With the recent arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” on Broadway, one of Columbia’s most famous alums has become a theater sensation. Betsy Ladyzhets celebrates last week’s release of the soundtrack on iTunes and for free streaming on NPR by taking a look at the Founding Father’s time at Columbia.
In a time before the Internet, telephones, or even the United States of America, Alexander Hamilton first stepped foot onto Columbia’s campus. You might know him as the statue in front of Hamilton Hall, the face on your ten-dollar bills, or that guy who created the national bank, but his legacy is much broader and more important.
Alexander Hamilton immigrated to New York from the British West Indies. At the age of eleven, he started working as a clerk at an import-export firm in St. Croix. Hamilton’s employers were impressed his intelligence and ambition, and when a local priest started up a collection to fund the boy’s education, they generously donated. Hamilton reportedly started that education at age sixteen, but it’s likely that he was actually a couple of years older (and lied about his age, as most boys at the time went to college at fourteen or fifteen.)
When Hamilton matriculated at Columbia in 1773, it wasn’t yet known as Columbia – at that time, the school’s name was King’s College, and it was much smaller than Columbia is today. (Hamilton entered college with only ten students in his class.) The college was one of nine colleges the British monarchy chartered in the colonies, and, as a result, was predominantly Loyalist. It was actually Hamilton’s back-up school; his first choice had been Princeton.
Hamilton persuaded the heads of the college to allow him to pursue an accelerated course of study, planning to graduate with the class of 1776. He took medical courses with the six physicians who made up the college’s medical faculty, as well as mathematics, Greek, and Latin. And somehow, despite taking on a far heavier workload than the average student, Hamilton still managed to find time to do a great deal of outside reading and train with the local militia.
Hamilton used his years in college to hone his own writing skills, which were, for the most part, self-taught. He published his first political writings in 1774, responding anonymously to a series of Loyalist pamphlets by Samuel Seabury. (And yet, despite his misgivings about Loyalist ideology, he once defended Myles Cooper, the dean of the school, who was ridiculed for being a Tory.) He also started up a literary society with five of his classmates – thought to be the precursor of today’s Philolexian Society.
In fact, Hamilton only attended King’s College for two and a half years before leaving to join the Continental Army, where he served as Washington’s aide. He later participated in the Constitutional Convention, wrote the majority of The Federalist Papers, a series of essays defending the Constitution, (out of the eighty-five essays published, John Jay – another Columbia alum – wrote five, James Madison wrote twenty-nine, and Hamilton wrote the remaining fifty-one), and served as the first Secretary of the Treasury. And, perhaps most importantly, he helped revive King’s College as Columbia College. He served as a regent of the college from 1784 to 1787, and as a trustee from 1787 until his death in 1804.
Without this man’s contributions, the U.S. government would not be what it is today. Hamilton is much more than a stuffy old alum or a face on a bill – his life is an inspiring story about getting somewhere from nowhere, just by working hard and refusing to give up. It’s no surprise Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a musical about him.