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A complete guide to American history before seeing 'Hamilton'

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

When Lin-Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers, he saw a bit of himself in this “young, scrappy, and hungry” leader. Both came from island nations — for Hamilton, it was the West Indies, and Miranda’s family, it was Puerto Rico — and both found their strength and inspiration in writing.

Miranda also believed, as he announced at the White House when he performed from the show for the first time, that Hamilton embodied hip-hop. His translation of American history, telling the story of America then told by America now, has taken the world by storm.

Although the story is universal, there are many references to American history throughout the show that you might not have learned in school. While you don’t need to be a U.S. history buff to love the show, here are some fun facts about American history and Alexander Hamilton.

Find out more about Hamilton in London.

Hamilton was an immigrant

Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies, and he moved to the United States after his mother died in search of opportunity. Hamilton proves that the United States is a country of immigrants. Immigrants, we get the job done!

Hamilton wanted to go to battle

When the Revolutionary War started, Hamilton served as an aide to George Washington, who was then the commander of the Continental Army before serving as the United States’ first President. But all Hamilton wanted was to be on the battlefield serving his country instead of writing correspondences from the war. Ultimately Hamilton joined the fight and helped win the war, but he wasn’t initially a soldier.

Hamilton was in the media

The Founding Father was always writing like he was running out of time, whether they be financial plans, letters, or government documents. He also was the founder of The New York Post, America’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper. He launched the publication as the New York Evening Post in 1801.

Hamilton wrote documents supporting the U.S. Constitution

While James Madison is the father of the U.S. Constitution and Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, Hamilton collaborated on the Federalist Papers, a series of documents defending the Constitution, America’s governing document. Even though he’s not considered one of the Constitution’s main authors, his work was crucial to creating the work, which is the foundation of U.S. law-making and policy even today.

Hamilton was a member of the Federalist Party

Today, the United States has two major parties: the Republican Party and the Democratic party. During the post-Revolutionary period of the United States, the two major parties were the Democratic-Republicans (confusing, we know) and the Federalists.

The Federalists (like Hamilton and John Adams) believed in a strong, centralized government and tended to be from bigger manufacturing cities whereas the Democratic-Republicans (like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) prioritized states’ rights and were likely to be from agricultural states.

Hamilton was never President

While many of the founding fathers — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison — went on to become the leader of the U.S., Hamilton served a different role in the founding of the country: developing the Department of the Treasury and the United States financial system, much of which is still in use today.

Hamilton is on the U.S. $10 bill.

If you’ve already been singing along to the Hamilton cast recording, you’ve probably heard about the “10-dollar Founding Father.” That’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s moniker for Hamilton, as he appears on the U.S. $10 bill.

As an ode to the financial foundations he set, Hamilton is one of the few individuals who appears on American currency. (Abraham Lincoln is on the penny and the five-dollar bill. George Washington is on the one-dollar bill and the quarter.)

Most of the people on American currency are men, with Sacagawea appearing on the silver dollar. There is currently a bill in congress to get Harriet Tubman, the leader of the Underground Railroad which helped end slavery, on the $20 bill, replacing former president Andrew Jackson.

Hamilton’s tax system was divisive

The American Revolution freed the U.S. from British rule, and one thing the founding fathers hated about the British was taxation. (They dumped loads of tea in Boston because they didn’t want to pay taxes.)

So when Hamilton proposed new tax laws so that the government would have money for their budget, many leaders were not a fan. Some of those Congressional arguments between Hamilton and Jefferson have been transformed into rap battles onstage in Hamilton.

Hamilton lived in New York

While the capital of the United States is in Washington D.C., it originally started out in New York City, where Hamilton lived and died. There was a compromise (cue “The Room Where It Happens”) where Jefferson and Madison traded to move the capitol to their native Virginia in exchange for supporting Hamilton’s financial plan. However, Hamilton kept the financial seat in New York.

The duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr was in New Jersey

Weehawken, to be exact. Aaron Burr was a contemporary of Hamilton, who later became a U.S. Senator and Vice President. He challenged Hamilton to a duel when Hamilton didn’t endorse Burr in his run for office. The dueling grounds where Aaron Burr fired the deadly shot are “across the river in New Jersey.” There’s still a plaque there today to mark the spot.

Photo credit: Hamilton (Photo by Danny Kaan)

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