Hamilton: From Caribbean orphan to U.S. fame

hammWhile fans of Broadway shows are talking about the hip-hop musical Hamilton which won 11 awards from its 16 nominations at Sunday’s Tony Awards, many may not know about Alexander Hamilton’s connection to the Caribbean.

The musical, which tells the story of the ill-fated Hamilton with a deft musical melding of hip-hop and rap, R&B, ballads and traditional Broadway showstoppers, also won for featured actress and actor and several technical awards.

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant, became mesmerised with the story of Hamilton after reading his biography written by American writer, journalist, historian, and biographer Ron Chernow.

Born out of wedlock, raised in poverty in St. Croix, Nevis, a small Caribbean island, Hamilton was abandoned by his Scottish father James A. Hamilton and orphaned by his mother Rachel Faucette who was of mixed British and French descent, when he was 13.

Hamilton was adopted by wealthy Nevis merchant Thomas Stevens and in 1772 migrated to Elizabethtown, New Jersey to attend grammar school. The next year, he went to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City.

While in New York, Hamilton transformed himself from an adolescent to someone to reckon with, holding a number of high offices and making a name for himself.

Hamilton had that fighting spirit and at the start of the war in 1775, he joined a militia company. In early 1776, he raised a provincial artillery company, to which he was appointed captain.

He soon became the senior aide to General George Washington, the American forces’ commander-in-chief.

After the war, Hamilton was elected to the Congress of the Confederation from New York. He resigned, to practice law and then founded the Bank of New York. He later became America’s first treasury secretary.

Hamilton became the leading cabinet member in the new President Washington government. As a nationalist, he emphasized strong central government and successfully argued the implied powers of the Constitution provided legal authority to fund the national debt, assume states’ debts, and create the government-backed Bank of the United States.

These programs were funded primarily by a tariff on imports and later also by a highly controversial tax on whiskey. Facing well-organized opposition from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who later became the fourth president of the U.S., Hamilton mobilized a nationwide network of friends of the government, especially bankers and businessmen.  It became the Federalist Party.

A major issue splitting the parties was the Jay Treaty, largely designed by Hamilton in 1794. It established friendly economic relations with Britain to the chagrin of France and supporters of the French. He led the Federalist Party, which dominated national and state politics until it lost the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans.

He never again held office and before reaching age 50 he was dead, killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, a friend who was the third U.S. vice-president, after a personal dispute escalated beyond remediation.

Hamilton the musical with a number of Black actors and actresses has been seen by U.S. presidents and influential people in America. Miranda saw Hamilton’s relentlessness, brilliance, linguistic dexterity and self-destructive stubbornness through his own idiosyncratic lens.

It was, he thought, a hip-hop story, an immigrant’s story.

He said Hamilton reminded him of his father Luis A. Miranda, Jr., who, as an ambitious youth in provincial Puerto Rico, graduated from college before turning 18, then moved to New York to pursue graduate studies at N.Y.U.

Hamilton also reminded Miranda of Tupac Shakur, the West Coast rapper who was shot to death in 1996. Shakur wrote intricate, socially nuanced lyrics: Miranda particularly admired Brenda’s Got a Baby, a verse narrative about a 12-year-old girl who turns to prostitution after giving birth to her molester’s child.

Shakur was also extremely undiplomatic, publicly calling out rappers he hated. Miranda recognized a similar rhetorical talent in Hamilton, and a similar, fatal failure to know when enough was enough.