Even if you can’t score a ticket to the hit musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, you can delve into the true story of this remarkable man on a visit to Philadelphia. There you’ll learn that Hamilton was even more brilliant, charming, flawed and multifaceted than he’s portrayed on stage.
Born in the British West Indies as the illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant and English-French mother, Hamilton grew up in poverty. At the age of 11 he took a job at an import/export firm and worked his way up to the position of accounting clerk. His quick mind impressed his employers, who helped him travel to the United States to get an education. There he became active in revolutionary politics. After joining the army, he caught the attention of George Washington, who made him an aide-de-camp. After the war ended his star rose even higher, eventually landing him the position of the first secretary of the treasury. Hamilton is credited with laying the groundwork for the new nation’s economic stability and growth — all the while exasperating his friends and infuriating his enemies.
Begin your Hamilton tour of Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center, which is located in the heart of the city’s historic quarter. The exhibit “Hamilton: The Constitutional Clashes that Shaped a Nation” examines his tumultuous relationships with political rivals James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Aaron Burr. Displays highlight the men’s competing theories of government, which relate to issues that continue to be debated on the national scene today. Be sure to take note of one of the exhibit’s most important treasures, the letter from Vice President Aaron Burr that initiated the duel that ended Hamilton’s life. Footsteps on the floor represent the number of paces each took before firing, a chilling bit of historical detail.
In the lobby of the Constitution Center, you can take part in an interactive show that’s held three times a day. It gives more details about Hamilton’s personal life, including his struggles to get an education after coming to the United States and his experiences as Washington’s right-hand man.
Next head upstairs to the Signers’ Hall, which depicts the final day of the Constitutional Convention of Sept. 17, 1787. Forty-two life-size bronze statues depict the delegates who drafted and debated the Constitution, all arranged in conversational groups that make you feel as if you’ve wandered into actual discussions with them. Famous figures include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison — plus the slim and dapper Hamilton, who carries a walking stick and stands by himself.
Displays on the surrounding walls make it clear that most of these men distrusted each other, which meant that they tried to build into the Constitution many checks and balances to make sure that power was distributed among the different branches of government. Hamilton played a key role in these debates, arguing for a strong national government rather than the weak one that had been formed after the Revolutionary War. Though Hamilton wasn’t particularly well-liked (in part because he loved telling everyone how smart he was), he was nevertheless influential.
Next, walk across the road to Independence Hall, the place where these debates actually took place. The brick structure has been called “the most historic building in America.” Two rooms occupy its ground floor: the first housed a courtroom and the other an assembly hall where both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed. Thirteen tables fill the room, one for representatives from each colony. It was in this hall that Hamilton helped convince his fellow legislators to support the Constitution, though he was the only one of New York’s three delegates who actually signed it (the other men felt that it went too far in creating a strong national government).
Guides here tell the story of Ben Franklin’s comment after the Constitution was signed. As he was leaving the building, a bystander asked him whether the representatives had created a republic or a monarchy. Franklin replied, “A republic ... if you can keep it.”
The historic district includes several landmarks relating to Hamilton’s fiscal leadership. From 1794 to 1797, Carpenters’ Hall housed the nation’s central bank, the first such institution in history not owned by a monarch. Operations later shifted to the stately, columned First Bank of the United States. While neither building is open for tours, their exteriors provide great photo opportunities. The Second Bank of the United States, located nearby, served as the national bank from 1816 to 1836. Its portrait gallery of prominent Americans includes a well-known painting of Hamilton by Charles Willson Peale.
The U.S. Mint, located a few blocks away, is another brainchild of Hamilton’s. This modern descendant of the original Mint features a video outlining his role in creating the nation’s monetary system.
Next, head to the Museum of the American Revolution. In addition to learning about the War of Independence, you can trace Hamilton’s career as a rising star in Washington’s army. The museum’s most important artifact is Washington’s Headquarters Tent, where military leaders who included Hamilton plotted strategy throughout the war.
As you walk through the historic district, keep an eye out for Once Upon a Nation Storytelling Benches, where professional storytellers tell five-minute tales from the early years of the republic. Here you can learn about how Betsy Ross, a three-time widow, was a munitions maker in addition to a seamstress, for example. Hamilton fans will be interested to hear more details about the bromance between Washington and Hamilton as well as juicy details about the Hamilton-Burr rivalry.
While Hamilton’s original home at 226 Walnut St. no longer stands, a plaque marks the spot where he lived with his wife and family from 1790 to 1795. When his wife was out of town, this is where he engaged in a scandalous affair with the married Maria Reynolds, a relationship that severely damaged his political career.
End your Hamilton tour at City Tavern, a recreation of the original pub where Hamilton, Washington and other leaders gathered after grueling days debating the drafting of the Constitution. Its menu features Colonial Era recipes such as sweet potato biscuits favored by Thomas Jefferson and West Indies pepper pot soup, all washed down with a shrub (a fruit juice alcoholic punch) or Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce, a beer made from a Benjamin Franklin recipe. As you dine, you can reflect on the messy but remarkable history that resulted in the American system of government we have today. And before you leave, raise a glass to Alexander Hamilton, who helped make it all happen.
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