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History Crush: Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull (after painting by Giuseppe Ceracchi, 1801); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Henry Cabot Lodge

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.”

Elizabeth Hamilton, 1781; ARC Identifier 532936 / Local Identifier 148-GW-933; Records of Legislative Commissions, Record Group 148; National Archives, College Park MD.

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.

Petition of Elizabeth Hamilton asking Congress to publish Alexander Hamilton’s writings, 1846; 29th Congress; Records of the Joint Committee on the Library; Record Group 128; National Archives, Washington, DC (pages 2-3)

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.

Report of the Committee of the Library on Elizabeth Hamilton’s petition, April 20, 1846, 29th Congress; Records of the Joint Committee on the Library; Record Group 128; National Archives, Washington, DC (pages 2-3)

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Comments

Comment from Kathleen Williams
Time February 22, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Hi Jessica. I have good news for you. The NHPRC, the grant making arm of NARA, supported the publication of the Papers of Alexander Hamilton. The project produced 27 volumes and finished in 1987. But there is more! The NHPRC is currently funding a massive project to put the papers of six Founding Fathers online as a free resource, including all of the Hamilton documents. The “Founders Online” is being put together now with the first publicly available release scheduled for June 2012. Founders Online will be a direct link from the NARA main page. Be assured that the contents of all of the Hamilton volumes will be there for everyone to use. Keep watching the NHPRC website and NARA news releases for the exact release date.

Comment from jim ott
Time February 22, 2012 at 5:01 pm

He was indeed a great man.,

Comment from jim hayes
Time February 22, 2012 at 5:10 pm

You are not alone in your crush. In 1923, Andrew Mellon (and others) had the statue by James Earle Fraser dedicated at the Treasury Building. Surely, the Chernow biography has elevated him.

Comment from Stephanie
Time February 22, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Very touching indeed! What incredible devotion. Also – I always thought Ben Franklin started the Mint. Thank you for this enlightening post on one of our clearly under-lauded Forefathers.

Comment from Brysacz
Time February 22, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Thanks for sharing – that was a really cool read – AH definitely deserves more kudos!

Comment from Alice
Time February 22, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Thank goodness for “old women” that pine for the husbands and children of their youth.

Comment from Gayle Boesky
Time February 23, 2012 at 10:18 am

I, too, find Alexander Hamilton to be, with Washington, the foremost of the Founders. The fact that this “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” set up the financial system of the nation speaks volumes.Even though we revere our Founders, they could be officious snobs. One of the reasons I don’t like Jefferson is because of his rivalry with Hamilton. Jefferson would be perfectly comfortable in today’s political environment. He could self-promote with the worst of them.

Comment from Rod Ross
Time February 24, 2012 at 11:13 am

Alexander Hamilton, you say? Oddly, I was thinking about his Report on Manufacturing recently. I had been priviledged to be part of one of the Smithsonian’s 4th Thursday of each month back-in-the stacks tours of their lace holdings and was taken with the notion that if one ever wanted to arrange a joint Library of Congress, Smithsonian and National Archives joint endeavor, an exhibit showing the Center’s report from Hamilton (which included mention of the Ipswich lace industry), examples of Ipswich lace from a collection in the Manuscripts Division at LC, and a volunteer with the Smithsonian demonstrating how Ipswich lace is made, could prove interesting.

Comment from Pam Eisenberg
Time February 24, 2012 at 8:18 pm

On Valentine’s Day we held our 2nd series of Hamilton-Jefferson Debates here at the Nixon Presidential Library’s East room, in Yorba Linda, CA. About 2,000+ Eight graders discovered Hamilton, and re-discovered Jefferson. ‘H’ was indeed a man of experience, beyond what many of the founding fathers had lived – sharp as a tack, with deep integrity and honor. I think many of his peers were deeply jealous, and some haughtily mistrusting due to complex social class knee jerk attitudes. Not uncommon in our own lives. The actors portraying AH (Ian Rose) & TJ (Steven Edenbo) are absolutely riveting. They arrive in character and leave in character. I forwarded your article to Ian, (Alexander H). It will surely be read with great interest.
http://www.meetalexanderhamilton.com/Alexander_Hamilton/Home.html

Comment from Marcy Goldstein
Time February 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Thank you for the acknowledgement of Hamilton’s achievements. He was perhaps the most intelligent of all the founding fathers. While working in Manhattan I passed by his grave at Trinity Church every day and often stopped there to let him know many citizens still admire and have a crush on him.

Comment from Alexis
Time March 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm

The duel between him and Aaron Burr was something that interested me when I took an American Presidency class in high school. Wonder if we have any records on that….

Comment from Nicole Scholet
Time June 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Thank you so much for your article! It’s great to know there are people who cherish and advocate for Alexander Hamilton. I am a Chapter President for The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society (http://the-aha-society.com) and we are doing the same! Thanks for including pictures of the original documents too…I can only imagine how special it must be to actually hold them. This July at our First Annual Alexander Hamilton Event, Trinity Church is opening its archives to us to view the original Hamilton children birth certificates and legal work Hamilton did on behalf of the church, so I hope to have a similar experience!