Hamilton at the MHS

Explore Items from the MHS related to Alexander Hamilton

History behind Hamilton

As part of her internship at the MHS during the summer of 2018, Lindsey Woolcock (UMass Amherst, History) explored the history behind Hamilton: An American Musical by looking at the convergence of history, music, and memory. Read Lindsey’s interpretation illustrated with items from the MHS collection. Read

Alexander Hamilton has become a popculture icon in recent years due in a large part to the popularity of the musical based on his life. One of the founding fathers of the United States, Hamilton was a lawyer, political writer, a Revolutionary War officer, member of the Continental Congress, and the first Secretary of the Treasury.  While the bulk of his manuscript papers are held by the Library of Congress, the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) holds interesting items relating to his life including the last letter he wrote before meeting his demise at the infamous duel, a keepsake incorporating locks of his hair presented alongside George Washington's hair, and a miniature portrait on copper. Explore the following selection of materials related to his remarkable life:

The Hurricane

Alexander Hamilton was living in St. Croix and working as a clerk in late August 1772, when the island suffered extreme damage from a hurricane, an event recalled in Act II of the musical. Hamilton penned a letter about that storm that was published in the Royal Danish American Gazette in 1772 and this eventually led to his leaving the island.  The Boston-Gazette and Country Journal for 5 October 1772, includes an article describing the dramatic destruction in St. Kitts caused by the same hurricane.  Read the article online (see the bottom of column 2) including the sentence: Words are too faint to paint the horrors of that day!

In Support of Conflict with Britain  

Alexander Hamilton wrote notable political pamphlets supporting the activities of the First Continental Congress and arguing against the position outlined in essays written by "A. W. Farmer" (the pseudonym used by Samuel Seabury).

Detail view of page from pamphlet by Hamilton, A Full Vindiction A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress ...
Alexander Hamilton
The Farmer Refuted: or, A more impartial and comprehensive View…
Pamphlet by Alexander Hamilton

 

Friends and Rivals during the Revolution

The MHS collection includes manuscripts relating to the Marquis de Lafayette and Aaron Burr, two people Hamilton knew extremely well, and two figures with key roles in Hamilton: An American Musical.

In a letter dated 11 June 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette writes to William Heath of the Continental Army, in command of the Lower Hudson (NY) District. In the letter, Lafayette describes key issues relating to coordinating activities with the French troops including their commander, M. le Comte de Rochambeau, Lieutenant General. 

Letter from Marquis de Lafayette to William Heath, 11 June 1780

The MHS holds a collection comprised of letters comprised of letters from Burr primarily to William Eustis, a physician and politician.  In a letter written on 6 December 1800, Burr includes  notes and comments about the 1800 election.

Letter from Aaron Burr to William Eustis, 6 December 1800

A remarkable artifact, a framed presentation of locks of hair of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, was given by James Hamilton (Alexander's son) to Eliza Hersey, the wife of John A. Andrew, the 25th Governor of Massachusetts. 

Locks of hair of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington
[17--]

The collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society include many letters by George Washington and other U. S. presidents.  See the collection guide, Presidential Letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society, for more information.

The New Nation

During George Washington's presidency, Alexander Hamilton served as Secretary of the Treasury.  He developed a plan to establish the nation's credit on solid footing and also envisioned a plan for a national bank.  His actions were observed by many people who had participated in the Revolution and were following the developments of a new country. Cotton Tufts wrote a letter to Abigail Adams on 23 February 1791 in which he stated his concerns about the Bank Act in 1791: see the transcribed  letter within the Adams Papers digital edition.

Adamses and Hamilton

Although John Adams is mentioned in Hamilton: An American Musical he is not depicted as a character. The musical alludes to the conflicts between Adams and Hamilton during the early years of the Federalist Party, but the musical-goer might not realize that there is more to the story.

There are numerous references to Hamilton within the Adams Family Papers, an enormous and significant collection of correspondence, diaries, letterbooks, and speeches of John and Abigail Adams and many of their descendants. Letters and documents written by both John Adams and Abigail Adams include specific comments about Hamilton, some very critical. Here are a few selections:

Within John Adams's autobiography, in a section about May 1776, Adams's comments about rivalries between officers of the Continental Army segued into comments about political rivalry. Adams shares his thoughts regarding the pamphlet Hamilton wrote in 1800 directly criticizing Adams at a crucial time of his presidency.  Read Adams's words, starting on the second page in the online presentation.

"Here it is proper for me, to obviate some Aspersions in Hamiltons Libell against me, which is not the less malicious for being silly." Detail of John Adams's autobiography mentioning Hamilton
See the document

Abigail Adams was wary of Hamilton. She equates his ambition to that of Julius Caesar in a letter she writes to John on 31 December 1796.

H--n. is a man ambitious as Julius Ceasar. Detail of letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams
See the document

A month later, on 28 January 1797 she refers to Hamilton as  a "cock sparrow" and states "I have read his Heart in his Wicked Eyes many times."  Abigail was critical of Hamilton's infidelity and questioned Hamilton's honor, integrity, and patriotism because he could not refrain from adultery in a letter written on 13 January 1799

Read more writings about Hamilton and the Adamses in a blog post, "He has so damnd himself to everlasting Infamy": Alexander Hamilton and Abigail Adams, by Amanda Norton, Adams Papers.

Hamilton's Last Letter

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Theodore Sedgwick, 10 July 1804

Hamilton wrote this letter to Theodore Sedgwick, a fellow Federalist and a Massachusetts judge, on the morning of 10 July 1804. Hamilton describes his distaste for politics and criticized the talk of New England secession, but doesn't mention his upcoming duel with Aaron Burr, an encounter that would prove fatal.

The Duel

Thomas’s Massachusetts spy, or, The Worcester gazette, 18 July 1804

It took time for news of Hamilton's injury and death to reach Massachusetts.  The 18 July 1804 issue of the Massachusetts Spy, a newspaper published in Worcester, Mass., included a series of small articles on page three conveying the unfortunate news. Beginning at the top of column three with an "Unfortunate Transaction," a short piece from a Newark newspaper published on 12 July about the duel and Hamilton's injury, and ending at the bottom of the column with news from New York dated 17 July about the plans for Hamilton's burial, readers in Massachusetts learned about Hamilton's death.  (It was a common practice for newspapers of this time period to include excerpts of news published in other newspapers.)

Images of Hamilton

The collection of the MHS include these images of Alexander Hamilton:

Alexander Hamilton
Miniature portrait, oil on copper, [18--]
Alexander Hamilton
Engraving by William Hoogland
Alexander Hamilton
Engraving by W. G. Jackman after L. W. Gibbs