Ask Alma's Owl: Alexander Hamilton – From King’s College to Broadway

Dear Alma,
I'm going to see the musical
Hamilton if I can score a ticket. Can you tell me about young Alexander Hamilton’s connection to Columbia?

— Broadway Bound

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President Myles Cooper wrote this list of the young men admitted to King's College in 1774. Alexander Hamilton's name is second to last. (Photo courtesy of Columbia University Archives)

Dear Broadway Bound,

Hamilton attended King’s College from 1774-1776, then quit to serve in the brand-new Continental Army as a commissioned officer, a post he attained with the help of his future fellow framer of the Constitution, John Jay (King’s College, 1764).

His bravery and savvy military judgment brought him to the attention of Gen. George Washington, who asked him to become his aide- de-camp for the remainder of the Revolutionary War. That makes Hamilton Columbia’s—and possibly, the nation’s – most illustrious dropout. The rest is, quite literally, history.

“Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did,” writes Ron Chernow, author of the well-regarded biography Alexander Hamilton, which inspired the musical of the same name.

His meteoric rise is all the more stunning considering his inauspicious origins. Born on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis to unmarried parents, Hamilton was orphaned at 13 and began work at a local import-export firm, where he learned the subtleties of economics, debt and trade. His work ethic and writing talent brought him to the attention of local businessmen, who raised money to send him to North America for his education. 

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Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull (circa 1806); National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (Photo courtesy of Columbia University Archives)

Hamilton’s name is among 17 incoming students in a list handwritten by King’s College President Myles Cooper in 1774. He took a tutorial in mathematics and attended lectures in anatomy. King’s College also offered such classical subjects as Greek and Latin literature and philosophy, which burnished Hamilton’s knowledge of legal thought and the English constitution, which were to prove invaluable in fashioning a new nation.

Hamilton roomed with his friend Robert Troup, and the pair started their own club, which met each week with other students to improve their literary, writing and debating skills, according to Chernow. As revolutionary fervor increased, Hamilton began writing a series of anti-British essays, testing them out on his club mates.

On July 6, 1774, the Sons of Liberty, an organization of American colonists, held a downtown meeting near King’s College, calling for a boycott of British-made goods. Chernow writes that Hamilton rose to the platform and made a spontaneous speech railing against unfair taxation. When he finished, the crowd fell silent, then burst into cheers.“`It is a collegian,’ they whispered to each other,” Chernow writes. “From that moment on, he was treated as a youthful hero of the cause.”

Hamilton also was a hero at Columbia. On May 10, 1775, a group of patriots carried cudgels to King's College to tar and feather its president, Cooper, a British born Tory who wrote pamphlets saying that opposition to the Crown was treasonous. As the throng closed in, Hamilton is said to have delivered a speech saying that their actions would \"disgrace and injure the glorious cause of liberty.\" His rhetoric likely kept the crowd at bay long enough for Cooper to slip out the back and onto a ship headed to England.

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The bronze cast of the statue of Alexander Hamilton (undergoing maintenance here in 1953) stands in front of Hamilton Hall. The sculptor was William Ordway Partridge (CC'1883). (Photo courtesy of Columbia University Archives)

As the modern musical lays out in hip-hop rhymes, Hamilton became a prestigious lawyer who helped found the Bank of New York and The New York Post. A writer of some of the most important Federalist Papers, he became the nation’s first and, at age 34, its youngest treasury secretary, in which capacity he established the nation’s banking system. And as is widely known, he was killed in 1804 in a duel by Princeton alumnus Aaron Burr, then the young nation’s vice president. Hamilton is buried in Trinity Church’s graveyard, steps away from Columbia’s first campus.

His name lives on at Columbia. A life-size bronze statue of him adorns the steps of Hamilton Hall, which houses the offices of Undergraduate Admissions, Dean of the College, the Core Curriculum and various humanities departments. Every year, the Columbia College Alumni Association gives a medal bearing his name to its most distinguished graduates. And Columbia Libraries manages the Alexander Hamilton Project, a 30-year effort to collect, edit and publish the written records of the revolutionary rhetorician’s life.

On Aug. 6, Hamilton opened on Broadway after an award-winning run at the Public Theater, in a venue named for yet another distinguished Columbian, the Richard Rodgers Theatre (CC’1923).

— By Gary Shapiro

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August 28, 2015