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New York’s Hamilton trail

Image: Joan Marcus

David Whitley doesn’t throw away his shot at finding out more about the subject of Broadway’s hottest show, Alexander Hamilton

 

It’s fitting that the tomb is in the graveyard of the Trinity Church, possibly one of the richest parish churches on earth. The Trinity still owns staggering amounts of land in New York, a happy accident resulting from simply having been there long enough. The tomb itself is a stout, imposing beast with a mini-obelisk on top and “The STATESMAN of consummate wisdom” engraved in the stone.

It’s not a bad effort for a fatherless boy who was born penniless on the Caribbean island of Nevis, then arrived in New York on a scholarship. Alexander Hamilton went on to become George
Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War, and became the architect of the US financial system afterwards. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical, the hottest ticket on Broadway, has catapulted Hamilton to prominence in the last year or so. But the most apt tribute is neither the tomb nor the musical – it’s the Financial District, which clusters around Wall Street.

This batch of banks, stockbrokers and insurance companies in Lower Manhattan has been the driving force behind the rise from ragtag collection of colonies to world superpower. And Hamilton played a phenomenally large part in this. The Museum of American Finance on Wall Street is inside the Bank of New York building – which is the oldest bank in the city, founded by Alexander Hamilton.

The museum goes into how money makes the world go round, looking at everything from fraud to the Federal Reserve. But it also has a room dedicated to Hamilton detailing his life and work.
He was the country’s first Treasury Secretary after independence, and in that stint he created the US Mint, the Customs Department, the tax system, the coast guard (which had much more to do with stopping smugglers than saving drowning people) and the country’s first central bank.

In a country riddled with debt after the War of Independence, he decided to get things moving again by having the federal government take responsibility for all state and national debts. He also made the dollar a proper currency – it was a makeshift affair mainly using Spanish coins at the time.

But all of this was controversial, and trade-offs had to be made in order for Hamilton to get it through. And one of those trade-offs is the reason why New York is not the US capital – having a purpose-built capital further south was a sop thrown to the southern plantation owners who didn’t want the north-east of the fledgling country to dominate. Hamilton’s modern-day resurgence, though, isn’t just down to his work. He was, to put it mildly, a colourful character. And one that was, somewhat ironically, terrible at managing his own finances. When he died, he left his wife and child with a mountain of debt.

But, of course, that’s partly because he died earlier than expected. Hamilton was the loser in America’s most infamous duel. Years of rivalry with former vice-president Aaron Burr, culminated in the pair facing off on the other side of the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey. Now called Hamilton Park, and found in downtown Jersey City, it was where Hamilton’s son Philip had been killed in a duel three years previously.

The duel did not go well. Hamilton shot in the air, thought to be a sign that he had no intent to kill. Burr had no such niceties in mind, and mortally wounded his opponent. The boulder that Hamilton rested on as he was dying still exists – it was moved to what is now Hamilton Street, where it sits next to a bust of the architect of American finance. It’s largely ignored – no one has seen fit to make a song and dance about it.

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