My Name is Alexander Hamilton
Dr. Robert Watson presents an in-depth look at a Founding Father
Students voted him Professor of the Year three times, he is a widely sought-after media commentator, he has written over 40 books and won the gold medal in history at the Global Book Awards for his book Escape. Award-winning author, professor, distinguished historian, and widely acclaimed speaker Dr. Robert Watson comes to Cape May this fall to present Hamilton: The Man, The Myth, The Musical. This 11th annual lecture is presented by the Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture) annual Lessons of History Distinguished Lecture Series, which brings nationally renowned speakers on topics of history to Cape May to share illuminating insights within their respective fields.
Founding Father Alexander Hamilton has connections to New Jersey: he attended Princeton University, founded the U.S. Coast Guard, and traveled to Weehawken for his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. He is well known as a major author of the Federalist papers, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and first secretary of the treasury of the United States from 1789 to 1795. But this just scratches the surface of the man.
“Here’s one way to look at Hamilton,” Watson said. “It’s very easy to love the guy, it’s hard to like him. Because he knew everything. He told you that. You tried to say something, and he corrected you and proceeded to give you a one-hour lesson on it.”
Krysiak: Why is this talk subtitled “The Man, The Myth, The Musical”?
Watson: Everybody’s crazy for the musical, Hamilton. This has become its own iconic part of America, and anybody under 30 is just whacked for the musical. They know every lyric. Alexander Hamilton overnight became our favorite founding father, whereas 20 years ago, nobody knew who he was, and nobody cared.
So, “The Man.” I want to unveil the man. We’re going to learn about where he was born, how his mother died when he was young, how he almost died a half dozen times in his life, how he grew up in obscurity and faced bitter discrimination as an immigrant. He had a hell of a tough life—pretty much everybody he knew died young. The Myth. There’s more we don’t know than we do know about him. People watch the musical and don’t realize there’s a lot more—and I love the musical—there’s a lot more to know. And, I had to put The Musical in there. So, what I’ll do is fact check it. The musical is very accurate. It’s based on Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book. I’ll tell people scenes from the musical then I’ll give the back scene and I’ll fact check it. It will be fun.
Krysiak: Who would enjoy this talk?
Watson: You don’t have to be a historian and you don’t have to have seen the musical. I want people to walk away realizing that it shouldn’t be a surprise that this musical is such a success, because Hamilton’s life was so Shakespearean. It’s operatic. It’s tragic: a rise from nothing to greatness and then to screw it up and get yourself killed. He’s also compelling, because, as they rap in the musical, he was Washington’s right-hand man. Here’s this teenaged, orphaned, illegitimate kid from a six-by-nine-mile island in the West Indies who arrives here damned near barefoot. Washington looks at this suicidally brave kid on the battlefield, plucks him out of anonymity and obscurity and makes him a colonel and his top aide de camp to help him run the American Revolution. So, Washington would be a good headhunter or talent scout today.
Krysiak: What made Hamilton different from the rest of the founding fathers?
Watson: The founders as a rule—think of Hancock and Madison and Jefferson and Morris and Wilson—these are some of the wealthiest men in the country. They’re some of the best educated. They all went to William & Mary or Harvard. They were extremely well-read and well-traveled. Then here comes Hamilton. His mother may have been a prostitute, we don’t know—but he was basically growing up in a single mother household and the mother’s doing tricks so they can eat.
Hamilton is burning with ambition. He wants to change the world, he wants to see the world, and he’s stuck on an island. He can’t go to school. The island is overrun by slavery, and Hamilton is an abolitionist. He believes in women’s equality, so he’s 200 years ahead of himself. In his head he’s this genius burning with ambition, yet he’s put on the lowest rung of life. So, he gets on a ship in 1773 and arrives in America and it’s truly to him the land of opportunity. What’d they rap in the musical? “He’s young, scrappy and hungry.” So, the rest of them were middle-aged, extremely wealthy, and comfortable.
Hamilton, he doesn’t think he’s going to live another year or two, so he just squeezes lifetimes into it. I think if you met Hamilton, you would have been exhausted. (laughter). He just exhausted people. He was running at 1,000 miles an hour. He couldn’t sleep. He was burning like a nuclear reactor, and I think that’s what made him unique and different.
Krysiak: Do you at all relate to that?
Watson: I do. Of course, on a much smaller, much more insignificant level. I grew up in a family of uneducated steel mill workers where people made it to the sixth grade. I grew up in a town called Steelton. It’s like a caricature. Dusty, dirty steel mill town where everybody dies young and works in the mill and has a deer head on the wall—I wanted out. (laughter). So, books were my way out. And books were his way out.
Krysiak: What do you think were Hamilton’s greatest strengths?
Watson: First off, he was smart, he was a genius. Secondly, he had a great capacity for work. In one night, Hamilton would write a massively thick legal brief and have it on Washington’s desk in the morning. Third, Hamilton is a true believer. You know, Burr is a perfect villain, because Burr flip-flopped political parties, held up his finger to the wind. Hamilton, he was ready to die for his cause. Hamilton served the country that he believed in. He was idealistic. He was in it for the right reasons and ultimately those are the people who make the most profound contributions and changes. He wasn’t in it for the money or the fame, or power, he was in it because he believed in it.
Krysiak: He sounds like somebody I’d like to know today.
Watson: Yes! On top of that he was extremely handsome. Take a look at the 10 (dollar bill). He was the George Clooney of the founding era. And he knew it and he played it. He had these sparkling blue eyes that melted people. He was naturally charismatic, and he knew it. He was not shallow or superficial, but he played it.
Krysiak: So that leads us to his greatest weakness.
Watson: Hamilton couldn’t keep his mouth shut. To one person Hamilton would be charismatic, to another he would be a loudmouth. One person says, “My God, he knows everything.” And the next person says, “Oh, he thinks he knows everything.” At the Constitutional Convention you have the greatest collection of minds the country has probably ever produced, and they are producing a brand-new government heretofore never seen on earth. So, when they arrived the first thing that happens is Hamilton gets up and gives everybody a six-hour talk on the historical meaning and importance of what they are about to do! You have people there like John Adams who already know everything! (laughter). But the problem was, no one could tell Hamilton to shut up because he was Washington’s “son,” basically, and Washington’s there. Of course, it was genius, but yes, that was his biggest weakness and that ultimately is what gets him shot.
Krysiak: If Alexander Hamilton were alive today would he be in politics?
Watson: Oh, yes. No question. He’d be in the military and in politics. It was in his DNA. Hamilton talked about what he called “the public trust.” If you serve in uniform or in office, the public has trusted you with a sacred job and their betterment. And every day you must remember that, and you must earn the public’s trust. So, this idea of lying or bullying or cheating or saying crap about other people, this was antithetical to his core. I mean Hamilton would die before he would have done something illegal. So, he would be in politics and the military, and my God would he be making enemies. Because he didn’t shut up. He’d be colorful on the news, that’s for sure. (laughter). He’d be eminently quotable. ν
Hamilton: The Man, The Myth, The Musical is Sunday, October 8 at 5pm at Cape May Convention Hall. Admission is $40. Students and teachers admitted free with ID. Tickets are limited. For information and to purchase tickets call 609-884-5404 or visit Cape May MAC’s website.