No other musical has moved me as much as “Hamilton,” the Broadway smash composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. After trying and failing for months to get tickets to the show in New York, I purchased and became obsessed with the soundtrack, one that pays homage to the American experience in a way that connects our past to our present.
The winner of a Pulitzer Prize and 11 Tony Awards, Miranda’s creation is more than just a play about an unlikely protagonist – Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. With its 46 songs, “Hamilton” reminds us that America is built on ideas fought over by imperfect humans whose flaws sometimes may threaten, but never derail, the American experiment of democracy. It’s about believing in ideals enough to die for them. It’s about the yearning of generations of Americans to make their mark in the world – to leave a contribution that outlives them.
Hamilton did that. He was a penniless orphan and immigrant from the Caribbean island of Nevis in the British West Indies when he landed in New York harbor at the dawn of the Revolutionary War. In almost no time, Hamilton’s words and intellect attracted the attention of none other than George Washington. Hamilton became Washington’s right-hand man, and a key strategist in the guerrilla war against superior British troops.
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Hamilton was a hero at the pivotal Battle of Yorktown. He became America’s first treasury secretary, a passionate defender of the Constitution and one of the great thinkers of his time. He founded the U.S. Coast Guard, the New York Post – America’s oldest daily newspaper – and many of our country’s economic policies. Hamilton was hated by Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, and their rivalry spawned the two-party political system that endures to this day.
Until “Hamilton” rocked American popular culture, Hamilton the man had largely been forgotten by his country. He was that guy on the $10 whose story you probably didn’t know. Or if you did know it, you were most familiar with the version distorted by his many enemies. Hamilton did all of this while soaring above his station in life. His experience – an immigrant experience – defines our nation today more than any other story that’s been told in the American narrative. Even his death was dramatic. He was killed in an 1804 duel with Aaron Burr, who was the sitting vice president of the United States at the time.
In my enthusiasm to learn everything I could about Hamilton – I’ve read the Federalist Papers, his lyrical defense of the U.S. Constitution – I stumbled onto a Sacramento connection to the hero of Miranda’s story.
It turns out that one of Hamilton’s youngest sons, William Stephen Hamilton, is buried at the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery. On Tuesday, I found Hamilton’s tombstone under a shade tree in the southern part of the cemetery known as Hamilton Garden.
There rests the younger Hamilton, who died in Sacramento on Oct. 9, 1850. I wish I could say there was much to tell about a son of the American Revolution who ventured west to find his fortune in Gold Rush-era Sacramento. But there really isn’t much.
William Stephen Hamilton left his life’s work behind – a struggling mining business in Illinois called “Hamilton’s Diggings” – to chase gold in Sacramento. He had attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point but didn’t finish. He had served in the Wisconsin Territorial Assembly but didn’t distinguish himself. He served in the military like his father, but while the elder Hamilton fought the British, the younger Hamilton fought Native Americans over valuable lead mining regions that white settlers wanted for themselves.
William Hamilton never married. His remarkable mother, Eliza, worried about him back in their home in New York, while she kept her husband’s legacy alive and while she helped raise funds for the Washington Monument. She also and helped found New York’s first private orphanage, an orphanage that endures to this day.
In the “Hamilton” musical, Miranda wrote a song about endearing hope that Alexander Hamilton’s generation had for its children and its children’s children. “You will come of age with our young nation / We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you / If we lay a strong enough foundation / We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you / And you’ll blow us all away / Someday, someday / Yeah, you’ll blow us all away / Someday, someday.”
William Hamilton was only 6 years old when his father was killed. Sadly, his life lends extra poignancy to Miranda’s lyrics. He did not realize the promise of his father’s generation.
He had a tough legacy to live up to. William Hamilton tried, in his own way, but ultimately fell short. His father died in a manner immortalized in song, art and literature. The younger Hamilton died of cholera, which spread through Sacramento in 1850 like a plague. For a time he lay in a potter’s field before getting a proper burial with a proper tombstone. And even then, Hamilton’s marker is as much a tribute to his father as it his him. Etched into the memorial is a heroic image of the elder Hamilton with his name most prominent. On the side of the tombstone are the words “Wm Stephen Hamilton son of ... ”
William Hamilton left almost no record and found no gold. By the age of 53, he reportedly regretted ever coming to Sacramento. What little is known of him is buried in archival documents kept by the Wisconsin Historical Society.
“In stature, (Hamilton) was of medium size, thickset,” wrote Theodore Rodolf, a political rival of William Stephen Hamilton’s, in a letter 30 years after his death. “In dress, he was exceedingly negligent. I might also say slovenly. ... His long intercourse and daily association with miners had worn off the polish of city life and (he was) given to an abruptness of speech and dictatorial manner that would have been offensive if had not tempered it with a genial smile and kindly words.”
Rodolf observed that Hamilton “was a confirmed bachelor and did not seem to care much for the female society.”
When a rival is telling your story, the chances of a flattering portrayal are slim. In the case of Alexander Hamilton, his story has been reclaimed by historians and Miranda – all working from Hamilton’s voluminous writings.
In the case of the son, there are questions but few answers. There is only a tombstone in Sacramento with a famous name. There is only the realization that for every figure celebrated in history books and Broadways musicals, there are many more stories like that of William Hamilton’s.
But for a famous name, he would still be in that potter’s field – like countless others who gambled and lost while Sacramento and California were being born. We stand on their shoulders today, even if no one will ever write a musical for men like William Hamilton.