Hamilton in History: The Factual vs. The Theatrical
Hamilton has been lauded by most historians for its remarkable near-historical accuracy, especially when facts from the Revolutionary War and the early days of a nascent United States are so casually spit out through impeccable rhymes.
However, it’s difficult to portray nearly 30 years of history in three hours of theater, so of course timelines and details need to be smudged a bit to create the engaging plot of a biographical musical.
Let’s see if you can make your high school history teacher proud and distinguish what’s factual and what’s theatrical in the plot of “Hamilton.”
Hamilton was a bastard, orphan, and immigrant
Factual! Hamilton was born out of wedlock to his mother Rachel Faucette, who then died when Hamilton was 13. There’s no evidence of Rachel Faucette being a prostitute, so the lyrics “son of a whore” may just be a nod to her promiscuous affair. As a teenager, Hamilton did work on a trading charter, and later immigrated to the United States in 1772.
Hamilton meets Aaron Burr, John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and Lafayette in New York City in 1776
Theatrical! While Hercules Mulligan is likely one of the first people Hamilton met in New York City (Hamilton lodged with him in 1773), the evidence does not support Hamilton knowing these other revolutionaries in 1776. There is record of Hamilton having met John Laurens in October 1777 once the Revolutionary War was already underway, and Lafayette was in France until April 1777 so they could not have met before then. While it’s not impossible that Burr and Hamilton could have crossed paths when Hamilton was at Kings College, the first documented evidence of them meeting is in 1786.
Hamilton was Washington’s aide
Factual! Once the Revolutionary War was underway and after successes at Battle of Trenton and Battle of Princeton, Hamilton’s strategic foresight earned him a spot as one of Washington’s “Aides de camp.” Hamilton served as Washington’s chief aide for four years, of which Hamilton begged to return to battle and lead a command. Hamilton’s three battalions were crucial in ending the war at the Battle of Yorktown.
Angelica Schulyer had feelings for Hamilton, but couldn’t marry him
Theatrical! When Eliza and Hamilton met in 1780, Angelica had been married to John Baker Church for several years at that point so Hamilton was not a romantic prospect she sacrificed selflessly. Angelica says “my father has no sons, so I’m the one who has to social climb” which is inaccurate, as the Schulyer family had three sons: John Bradstreet, Philip Jeremiah, and Rensselaer.
Hamilton wrote the majority of the Federalist papers
Factual! It is true that Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 essays that comprised The Federalist Papers, with James Madison and John Jay writing 29 and 5 essays respectively. Hamilton’s most important arguments included the necessity to protect liberties in a “bill of rights,” the groundwork for the judicial review process, and the case for a singular chief-executive.
John Adams fires Hamilton
Theatrical! In “The Adams Administration,” Burr sings, “Adams fires Hamilton, privately calls him ‘creole bastard’ in his taunts (Say what?); Hamilton publishes his response! ‘Sit down, John, you fat mother f*****.’” However, Hamilton left office in 1795, during Washington’s second term and Adams came into office in 1797, so the notion of Hamilton being fired is entirely false. As to the insults, Adams did refer to Hamilton in letters as both “Scottish Creole” and “[…] bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler […],” but those letters were written in 1805 and 1806, not in 1797.
Hamilton has a sex scandal and outs himself on paper
Factual! It’s totally true that Maria Reynolds asked Hamilton for money to help her escape her abusive husband and that Hamilton’s charity turned into an affair. Her husband, James Reynolds found out and blackmailed Hamilton and extorted $1,000 in hush money. James got arrested with an associate in a fraud scheme, and his associate claimed that Reynolds was involved in sketchy dealings with Alexander Hamilton.
James Monroe and others researched this further, interviewing Maria and James Reynolds, confronted Hamilton, and Hamilton owned up to the affair and showed Monroe supporting documents. Monroe sent copies of the documents to Jefferson and they were leaked by journalist James Thomson Callender. On August 25, 1797, Hamilton responded by publishing his own essay on the affair, which later came to be known as “The Reynolds Pamphlet.”
FUN FACT: Hamilton was so pissed at Monroe for leaking this information, nearly calling him a liar for denying his involvement. Monroe challenged him to a duel but AARON BURR INTERCEDED.
Burr ran against Jefferson in the Election of 1800, and Hamilton’s advocacy handed Jefferson the presidency
Theatrical! Okay it’s political nerd time! Burr did not set out to campaign against Jefferson in the Election of 1800 — they were running mates on the Democratic-Republican ticket! The issue was a janky electoral system (changed with the 12th Amendment) where the person with the second most votes became the vice president. This system had electors casting two votes for president without distinguishing which vote was for president and which was for veep. So of course the issue happened in 1800 where the ticket’s president and intended vice president got the same number of votes. Instead of stepping down as a candidate for president as Jefferson expected, Burr stayed in the race when the tie-breaker went to the House of Representatives. Each state delegation (not each member) had one vote in the case of a tie.
While Hamilton did openly advocate against Jefferson, the run-off vote ultimately came down to James Bayard, a Federalist from Delaware, who was his states only delegate and therefore only vote. Bayard was promised by Jefferson allies that they would preserve Hamilton’s financial system, maintain the navy, and keep Federalist bureaucrats in place below cabinet level. Jefferson then won the presidency.
Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel after the humiliation of the Election of 1800
Theatrical! The duel happened in 1804, a significant lapse from the election of 1800. In 1804, Burr was dropped from the Jefferson ticket (he wasn’t fired in 1800 as suggested in the lyrics: “It is crazy that the guy who comes in second gets to be vice-President. Ooh, you know what, we can change that, you know why? (why?) ’cause I’m the President!” After a term as Vice President, Burr ran for Governor of New York State in 1804. Tensions came to a head when Hamilton began to discredit his candidacy behind the scenes.