Meet “Hamilton”: The Man at the New York Public Library

The last song in the Pulitzer-winning Broadway musical Hamilton is titled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”, asking who would remember Alexander Hamilton, the Revolutionary War soldier, American politician and noted ladies’ man.

Right now, who’s telling his story is the New York Public Library.

Until December 31, the main library on 5th Ave has an exhibit called “Alexander Hamilton: Striver. Statesman. Scoundrel.

These were all aspects of a complicated man who crammed a great deal of living in only 47 years.

Hamilton was born illegitimately and brought up in St. Croix by his mother. She passed away when he was twelve. After her death, he became a journalist; supporters soon banded together to send him to the mainland to make his way.

He became a trusted aide to General George Washington during the Revolution, and led a charge at the battle of Yorktown, the battle that effectively ended the war. Afterward Hamilton became a lawyer, started a newspaper (now known as the New York Post), joined the government, creating a national bank and a strong federal financial system among many other things.

What is very clear in the small exhibit, is that the man was complex, brilliant, hard-working, arrogant, touchy, and a consummate politician. Hamilton was unafraid of taking on his fellow Founding Fathers if they disagreed with him.

He’d known such men as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and Aaron Burr for decades. He had also managed to annoy most of them along the way.

Hamilton was no respecter of political “turf” and had running battles with Jefferson. When as Secretary of State, Jefferson wanted the U.S. to support the French in their Revolution, Hamilton opposed him – and won. The U.S. remained neutral.

Jefferson may have been Hamilton’s enemy but in the bubbling political soup of the decades after the Revolution, Hamilton ended up supporting him for President over Burr.

A prolific writer, Hamilton wrote 51 of 85 essays supporting the ratification of the new Constitution (now known as the Federalist Papers). The exhibit displays one of the original essays titled “Plan of a Constitution for America, 1787.”

Probably his most long-lasting legacy, other than his face on the $10 bill, was setting up the new country’s Department of the Treasury. On display is a book open to “Reports of Alexander Hamilton, Esq, Secretary of the Treasury… Containing A Plan for the Further Support of Public Credit 1795.”

It’s Hamilton who Washington tasks to write his Farewell Address to the Presidency in 1796. Hamilton’s draft is on display beside Washington’s actual address, (complete with Washington’s hand-written changes.)

Hamilton married Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler in 1780, from the prominent New York family, and they had eight children. Unfortunately he couldn’t keep it in his pants and ended up having an extended extra-marital liaison with a Martha Reynolds.

That affair, in 1797, led his enemies to accuse of Hamilton speculating in government funds. Hamilton’s response? He published a pamphlet, know as “Observations on Certain Documents” explaining his infidelity and that he was being blackmailed by her husband, James. It’s on display under “Scoundrel.”

The saddest part of the exhibit deals with dueling. At the time a meeting at dawn with drawn pistols was too often a way of settling arguments over alleged insults.

Hamilton’s oldest son, Philip, died in a duel in 1801. His obituary (which the Library suggests was written by his father) in the New-York Evening Post says, “Reflections on this horrid custom must occur to every man of humanity; but the voice of an individual or of the press must be ineffectual without additional strong and pointed legislative interference.”

Three years later, Alexander Hamilton would die in a duel…with Aaron Burr.

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