After over a year of the book sitting on my shelf, I’ve finally started reading the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton. As I make my way through the book, I plan on stopping every now and then and sharing my thoughts about the man that might have become my second favorite person from American history (after Abraham Lincoln, obviously). This appreciation stems from the wonderful musical Hamilton, though I think that may have just reminded me of the things I previously knew about Hamilton from being a fan of history.
I think most casual fans of history pre-Hamilton musical remember him from mainly from his untimely death from a duel with Aaron Burr, as made famous in that one “Got Milk?” commercial:
But he was also a war hero, Founding Father, our first Secretary of the Treasury, helped establish the financial system of our country, and a lot of other things. He overcame huge odds to get to where he ended up in his life, which is why his life story served as a great inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda, despite being virtually ignored outside of discussions about the founding of our country.
The first two chapters of the Chernow biography cover Hamilton’s life in the Caribbean before he made his way to the American Colonies as a teenager. He was born to a women that was estranged from her husband, a man that sent her to jail due to some weird laws in place that allowed him to do so. Once she got out of prison, she moved to another island, considered herself divorced from her husband, and started living – and starting a family – with James Hamilton, a man that came from some fancy Scottish family of some kind.
James Hamilton, who was constantly seeking success in the Caribbean in various “business” trades of the time, eventually up and left his family, leaving young Alexander with his mother Rachel and older brother James. His mother eventually set up a store, selling wares to the various people of the islands. She found a small level of success, or at least enough that she and her children didn’t starve, but her past precluded her from re-entering the heights of society in which she was raised after her pseudo-divorce from her husband.
Alexander’s life on the islands was defined by a couple of tragic events, the first of which was the death of his mother not long after his father had left. Shortly before his 13th birthday, his mother took ill with fever and never recovered, a fever that almost claimed the life of Alexander as well. But the death of her mother also brought his mother’s husband into his life, seeking claim of her inheritance for himself and Rachel’s abandoned son. Since Alexander and his brother were illegitimate children, the court disinherited them, leaving Alexander and James alone with barely enough to survive. A cousin took the boys in, but he died from suicide not long after leaving Alexander and James alone again in the world. As Chernow himself states:
“Let us pause briefly to tally the grim catalog of disasters that had befallen these two boys between 1765 and 1769: their father had vanished, their mother had died, their cousin and supposed protector had committed bloody suicide, and their aunt, uncle, and grandmother had all died.”
Alexander, at the age of fourteen living on a hardscrabble Caribbean island, probably should have been lost to history. The fact that he was not says something about his character and his ability to overcome tragedy. Alexander would soon separate from his brother and end up working as a clerk for the men that had supplied his mother’s store. He showed a great aptitude for everything required of being a merchant, and probably would have found continued success in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the next tragic event charted a different course.
There was a massive hurricane that blew through St. Croix in the fall of 1772 when Alexander was 17. Prior to that, Alexander had met a preacher named Hugh Knox. Knox provided Hamilton with books to read, but also encouraged his writing through his role as part-time editor of a local newspaper. Knox would publish the poems and other writings of Hamilton but it was the publication of a letter the hurricane that led the other residents of the island to fund Hamilton’s trip to the Colonies. People realized that Hamilton had the promise for something much larger than the small island of St. Croix, though I doubt anyone expected him to move to what would soon be America and become as great as he did.
Alexander Hamilton set off for America having known small successes but many more tragedies in his life. He was an illegitimate orphan with the name of a man who had abandoned him seven years prior, with nothing more than enough money to book passage and a burning desire to become something more. For fans of the musical, this is where it all starts, but as I continue to read the book, I hope to find stuff beyond the musical. Hope you’ll come along for the ride!
Until next time…