History Crush: Alexander Hamilton
Today’s “History Crush” comes from Jessica Kratz, an archives specialist with the Center for Legislative Archives. She’s been carrying a torch for one of our record-makers for quite some time!
Most of my colleagues are all too aware that Alexander Hamilton is my history crush. Maybe the gigantic replica $10 bill hanging in my office gives it away?
I’ve been fascinated by Hamilton for as long as I’ve studied American history. In school, most of my teachers touted the importance of founders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, but after reading the Federalist Papers, I became hooked on Alexander Hamilton. An orphan from the British West Indies who traveled alone to America as a teenager, Hamilton rose from his humble beginnings to become one of the most important men in our nation’s history.
I often wondered why Jefferson was so beloved while Hamilton, clearly brilliant with remarkable foresight, was so underappreciated. Were his negatives—he was born out of wedlock, philandered, promoted the benefits of child labor, and lost a duel—overshadowing his many accomplishments? Hamilton served in the Continental Army, Continental Congress, and Constitutional Convention; was the first Secretary of Treasury; and established the first National Bank, the U.S. Mint, and the Coast Guard.
Even Hamilton’s contemporaries scorned him—John Adams, for instance, called him “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” But Hamilton’s ability to frustrate his detractors just made him more appealing to me.
Working with the records of Congress at the National Archives allows me to see firsthand evidence of Hamilton’s life and work. I don’t mean to sound too sentimental, but there is something exhilarating about holding the same pieces of paper he held; even his tediously detailed reports to Congress on manufacturing or letters to Congress with statements on “imports, exports and tonnage.”
Even more fascinating than the official reports and studies, however, are the records that shed light on the personal side of Hamilton. The handwritten statement he composed days before he died is one example, but I find another set of documents from long after Hamilton’s death even more revealing and touching.
Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth, lived for 50 years after his death, and from all evidence she pined for him the entire time. In 1846, 44 years after Hamilton died, Elizabeth wrote to Congress for assistance in funding the publication of his writings—papers that covered the Revolution, formation and adoption of the Constitution, and the administration of George Washington. She argued that publishing the papers and preserving them in a public archives would demonstrate to the American people how necessary Alexander Hamilton was to our nation.
While the letter is moving, Congress’s report on the subject is, surprisingly, even more poignant. The report, which also reprints the letter, recognizes Elizabeth’s love for Alexander: “at such an advanced age, still cherishing an ardent attachment for the husband of her youth, wishes, before she too passes away, to see the reasons upon which his public actions were founded spread before the American people.” I tear up every time I read this description of Elizabeth’s continued devotion to her husband.
The report also acknowledges the critical role Hamilton played in our nation’s history. Now that “the age has gone by in which he lived and acted,” Congress could take a nonpartisan look at his accomplishments. The report concluded that he was “the thinker to whom the Revolution gave birth.”
That’s why I find Alexander Hamilton so intriguing—he was a thinker, and many of his ideas were extraordinary. I believe the country would not have succeeded without him. Congress subsequently passed legislation to publish, distribute, and archive the papers (sadly for me the papers are at the Library of Congress; not the National Archives). But through the documents he, and others, left behind, we can better understand Hamilton’s legacy and truly realize what an extraordinary person he was.
Posted by Hilary on February 22, 2012, under History Crush, Letters in the National Archives, petitions.
Tags: Alexander Hamilton, British West Indies, Coast Guard., constitutional convention, Continental Army, Continental Congress, Elizabeth Hamilton, Federalist Papers, James Madison, National Bank, orphan, Secretary of Treasury, Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Mint