The Hamilton Musical: Let’s not confuse art with history

In a piece about the Hamilton musical, The New Yorker gave examples of how Republican presidential candidates can learn from it. Of course, the musical is not 100% historically accurate, so it may not be wise to learn from it rather than from real history. Here are two quotes from the musical which were included in the article as lessons for the candidates:

“Everything is legal in New Jersey.” Duelling was not legal in New Jersey. New Yorkers chose Weehawken for their duels not because it was legal but because it was a secluded spot (a beach backed by a cliff).

Hamilton and Lafayette declare, “Immigrants, we get the job done.” Lafayette was not an immigrant. He came to fight in the Continental Army and spent much time in the US during and after the war, but he never moved to the US or set up residency here. But there were many Europeans who did stay in the US after the war, most notably the Baron von Steuben.

There is no doubt we can learn much from art such as the Hamilton musical, but let’s be sure we don’t confuse a musical based on history, which uses much poetic license, and real history.

Correcting Wikipedia: Which two major generals asked Alexander Hamilton to serve as aide?

Following up on my previous post about how Wikipedia gets the story of Hamilton’s “early military career” wrong, I plan to continue my criticism of Wikipedia as a source for information regarding Hamilton’s life and career. According to Wikipedia:

 Hamilton was invited to become an aide to Nathanael Greene and to Henry Knox;[27]


Wikipedia cites “Randall, p. 120.” “Randall” is “Randall, William Sterne (2003). Alexander Hamilton: A Life. HarpersCollins.” Interestingly, Randall on page 120 does not state that Greene and Knox asked Hamilton to serve as an aide. Randall does have Greene inviting Hamilton to serve as his aide-de-camp on page 101. He also has Elias Boudinot asking Hamilton if he wanted to serve as an aide, or brigade major, to Lord Stirling on page 100. Nowhere does Randall have Knox asking Hamilton to be his aide.

Other biographers have also written that Greene asked Hamilton to be his aide (Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: The Revolutionary Years 6; Chernow, Alexander Hamilton 74). Although Randall did not, at least one historian did write that Knox asked Hamilton to serve as his aide (Lefkowitz, George Washington’s Indispensable Men 108).

So what is the truth? Here’s an excerpt from Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years:

Prior to Washington’s invitation, Hamilton had already “refused to serve in this capacity with two major generals.” In early 1776, Lord Stirling asked Hamilton to be his brigade major, whose duties included that of an aide. Elisha Boudinot informed Stirling on March 10 that Hamilton “had already accepted the command of Artillery and was therefore deprived of the pleasure of attending your Lordship’s person as Brigade Major.” Lord Stirling was only a brigadier general at the time, but he would be promoted to major general in February 1777. Although Hamilton, in recalling these events in February 1781, incorrectly remembered Stirling’s rank at the time the offer was made, this was clearly one of the offers from the “two major generals.”

The second offer has never been positively identified, but is often assumed to have come from Nathanael Greene. It is possible that Greene offered to make Hamilton his aide after they reportedly met in the spring or summer of 1776. It was around this time, in August 1776 to be exact, that Greene was promoted from brigadier general to major general. But there is no evidence that Greene asked Hamilton to serve as his aide and no one who wrote about Greene meeting Hamilton in 1776 mentioned this invitation.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the second offer came from Henry Knox. It will be recalled that Robert Troup said that Knox noticed Hamilton during the campaign of 1776 and then recommended him to Washington. Knox may have also learned that Hamilton authored The Farmer Refuted, copies of which Knox had sold in his bookstore before the war. As the commander of the Continental Army’s artillery regiment, Knox would have loved to appoint this distinguished artillery captain and revolutionary pamphleteer as his aide. But Knox was only a colonel during most of the campaign of 1776–77. He would be appointed a brigadier general on December 27, 1776, but would not be made a major general until March 1782. As Knox did not become a major general until after Hamilton made his statement about refusing “to serve . . . two major generals” and Hamilton surely knew Knox’s rank, Hamilton could not have been referring to Knox.

Perhaps some other major general asked Hamilton to serve as an aide. Possibly Alexander McDougall, who was a friend and supporter of Hamilton, was the other major general. McDougall was made a brigadier general in August 1776 and a major general in October 1777, so he fits the profile. While there is no evidence that McDougall made this invitation, there is equally scant evidence of Greene having done so.

Supporting evidence and citations will be found in the endnotes of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years.

So yet again we see that Wikipedia cannot be relied upon for accurate information regarding Alexander Hamilton. There is no evidence to state definitively, as Wikipedia does, that Greene asked Hamilton to serve as his aide. Additionally, it is known that Knox could not have been one of the two major generals in question. Moreover, Wikipedia totally omits Lord Stirling even though it is known with certainty that he asked Hamilton to be his aide.

Since its publication a month ago, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years has been called the “definitive” book on Hamilton’s early life. Having the correct information in this instance, in contrast to Wikipedia and some historians who get it wrong, demonstrates why Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years is receiving rave reviews.

Michael E. Newton raises the flag of St. Kitts and Nevis and talks about Alexander Hamilton at Bowling Green in New York City

Every year in July, the flag of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis is raised at Bowling Green at the bottom of Broadway in lower Manhattan in honor of Alexander Hamilton, who died on July 12, 1804. This year (2015), the Lower Manhattan Historical Society and the Alexander Hamilton Awareness (AHA) Society invited me to raise the flag and say a few words about Alexander Hamilton.

For the whole story, complete with photos, visit

Events Honoring Alexander Hamilton and the Publication of ‘Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years’

Starting tomorrow (July 10), there will be four days of events honoring the life of Alexander Hamilton. This weekend was chosen because it is the anniversary of Hamilton’s famous duel with Aaron Burr (July 11), his untimely death (July 12), and his funeral (July 13). This year’s events are extra special because Lin Manuel-Miranda’s HAMILTON musical opens on Broadway on July 13 and because my new book, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years, was published earlier this month.

A complete list of events can be viewed as an e-flyer here or as a one-page printable flyer here. I would like to highlight the events pertaining to me and my new book.

July 10, 2-3 PM:  Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years – Michael E. Newton
Conversation with scholar Michael E. Newton about Hamilton’s youth in the Caribbean & as a young immigrant-turned-Revolutionary War hero. This event will be filmed by C-SPAN3 American History TV.
Location: Museum of American Finance, 48 Wall Street, NYC

July 10, 3-4 PM:  Book Signing and Alexander Hamilton Exhibit
Get a copy of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years signed by the author and tour the exhibit “Alexander Hamilton: Indispensable Founder and Visionary”
Location: Museum of American Finance, 48 Wall Street, NYC

July 11, 1-1:30 PM: Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years – New Book Discoveries 
Rand Scholet of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society will discuss some of the new discoveries in Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years. (Michael E. Newton is unable to attend this event because the Jewish Sabbath.)
Location: Hamilton Grange,  414 West 141st Street, NYC

July 12, 3-5 PM:  “Hamilton’s Revolutionary War Service” by Michael E. Newton
Talk on Alexander Hamilton’s indispensable services during the Revolutionary War, followed by a book signing of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years.
Location: Washington’s Headquarters Museum, 30 Washington Place, Morristown, NJ

July 13, 11-11:30 PM: “Hamilton at Bowling Green” and Flag Raising
The Lower Manhattan Historical Society hosts a flag-raising at Bowling Green in honor of Alexander Hamilton, followed by remarks by author Michael E. Newton.
Location: Bowling Green Flagpole on Broadway, NYC

I look forward to seeing you at these very special events.

How Wikipedia gets the Alexander Hamilton story wrong

Wikipedia is perhaps the single most used source of information on just about anything. It is generally reliable for uncontested facts, but when matters are up for dispute Wikipedia too often presents information as truth even when such details are far from certain. For most biographies, the details of one’s life are known and a site like Wikipedia can’t go too far astray. But when it comes to Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the most controversial Founding Father and certainly the one whose early life is the most unclear, numerous errors appear on Wikipedia.

Rather than go through the entire Wikipedia page for Alexander Hamilton and point out every error, I will focus on just one small section: Alexander Hamilton’s “Early military career.” It reads:

In 1775, after the first engagement of American troops with the British in Boston, Hamilton joined a New York volunteer militia company called the Hearts of Oak, which included other King’s College students. He drilled with the company, before classes, in the graveyard of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel.[23] Hamilton studied military history and tactics on his own and achieved the rank of lieutenant. Under fire from HMS Asia, he led a successful raid for British cannon in the Battery, the capture of which resulted in the Hearts of Oak becoming an artillery company thereafter.[24] Through his connections with influential New York patriots such as Alexander McDougall and John Jay, he raised the New York Provincial Company of Artillery of sixty men in 1776, and was elected captain.[25] It took part in the campaign of 1776 around New York City, particularly at the Battle of White Plains; at the Battle of Trenton, it was stationed at the high point of town, the meeting of the present Warren and Broad Streets, to keep the Hessians pinned in the Trenton Barracks.[26]

And here’s a screenshot for posterity (before someone edits it):

I will now address the many errors in this one section alone. (AHTFY is short for Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years.)

 “Hamilton joined a New York volunteer militia company called the Hearts of Oak”

Alexander Hamilton joined the Corsicans (not the Hearts of Oak) in April or May 1775. In August or September, when the captain of the Corsican was promoted and left the company, one of two things occurred: 1) the Corsicans changed its name to the Hearts of Oak, or 2) The Corsicans broke up and its members (including Hamilton) formed a new company called the Hearts of Oak. (AHTFY 127-128)

“He drilled with the company, before classes, in the graveyard of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel.”

They drilled in the Church Yard of St. George’s Chapel. (AHTFY 128)

“Hamilton . . . achieved the rank of lieutenant.”

I am aware of no record of Hamilton being a lieutenant in the militia. I’m not sure where Wikipedia got this information as no citation is given.

“Under fire from HMS Asia, he led a successful raid for British cannon in the Battery…”

While Hamilton participated in the raid, he did not lead it. The raid was led by Capt. John Lamb. (AHTFY 579 note 31)

“…the capture of which resulted in the Hearts of Oak becoming an artillery company thereafter.”

The raid on the Battery occurred in August 1775. Hamilton was not made a captain of artillery until March 1776. There is no direct link between one event and the other, though Hamilton’s bravery in the raid may have helped him win his captaincy months later. Moreover, the Hearts of Oak did not become an artillery company. Hamilton’s artillery company was newly created and new men had to be enlisted. Hamilton may have recruited men from his old militia company, but the companies were distinct. In fact, the Hearts of Oak continued to exist until at least June 1776, long after Hamilton’s artillery company had been created. (AHTFY 127-128, 130-132, 134-138, 577 note 12)

“He raised the New York Provincial Company of Artillery of sixty men in 1776…”

Sixty men is an approximation. The company had 55 men on March 14, the day Hamilton was officially appointed captain of this company (he started recruiting sometime before this and even took command before this date). It had 66 men by the end of March, 69 by April 20, and 93 by June 29. (AHTFY 136-137)

“He…was elected captain.”

Hamilton was not “elected” captain. In New England, companies often elected their own captains. In New York, the Provincial Congress appointed company captains. Perhaps Wikipedia means that the New York government “elected” Hamilton, but there’s no record of an election, only that Hamilton was nominated, examined, and then appointed. (AHTFY 134)

“It [Hamilton’s artillery company] took part in the campaign of 1776 around New York City, particularly at the Battle of White Plains.”

Hamilton’s participation in the Battle of White Plains was first mentioned very briefly by John C. Hamilton in 1834. It was then expanded upon by Washington Irving and John C. Hamilton in the 1850s. There is, in fact, no evidence that Hamilton fought in this battle. Irving and John C. Hamilton provided no sources for their stories and it appears from eyewitness accounts that Hamilton did not fight in this battle. (AHTFY 168-173)

While Wikipedia remains a great tool, this small portion shows how everything must be verified before using it. Wikipedia will only get better as more accurate information replaces outdated and incorrect assertions. There is no better place to start this process than with Wikipedia’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.

After four years of research, writing, and editing, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years is now available for purchase.

Discovering the “last will and testament” of Alexander Hamilton’s half brother

On St. Croix in the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton had a half-brother named Peter Lavien. Around 1764, Peter Lavien moved to South Carolina, where he owned a plantation in Prince William’s Parish along with co-partner John Kean. Kean later represented South Carolina in the Continental Congress, supported ratification in the state’s ratifying convention, was a leading Federalist, became cashier of the Bank of the United States, and married Susan Livingston, niece of William Livingston. As a leading Federalist and cashier of the Bank of the United States, Kean often corresponded and interacted with Alexander Hamilton. By marring Susan Livingston, John Kean came to own William Livingston’s home, Liberty Hall. I asked William Schroh Jr., Director of Museum Operations at Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University, if he had anything in The Papers of John Kean related to Peter Lavien. Turns out that William Schroh and Rachael Goldberg, Collections Manager, found in their collection the “last will and testament” of Peter Lavien dated February 12, 1778.

In his will, Peter Lavien wrote, “I give and bequeath to Alexander Hamilton and his brother Robert Hamilton (as the Testator believes) each one hundred and fifty pounds sterling.” [Hamilton’s brother was named James, not Robert.] Lavien also bequeathed three hundred pounds to Thomas Grayson and two hundred pounds to Rozay Moraes, but left the bulk of his estate to his wife and John Kean, his business partner, to be split equally between them.

PeterLavienWill 1PeterLavienWill 2 PeterLavienWill 3

Peter Lavien died sometime before March 1781. Upon Lavien’s death, John Kean, his “surviving copartner,” auctioned off “the property of Peter Lavien and Co.,” including “fifty-five valuable slaves, chiefly country born, some plantation tools, horses, etc.” When Hamilton learned of Peter Lavien’s death, Hamilton wrote to his wife, “Engrossed by our own immediate concerns, I omitted telling you of a disagreeable piece of intelligence I have received from a gentleman of Georgia. He tells me of the death of my brother Levine. You know the circumstances that abate my distress, yet my heart acknowledges the rights of a brother. He dies rich, but has disposed of the bulk of his fortune to strangers. I am told he has left me a legacy. I did not inquire how much.” Hamilton also wrote to Nathanael Greene, “I take the liberty to enclose a letter to Mr. Kean, Executor to the estate of Mr. Lavine, a half-brother of mine who died some time since in South Carolina.” The letter from Hamilton to Kean has been lost, but it obviously concerned the “legacy” Peter Lavien had left him.

The recent discovery of Peter Lavien’s will finally reveals the “legacy” that he had left for Alexander Hamilton.

Citations and more supporting evidence will be found in Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years.

Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years is now available for purchase.

Identifying the two doctors who treated Hamilton in November 1777

On October 30, 1777, George Washington sent Alexander Hamilton about 230 miles northward to General Horatio Gates in Albany “to point out to him the many happy consequences that will accrue from an immediate reinforcement being sent from the Northern Army.” The ride from Pennsylvania to New Windsor, then to Albany, then back to New Windsor–a journey of over three hundred miles in ten days– and the clashes with Gates and Israel Putnam as well took their toll on Alexander Hamilton’s health. Despite his illness, Hamilton travelled from New Windsor across the Hudson River to Fishkill and then made the twenty-mile journey south to Peekskill. On November 15, Hamilton wrote to Washington, “I arrived at this place last night and unfortunately find myself unable to proceed any further.” On November 23, Captain Caleb Gibbs, who had accompanied Hamilton on this mission, informed Washington:

I . . . arrived here yesterday morning about 9 o’Clock, where I found Colo. Hamilton much worse than I expected, labouring under a Violent nerves fever and raging to the greatest extremity; he continued through the day & last night very Ill. He is this morning something better, the fever in some small degree abated. Every possible measure is taking to restore him & it is the opinion of the Doctor two or three days will determine his fate. . . . Doctors Adams or Ustice has kept constantly with him and have paid the greatest attention possible to him, both by day & Night, and to do those Gentlemen Justice, they have spared no pains in making things comfortable around him.

Nearly every Hamilton biographer writes about this important mission given to Hamilton by Washington and many also write about Hamilton’s subsequent illness. But no one has identified these two doctors. Perhaps they don’t merit notice; perhaps they do. In researching Hamilton’s life, I decided to see if I could discover more about these two men who helped Hamilton in his illness and may have even saved Hamilton’s life.

John Adams recorded in his diary on November 18, 1777:

Dined at Fish Kill, at the Dr’s. Mess, near the Hospital, with Dr. Sam. Adams, Dr. Eustis, Mr. Wells, &c.

Here was a Dr. Adams just 20 miles from Hamilton along with a Dr. Eustis, who must be the Dr. Ustice that Gibbs had written about. Knowing that Dr. Adams’s first name was “Sam.” and the correct spelling of Dr. Eustis’s name, it is clear that these two doctors were Samuel Adams Jr., son of the more famous Samuel Adams, and William Eustis, future U.S. representative, secretary of war, and governor of Massachusetts. (William Eustis was only one Dr. Eustis in the army at this time Samuel Adams Jr. was a friend of this William Eustis, he was stationed “on the Hudson” at this time, and it is clear that it was this Samuel Adams who met John Adams in November 1777 )

The method of identifying Adams and Eustis is described immediately above in more detail than in Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years. (In hindsight, the endnote in AHTFY for this topic probably should have provided these details). Citations for the earlier quotes, which are not given in this post, will be found in Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years.

Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years is now available for purchase. Click here for links to the print book and various ebook editions.