in the musical is an adversarial one — the author of the Bill of Rights mostly serves as a hype man and partner-in-crime to Hamilton’s arch-nemesis, Thomas Jefferson. In real life, while Madison did eventually prove a frustrating opponent for Hamilton, the two began as friends and collaborators, united over their vision for a strong central government. The two collaborated on The Federalist (also known as The Federalist Papers), the primary analysis and defense of the U.S. Constitution. Their views at the time overlapped so much that scholars have long debated which author wrote certain unsigned essays.
Once the new government they fought so hard for was up and running, Hamilton and Madison found themselves on opposite sides of the country’s primary political debate. Madison sided with Jefferson in favor of small farmers and the slaveholding South they represented, and feared Hamilton’s outsize powers as treasury secretary were corrupting him into an autocrat. Their once-strong partnership devolved into bitter enmity.
5. “And Peggy”
The third Schuyler sister, Peggy, is mostly a joke in Hamilton. Her cry of “…and Peggy!” has become a bit of an Internet meme. But Hamilton also has a line about how “Peggy confides in me,” and Chernow’s book tells a touching story behind that. In 1801, after Thomas Jefferson had been elected president and Hamilton was starting to fade from public life, Peggy Schuyler grew very sick. Peggy was married to Stephen Van Rensselaer, the lieutenant governor of New York, and was thus posted up in Albany. Hamilton’s legal business happened to place him in Albany just as her condition worsened. As Chernow writes, “Hamilton visited her bedside often and kept Eliza posted on developments. When Hamilton finished his court work, Peggy asked him to stay for a few days, and he complied with her wishes. In mid-March, Hamilton had to send Eliza a somber note: ‘On Saturday, my dear Eliza, your sister took leave of her sufferings and friends, I trust, to find repose and happiness in a better country.”
As a result of this, Hamilton threw his energy into supporting Van Rensselaer’s campaign for New York governor. This put him at odds with Aaron Burr, who supported Republican candidate George Clinton, and helped escalate their political feud that would result in the fatal duel three years later.
6. Hamilton’s health problems
As the musical makes clear, Alexander Hamilton was indeed “non-stop.” He was constantly processing information and churning out articles and theses that formed the very structure of American government. However, his body didn’t always keep pace with his mind. When he was a boy in the Caribbean, he and his mother got deathly ill at the same time; though Hamilton survived, he struggled with physical health problems for the rest of his life. He had both a constant kidney ailment and a tropical malarial infection that recurred every summer. His illnesses sometimes caught up with him during the Revolution, causing him to miss George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware. After the war ended, Hamilton spent two months recovering in bed.
Later in life, Hamilton fell ill as part of a yellow fever epidemic, but was saved by the medical attentions of Edward Stevens, his boyhood friend and possible half-brother.
One of Hamilton’s standout numbers is “Satisfied,” Angelica Schuyler’s powerful reflection on her decision to give up her chance at marrying the protagonist. This is a slightly fictional invention of the play, because Angelica was already married to British businessman John Barker Church by the time she met Alexander Hamilton. She and Hamilton did maintain a flirtatious friendship, though, and Chernow notes that “Hamilton’s married life was sometimes a curious ménage-a-trois with two sisters who were only a year apart.” Hamilton wasn’t the only politician charmed by Angelica, either. Thomas Jefferson’s stint as American ambassador to France brought him in contact with Angelica, who was also staying in Paris with Church. Jefferson shared a flirtation with the married Angelica as well. Though their relationship was never consummated, it did provide Angelica with insight into Jefferson’s personality, which she later passed on to her brother-in-law (possibly including gossip about Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings). Speaking of which…
8. Sally Hemings
When Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds is made public knowledge in the musical, all his enemies gather on stage to gloat that he’s “never gon’ be president now.” But Hamilton wasn’t the only Founding Father to have an affair; his was just the most public. Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, kept all his personal business close to his chest. It took historians decades, if not centuries, to uncover evidence of his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Hamilton may have known much earlier than that. Angelica was friendly with Jefferson in Paris, where the future president is believed to have begun his affair with Hemings, and passed what she knew on to her brother-in-law. This colored Hamilton’s view of Jefferson and, according to Chernow, fueled his later editorials: “when Hamilton later began a campaign to unmask what he saw as the real Jefferson, the closet sensualist, the knowledge of Jefferson’s amorous ways, culled from Church’s stories, may have colored his portrait.” In the early days of the American republic, a lot of politics occurred via gossip and anonymous sniping in the editorial pages of rival newspapers. When Hamilton started hinting a little too heavily at Jefferson’s Hemings affair in Federalist editorials, an anonymous item appeared in one of Jefferson’s papers hinting obliquely at Hamilton’s own affair with Reynolds. Hamilton subsequently withdrew that line of attack, and when another newspaper editor later tried bringing Hemings up again, Hamilton instructed his editors to let it slide.
9. He left his family in debt
Chernow’s book sought to counter some long-standing misconceptions about Alexander Hamilton. One of them, propagated by Jefferson and Madison and their supporters after Hamilton’s early death, was that the treasury secretary was corrupt. Jeffersonians loved to accuse Hamilton of using his inside knowledge of the burgeoning American economy for personal profit. In fact, Hamilton’s salary as treasury secretary was far below what he could’ve made as a full-time lawyer, and his early death prevented him from making it up down the line. He left Eliza and their children in tremendous financial peril, which perhaps should have factored into his decision to escalate the conflict with Burr. Instead, Eliza was forced to petition Congress for the money and land Hamilton was due for his service in the Revolution, since he had previously forfeited it. She wisely waited until Jefferson’s presidency was over.
10. The first school in the Heights
Eliza Hamilton was a very religious woman, and after Alexander’s death she threw herself into evangelical Christian charities, such as the orphanage that gets such a powerful mention in the final song of Hamilton. Another such charity was the Hamilton Free School. Naming it after her husband, Eliza helped found the first school in Washington Heights. In a strange coincidence, that’s where Hamilton maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda hails from. His first Broadway musical, In the Heights, portrayed life in the heavily Hispanic Manhattan neighborhood. Miranda told Grantland that he actually considered using this fact and throwing an In the Heights reference into Hamilton, but ultimately decided against it.