Museums and Historic Sites Ride the Hamilton Wave

Enthusiasm for the hit Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton (1775-1804), the first Treasury Secretary of the United States, has inspired new programming and attracted new visitors to museums and historic sites.

By Sharece Blakney

Hamilton (Library of Congress)
Alexander Hamilton. (Library of Congress)

Enthusiasm for the hit Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton (1775-1804), the first Treasury Secretary of the United States, has inspired new programming and attracted new visitors to museums and historic sites in the Mid-Atlantic region dedicated to preserving the history of the Founding Father. Also generated by the 2004 biography by Ron Chernow, the resurgence of interest has breathed new life into study of Hamilton’s role in the creation of the United States.

Alexander Hamilton migrated from the Caribbean at 17 years old, arriving in New York City in 1772 and then making his home in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and attending the Elizabethtown Academy. His ambition and highly touted writing skills both proved vital to his success and the creation of a nation. By the age of 22, Hamilton was serving as an aide to General George Washington (1732-1799), who later described him as a “principal & most confidential aid.” When Washington later became the first President of the United States, he appointed Hamilton as Treasury Secretary. In his new role Hamilton implemented a financial plan that continues to function as the foundation of the American banking system.

Home of Alexander Hamilton from 1802 until his death in 1804. (New York Public Library)
Home of Alexander Hamilton from 1802 until his death in 1804. (New York Public Library)

Despite his many contributions to his country, by the early twenty-first century Hamilton’s legacy had largely been relegated to being the face on the $10 bill. Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton set out to change that. Selling more than one million copies, according to Penguin Press publishing, the book detailed Hamilton’s life and called new attention to related historic sites such as the Hamilton Grange National Memorial in Manhattan. Built in 1802 by architect John McComb Jr. (1763-1853), the Grange became a national memorial in 1962. Operated today by the National Park Service, the historic site offers tours and open houses.

In the same year that Chernow’s biography debuted, the New-York Historical Society unveiled an exhibit, “Alexander Hamilton-The Man Who Made Modern America.” On display were personal items including cabriole armchairs, and a cylinder desk. The exhibit also held iconic documents such as Hamilton’s notes on his speech at the Constitutional Convention and a draft of George Washington’s Farewell Address. The exhibit, curated by Richard Brookhiser, presented the life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton by highlighting his connection to other founding fathers. While the exhibit went on through 2005, the New-York Historical Society offered a traveling exhibit through 2009. Many of the items in the exhibit are still available to view in a virtual tour.

In 2008, Lin Manuel Miranda (b. 1980) read Chernow’s biography, prompting him to write the smash hit hip-hop musical, Hamilton, which opened on Broadway on August 6, 2015, to rave reviews. Miranda (who initially played Alexander Hamilton) begins the show with Hamilton’s arrival to the colonies in New York and ends with his duel against Aaron Burr (1756-1836) in Weehawken, New Jersey. The cast of Hamilton, principally comprised of people of color, is described by Miranda as “the story of America then told by America now.” As the show grew in popularity, with tickets sold out through February 2017, it also inspired exhibits, tours, and other programs linking with the increased public interest in Alexander Hamilton.

The success of the Broadway musical prompted a surge in membership and event attendance for the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, a nonprofit formed in 2011 by people who believed that Hamilton’s contributions to American history were plentiful, yet underappreciated. The society began to take shape in 2008, around the same time that Miranda was reading the Chernow biography. Rand Scholet, a retired IBM consultant, met like-minded history buffs while visiting Hamilton-related historic sites in New York. The core members then established regional chapters across the country dedicated to educating the public about Hamilton.

Annual remembrance ceremonies are held at the grave of Hamilton. Trinity Church, New York, New York.
Annual remembrance ceremonies are held at the grave of Hamilton. Trinity Church, New York, New York. (Library of Congress)

Through educational programs and initiatives, the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society sought to raise awareness of Hamilton and his legacy with annual events at locations relevant to Hamilton such as the Academy of Elizabethtown and Boxwood Hall in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the Great Falls at Paterson, New Jersey. The society marks the anniversaries of Hamilton’s birth and death and holds remembrance ceremonies at Hamilton’s grave at Trinity Church Cemetery in New York. The society also partners with other nonprofit organizations such as the Hamilton Birthplace Museum on Nevis to host events and educational programs. In New Jersey, the “Young Immigrant Hamilton Tour” in Elizabeth, visits sites important to Hamilton’s history immediately arriving in from the Caribbean, not seen in the musical.

According to the society’s Nicole Scholet, “while we had quite an extensive Hamiltonian Network with historical societies and sites related to Hamilton before the debut of the musical, it is wonderful to have had additional groups and institutions take pride in their Hamilton connections and reach out to us to collaborate in the last year.” For example, this year in February the society partnered with Independence National Historical Park to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the chartering of the First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. The festivities included a reenactment of the infamous debate between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over establishing a national bank.

As the Broadway musical Hamilton gained traction, its impact extended to public outcry over a proposal to remove Hamilton from the $10 bill.  In 2015, the Treasury Department had announced that Hamilton would be replaced by a woman, following a campaign by an organization called Women on 20s. When news of the change hit, Alexander Hamilton fans took to social media to voice their displeasure using the hashtag #SaveHamilton. Ultimately, the Treasury ousted Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill instead.

Draft of George Washington's Farewell Address, written by Hamilton. (New York Public Library)
Draft of George Washington’s Farewell Address, written by Hamilton. (New York Public Library)

In the wake of the musical’s success, historic sites and museums made the most of their Hamilton connections. In 2016 the New-York Historical Society offered a “Summer of Hamilton,” with admission set at $10 and an exhibit of artifacts, documents, and life-size bronze statues of Hamilton and Aaron Burr, complete with pistols. The event series offered family-friendly activities that involved a duel reenactment and Hamilton Trivia. Also in Manhattan, the New York Public Library has an exhibit, “Alexander Hamilton: Striver, Statesmen, Scoundrel,” that displays documents revealing the intricacies of Hamilton’s life and politics, including the juxtaposition of his antislavery position and his purchase of slaves.  The exhibit continues through December 31, 2016.  The library also has created an online display using Hamilton documents to form a timeline that mirrors the musical. Curated by Doug Reside, the timeline begins with photos from digital archives of the people Hamilton meets in the beginning of the musical.  Also in New York, upstate, the Fort Ticonderoga Museum featured a display (available through October 30, 2016) of rare finds from Hamilton’s life during the American Revolution.

The hit musical Hamilton covers a portion of history. But the region’s many organizations, museums, and historical sites have filled in the blanks not possible to cover in the two hours and forty-five minutes of the show.

Sharece Blakney is a graduate student in American history at Rutgers-Camden.