Where to Retrace Hamilton’s Act 2 in National Parks
Shakespeare once wrote that “all the world’s a stage,” and nowhere is that truer than in national parks. Home to countless stories, some familiar and some still waiting to be unearthed, the over 400 national parks preserved and protected by the National Park Service have served as the backdrop for some of the most pivotal events in history. They honor the trailblazing revolutionaries who have shaped our history, preserve our nation’s natural landscapes, and invite us to imagine our future.
There is a long history of national parks inspiring art in all forms, from the paintings out of the Hudson River School and the iconic photographs of Ansel Adams to modern piano pieces and moving short films. These works capture the wonder of our national parks and the stories they have to share. One such piece, “Hamilton: An American Musical,” has captured the minds and hearts of many with its fantastic imagining of one “Founding Father without a father,” inspiring a dedicated fanbase of “Hamilfans” eager to investigate the stories and places that set the scene for both the foundation of our country and the fascinating life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton.
We’re looking at the settings of the action in Act 2 of the smash hit musical “Hamilton” and the parks that preserve their stories today – from the sites of heated government debates to the places where legendary figures would “take a break” from establishing the framework for a new nation.
Asking yourself “what did I miss?” Check out our tour through Act 1 of “Hamilton” here.
Hamilton as a Cabinet Member
Appointed the first Secretary of the Treasury by President George Washington in 1789, Hamilton and other cabinet members, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, newly returned from France, debated over both the structure and role of the new country’s government. Though the Presidential Cabinet includes 16 people today, the vice president and leaders of 15 executive departments, Washington’s Cabinet had just four members: Hamilton, Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
As Aaron Burr notes in “Hamilton,” “every American experiment sets a precedent,” and there is disagreement between parties on how to best to handle the country’s foreign and domestic debts incurred during the American Revolution. In the song “Cabinet Battle #1,” Federalist Hamilton and Democratic-Republican Jefferson argue over Hamilton’s proposed resolution: assuming state debt and establishing a national bank. Jefferson warns Hamilton of possible retaliation over the taxation required to establish the bank: “When Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky, / imagine what’s gonna happen when you try to tax our whiskey.” Indeed, there was a violent response to Hamilton’s tax on distilled spirits, ultimately resulting in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, when farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania attacked the home of tax inspector General John Neville. The story of the Whiskey Rebellion and Albert Gallatin, a local clerk who tried to ease tensions between the farmers and tax collectors, is now preserved at Friendship Hill National Historical Park, once Gallatin’s home. Fun fact: Gallatin would eventually be appointed Secretary of Treasury himself under presidents Jefferson and Madison.
Another argument in the Cabinet concerned where to place the country’s capital. Washington was inaugurated in New York City in 1789, at a site now preserved as Federal Hall National Memorial, but within a year, proceedings moved down to Philadelphia. Many of the first cabinet meetings were held at The President’s House, which served as residence for Presidents Washington and Adams. The site, now an outdoor exhibit that uses archeology of the site to explore the paradox of liberty and enslavement at the home, is part of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. Northern states advocated for a capital in Pennsylvania or New York, but there was also a push for capital cities to be central, equally accessible to all.
A personal conversation between Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison – during which Burr recounts in “The Room Where It Happened” – resolved both major conflicts. Says Burr: “the immigrant [Hamilton] emerges with unprecedented financial power: a system he can shape however he wants. / The Virginians [Jefferson and Madison] emerge with the nation’s capital.” The chosen location on the Potomac was closer to the personal homes of native Virginians Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. The building of the nation’s capital would take 10 years, meaning President Adams was the first to live at the White House – in the meantime Philadelphia would continue to act as the capital city. And it was in Philadelphia that Hamilton finally got his bank – the Bank of the United States, or First Bank, was chartered in 1791 and is now part of Independence National Historical Park.
Hamilton at Home
With big ambitions for the new country, Hamilton was working “non-stop.” But as “Hamilton” reminds us, Alexander was also a beloved father who maintained a close relationship with the family of his wife, Elizabeth (Eliza). In the song “Take a Break,” Eliza urges Hamilton to “runaway with [them] for the summer / we can go upstate” saying they can “always stay with [her] father.” Eliza’s father, Philip Schuyler, was a highly influential retired army veteran, had rebuilt a familial estate house in upstate New York after it was destroyed by retreating British troops following the Battles of Saratoga. The Schuyler House, now part of Saratoga National Historical Park, was visited by many legendary figures, including Washington, Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Hamilton family. The Schuyler family’s home in Albany, known as the Schuyler Mansion, is a National Historical Landmark.
When Eliza argues that “John Adams spends the summer with his family,” Hamilton retorts “John Adams doesn’t have a real job anyway.” The tension between Adams and Hamilton had been building for some time by the time Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury. Though both leaders within the Federalist party, Adams saw Hamilton as overambitious and scandalous, and Hamilton found Adams too emotional. And though Adams had served as Vice President under Washington, he was not a part of Washington’s cabinet and considered the position of Vice President as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." So Adams was happy to return to his familial home in Massachusetts – now preserved as Adams National Historical Park – when he could.
Can We Get Back to Politics?
What exactly was Hamilton taking a break from? Well, besides his financial plan for the country, Hamilton also sought to establish industry in America. In 1792, he co-founded the Society of Establishing Usefull Manufactures (S.U.M) a chartered manufacturing organization that would be operated by private interests and have government support. S.U.M. purchased 700 acres of land above and below the Great Falls in New Jersey and established the city of Paterson. Now preserved as Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, Paterson was America’s first planned industrial city and pioneered methods for harnessing water power for industrial use. Workers from all over the world immigrated to Paterson to work in the city’s many mills, helping the country become an economic power on a global scale.
Hamilton eventually also felt the pull of home, and in 1795 he resigned his post in the presidential cabinet to return to New York, resuming his law practice and spending more time with his still-growing family. However, he stayed close to Washington, helping him draft his farewell address to “teach them how to say goodbye” to the country’s first president.
Hamilton in the Eye of a Personal Hurricane
Hamilton’s retreat from public office did not take him out of the public eye, however. When accusations arose over Hamilton's use of government funds while Secretary of the Treasury to cover up a personal affair between himself and Maria Reynolds, Hamilton was quick to defend his actions in office. In the song “Hurricane,” Hamilton reflects on his approach to overcoming obstacles, recalling the long letter to his father that was published in the Royal Danish American Gazette in 1772, describing a devasting hurricane that hit St. Croix. The town raised funds to send Hamilton to North America for further education – a story now preserved at Christiansted National Historic Site. Hamilton adopts a similar tactic for defending himself in the Reynolds affair: “I’ll write my way out, / write everything down as far as I can see. / I’ll write my way out, / overwhelm them with honesty.” The Reynolds Pamphlet, his official response published in 1797, confirmed the affair but denied wrongdoing in his official duties as Secretary of the Treasury, throwing his reputation and marriage into ruin.
Just a few years later in 1801, Hamilton suffered another personal blow when his eldest son, Philip, died after a duel with George Eacker, a young Republican lawyer who had recently spoken against Hamilton’s dealings as the inspector general of the U.S. Army during the Quasi-War. After this devastating tragedy, "the Hamiltons move uptown / and learn to live with the unimaginable,” settling into a 32-acre estate in upper Manhattan, now preserved as Hamilton Grange National Memorial. The home was completed in 1802 and named after Hamilton’s ancestral home in Scotland, “The Grange.” It was here Hamilton founded The New York Evening Post, through which he indicated his political opinions, including his support for Morgan Lewis, Burr’s opponent in the 1804 election of the New York governor. Visitors today can tour restored rooms, including his personal study, and the surrounding grounds to get a sense of Hamilton’s life at home.
In 1804, Hamilton himself died after a duel with Aaron Burr “near the same spot where his son died” and using the same set of dueling pistols. The feud between Burr and Hamilton had long been brewing, as Hamilton consistently supported Burr’s political opponents, even when they did not share Hamilton’s views or political party. In the song “The World Was Wide Enough,” Hamilton reflects on the legacy he will leave behind: “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song / someone will sing for me. / America, you great unfinished symphony / you sent for me. / You let me make a difference; / a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.” Hamilton was buried at Trinity Church in New York City, now a National Historic Landmark. His death plunged his family into dire financial straits, leaving his wife Eliza to fare a storm of her own.
As documented in the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Eliza became the primary caretaker of Hamilton’s legacy. She organized Hamilton’s many writings and advocated their purchase and publication by the Library of Congress, as well as helped her son John Church Hamilton in publishing Hamilton’s biography. Eliza also immersed herself in charitable work, including helping to establish the Orphan Asylum Society – now known as Graham Windham, and raising money to build the Washington Monument after moving to Washington, D.C. in 1848. She outlived Hamilton by 50 years and worked tirelessly to maintain his legacy as a major figure in early American history.
If we return to Shakespeare’s speech from “As You Like It:” “and all the men and women are merely players / they have their exits and their entrances / and one man in his time plays many parts.” Though Hamilton’s legacy will forever be linked with his famous exit from the world’s stage in a duel, his entrance into the scene and the many parts he played in shaping our country are just as remarkable. His story, told in national parks across the country and preserved in “Hamilton,” will continue to captivate generations to come.
Missed Act I of “Hamilton?” Check out its ties to national parks here.