In which I offer a conjecture
Alexander Hamilton is the mysterious Founding Father. Even after the smash hit musical made him a national celebrity (again), there is still much we have yet to confirm about the details of his life. By “we” I mean historians, scholars, and curious people like me who are evidently without something better to do.
Take his birth. Today is his birthday; this is essentially certain. As to the year, biographer Ron Chernow detects a discrepancy in the record—sources from his native Nevis state 1755, but sources more closely associated with the man’s own writings state 1757.
What’s up with that?
Two events jump out at me in my exploration of this mystery. The first is a hurricane which devastated Nevis and the surrounding islands, commonly dated 1772. The second is the young Hamilton’s arrival in New York City after his essay about said hurricane raised enough money to pay his way, commonly dated 1776.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton—who got the germ of the show from Chernow’s 2004 book—depicts this introduction to New York across the first few numbers: in his defining musical statement, “My Shot,” the character declares himself “only nineteen but [his] mind is older.” The idea that he is nineteen in 1776 suggests that Miranda subscribes to the 1757 theory, reflecting the real-life Hamilton’s account of his birth year.
Chernow, meanwhile, I do not recall endorsing one year or the other. Like the good historian he is, he approaches the question with a healthy skepticism. I do recall that his report of the 1772 hurricane is pretty categorical. In the musical, Hamilton mentions the hurricane only in passing until a soliloquy halfway through Act II: “When I was seventeen a hurricane destroyed my town.” So, if he was seventeen at the time of the hurricane, he could not possibly have been nineteen at the time of his voyage to New York four years later, but twenty-one.
Now, how can we be sure that 1776 was the year he moved to the colonies? Some of it has to do with just how many sources agree on this date.* And it checks out when cross-referenced with the timeline of his joining then-General Washington’s staff and fighting on the front lines of the Revolution. (Most people would have gladly avoided the bitter scene at Valley Forge, but our hero was positively stir-crazy, sending futile supply requests to the Continental Congress and pestering Washington to give him command of a battalion.) We’ll go with it, if nothing else for lack of a sound alternative.
And how can we be sure that 1772 was the year of the hurricane? Official records from Nevis list it as such. As the island was rather disenfranchised and governmentally unstable at the time, its credibility might be dubious; but then doesn’t it make sense that its birth records would also be spotty? And, taking this into account, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that the record of a natural disaster which wreaked havoc on the entire Caribbean would be more widely disseminated and accurate than the record of a single person’s birth?
This train of thought places the hurricane at 1772, with Hamilton aged seventeen, and the landing in New York at 1776, with Hamilton aged twenty-one. Which leads me to fall into the 1755 camp. (It also places his death in July 1804 at age forty-nine, which is not great, but at least it isn’t forty-seven.)
Regarding Hamilton’s claims to 1757, contemporary and subsequent documentation gives us to understand that he was not the most reliable narrator of his own history. In life he was rather proud and self-aggrandizing—perhaps understandably, since his status as an immigrant with illegitimate parentage forced him to work twice as hard as the likes of Thomas Jefferson or John Adams to attain equal standing. Chernow, then, does not put it past him to have falsified his birth year to make himself appear younger and more like a prodigy. Frankly, twenty-one is still fresh-faced, especially for the fray he was joining. I mean, we’re talking forming a nation. He needn’t have worried.
Granted, “only twenty-one but my mind is older” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. But one more syllable could be worth it in the pursuit of authenticity.
Of course, who among us is an unbiased autobiographer? And who’s to say that this man does not remember his own birth better than a small island administration with thousands of births to keep track of? Either party is liable to have erred.
In summary, I doubt we will ever be one hundred percent sure about any of these factors. The past is full of myths to be debunked and questions to be answered, and half the fun lies in the process. It’s ironic that, for a guy who died such a famous death, we may never figure out when it all began.
*I’m not supporting ‘herd mentality’ or the assumption that something must be the case merely because multiple sources stand by it. But here, as we’ve seen, there is a strong case undercutting Hamilton’s portrait of his birth. History is always being rewritten and revised. Consider this no more than the poor man’s (or woman’s) attempt to contribute.
Happy 265th (or 263rd) birthday, “A-dot-Ham”!
Image: PBS American Experience