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HAMILTON: The Archive

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Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton

In the musical Hamilton, which opened last night on Broadway, George Washington tells Alexander Hamilton, “You have no control...who tells your story.” At the New York Public Library, we preserve the artifacts that allow such stories to be told, and we have an especially strong collection of archives related to the women and men whose lives inspired the characters in the musical. In recent months, we have been engaged in a focused effort to digitize many of these archives, making it possible to tell Hamilton’s story not on ink and paper but on screens and pixels. Since tickets to Hamilton are about as rare as Gutenberg Bibles, I thought it might be fun to summarize the story here using NYPL’s digitized collections. Two quick caveats though: 1) There are spoilers aplenty here (but then, the primary plot points are nearly 250 years old and so have surely passed the spoiler statute of limitations), and 2) This summary is based on my memories of the show at the Public and in an early Broadway preview. I know there have been some changes, but the song list in PlaybillVault suggests the summary is still mostly accurate.

Act One

Aaron Burr meets Hamilton and introduces him to friends, John Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Herclues Mulligan (not pictured):

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr
John Laurens
John Laurens
Lafayette
Marquis de Lafayette
The audience is then introduced to the Schuyler sisters, the daughters of the wealthy General Philip Schuyler.
Eliza Schuyler
Elizabeth Schuyler
Philip Schuyler
Philip Schuyler
The sisters, we are told, sneak into the city to the watch the "minds at work." In this case, the minds on display are Hamilton and the Episcopalian Bishop Samuel Seabury, who are debating whether revolution against England is the right course for the colonies. Seabury supports peaceful relations with England; Hamilton argues for revolution. In reality, these debates took place in a series of open letters with titles like "Farmer's Letter" and "The Farmer Refuted" (the latter of which serves as the title of the scene in the Playbill).
Samuel Seabury
Samuel Seabury.
The debate is interrupted by a "message from the King," George III, who tells the colonies they will regret "breaking up" with him.
King George III
King George III

We are then introduced to General George Washington, who fights alongside Hamilton at the Battle of Trenton.

Washington and Hamilton meet
Hamilton and Washington meet at Trenton

Washington asks Hamilton to be his secretary, but Hamilton initially refuses, longing for the glory of the battlefield rather than a desk job. Washington tells Hamilton he was once impulsive like Hamilton. In a line at the Public Theatre (now rewritten), Washington mentioned that his impulsivity started the French and Indian War. NYPL preserves Washington's diary from that period of his life.

George Washington notebook as a Virginia colonel, 1757
George Washington notebook as a Virginia colonel, 1757

Hamilton eventually accepts Washingtons offer, and becomes his "right hand man," often writing letters on behalf of the General. NYPL has preserved some of these letters:

Letter to Gen. [Henry] Knox
Letter to Gen. [Henry] Knox 1779

This musical then moves to a ball where the Schuyler sisters and Hamilton are present. It is not clear where this ball is meant to take place, but it may be at the Schuyler mansion in Albany and where Hamilton eventually married Eliza.

Schuyler Mansion
Schuyler Mansion.

The Schuylers also had land in Saratoga. During the war, Mrs. Schuyler burnt the crops on this land in order to prevent the British from using them.

Mrs. Schuyler firing her corn fields on the approach of the British.
Mrs. Schuyler firing her corn fields on the approach of the British.

The scene then shifts to the battlefield. The war is not going well. Washington has appointed Charles Lee to lead the troops at the Battle of Monmouth, but Lee ordered a retreat contrary to Washington's directions.

Washington and Lee at Monmouth
Washington and Lee at Monmouth

Washington places Lafayette in charge in Lee's place. Lee is court-martialed and campaigns against Washington's leadership. In response, Hamilton's friend John Laurens challenges Lee to a duel. Lee is injured but survives. Washington places Lafayette in charge, and eventually, Hamilton is also given command of a battalion of troops. Together they surround and defeat the British at Yorktown, Virginia.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown, Va. Oct. 19th 1781.
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown, Va. Oct. 19th 1781.

After the war, Aaron Burr marries Theodosia Prevost, the widow of a British officer who fought against the Americans in Georgia and the West Indies. They have a daughter (also named Theodosia, pictured below).

Theodosia
Theodosia Burr

Meanwhile, Hamilton is elected to the Constitutional convention. He drafts a version of the Constitution which NYPL has preserved in our archives.

Alexander Hamilton plan of a constitution for America
Alexander Hamilton plan of a constitution for America

He also writes the majority of the Federalist Papers—essays explaining the Constitution to the citizens of the new nation.

The federalist; a collection of essays, written in favour of the new constitution
The federalist; a collection of essays, written in favour of the new constitution

Act Two

Hamilton is appointed Secretary of Treasury in Washington's new cabinet. Thomas Jefferson returns from France, becomes Secretary of State, and teams up with James Madison to oppose Hamilton's centralization of federal power.

Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Madison

Jefferson and Hamilton fight over state debts, alliances with France, and just about everything else during their time in the cabinet. Jefferson kept an account book of expenses during this period, which is now preserved at NYPL.

Thomas Jefferson account book, 1791-1803
Thomas Jefferson account book, 1791-1803

Eventually Jefferson resigns his position in protest, and announces his intention to run for president after Washington's second term. In the musical, Washington tells Hamilton that Jefferson will be running against someone else, because he plans to retire. Hamilton helps Washington draft his farewell address, a manuscript of which is preserved at NYPL.

Farewell Address as President to the citizens of the United States.
Farewell Address as President to the citizens of the United States.

John Adams is elected the second president. Hamilton opposes him in the press. In this letter, Jefferson congratulates Adams on his win, but warns him of "the subtlety of your arch-friend of New York" (Hamilton):

Letter from Jefferson to Adams, 1796
Letter from Jefferson to Adams, 1796.

Hamilton is successful in opposing Adams, but his own political career is destroyed when, in an effort to clear his name from a charge of financial impropriety, he publishes a pamphlet confessing his adultery with a woman named Maria Reynolds whose husband blackmailed Hamilton and was the receipient of the money Hamilton was secretly paying out. Hamilton's son, Philip, attempts to defend his father's honor and is killed in a duel. The Hamiltons move "uptown" to "the Grange," where, as Hamilton says in the musical, it is "quiet."

The Grange, Kingsbridge Road, The Residence Of Alexander Hamilton.
The Grange, Kingsbridge Road, The Residence Of Alexander Hamilton.

Although not competitive in the election of 1800, Hamilton's support of Jefferson cost Aaron Burr the presidency. Burr and Hamilton spar over this and other issues in the press, eventually leading to Burr challenging Hamilton to a duel. Before heading to New Jersey, Hamilton writes a letter to his wife in which he calls her "best of wives and best of women."

Letter to Eliza.
Letter to Eliza.

Hamilton and Burr meet and duel at Weehaken. Hamilton "throws away his shot" by aiming "his pistol at the sky."

The duel
Duel of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, July 11, 1804, Weehawken, N.J. From Lamb's History of New York.

Hamilton died at the Bayard Mansion in Greenwich Village the next day.

The Bayard Mansion where Hamilton Died.
The Bayard Mansion, where Hamilton died.

Hamilton's wife Eliza lived another 50 years after her husband's death.

Life portraits of Eliza.
Life Portraits of Eliza.

The musical chronicles her legacy which includes raising funds for the Washington monument and establishing an orphanage in Greenwich Village.

Alexander and Eliza also had seven children in addition to the son who died in the duel. In 1904, a photograph of three generations of Hamilton descendents was sent to the Lenox Library (the collections of which became part of the foundation for NYPL):

Three generations of Hamiltons
Three generations of Hamiltons.

These are, of course, only a tiny fraction of the materials related to Alexander Hamilton in the library, and of course, his is only one life whose story is recorded, in fragmentary pieces, in our archives. There are many other stories here, just waiting for someone to tell them. Come visit!

Comments

Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Hamiltonia!

This is so cool, Doug!

Hamilton piece

Wonderful, fascinating piece. Thank you. There are two misplaced apostrophes (possessive missing and a possessive where it's not needed.

Hamilton's Tomb

When I worked in the city, I used to pass Alexander Hamilton's grave in Trinity Churchyard and give him my regards. I believe his remains are no longer interred there. He founded our financial system, and I have great respect for him for that reason.

Thanks

Lots of fun. Thanks.

Hamilton history on Spring Street

A song lyric towards the end of the first act or the beginning of the second (Does anyone know the song title or lyric?) mentions that together Hamilton and Aaron Burr defended the accused in the first recorded murder trial in US history. The defendant, Levi Weeks, was accused of drowning a young woman named Elma Sands in an abandoned well. The Manhattan Well, as it was known, was built by Aaron Burr’s duplicitous Manhattan Water Company. It still exists for all to see in the basement of 129 Spring Street (now COS New York). Many believe Elma’s ghost haunts Spring Street.

Show Stopper

Mr. Reside, Thanks for the inspiring glimpse behind the scenes of the Hamilton story, the new musical, and the NYPL Archives. A brilliant way to feature the highlights of all three. Special thanks for the NYPL's efforts to digitize the collections as these will be an amazing resource for years to come for those wishing to walk the boards of history. Bravo from the Great Northwest!

City of Liars and Thieves

As I read about the archives and the summary of "Hamilton", I thought about your wonderful novel, and your real-life characters, Levi Weeks and Elma Sands -- and, of course, Hamilton and Burr. I'm happy to know that you've already seen this NYPL listing. Thank you, NYPL!

This is really so important!

This is really so important! Thank you so much for your wonderful work.

Wow! Great job thank you!!!

Wow! Great job thank you!!!

Elizabeth Schuyler pic

Minor correction: the pic in the article is not Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, but Elizabeth Hamilton (1757-1816), a British writer. The portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn on which the engraving is based is here: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/object/PG 1486
Dear Doug, Your Hamilton Archive has "blown us all away! " Thank you from your friends at Graham Windham, the name of Eliza Hamilton's Orphanage that still exists today to help give every kid their shot! To learn more click http://elizasstory.org/

Images

Hi Doug, Thank you so much for your great work! Question, I am desperately seeking images of Rev. Hugh Knox, Rachel Fawcett Lavien and Maria Reynolds. Have you or has anybody seen images or a description of them? Or, have any ideas where I might find them. Thanks so much-

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