Segment from Hamilton

Immigrants Get The Job Done

“Hamilton” the musical tells much of Alexander Hamilton’s story through rap with a focus on his humble immigrant origins. University of Pennsylvania’s Rogers Smith explains Hamilton’s background.

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ED: We’re going to turn now to the topic at the centerpiece of this musical– Hamilton’s humble immigrant origins.

AARON BURR: (RAPPING) How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

ED: These are the first lyrics of the first song of Hamilton, and they provide the broad outlines of his background– that he was born out of wedlock in the British West Indies, and that he was the only founder hailing from outside the 13 colonies.

RISA: Hamilton arrived in New York City as a teenager. He attended King’s College– now known as Columbia University– and went on to become a talented and prominent lawyer. His political rise began when he joined the Continental Army, where he quickly came to the attention of General George Washington. Washington made Hamilton his personal aide, and served as a mentor and political patron to his young protege after the war.

ED: This origin story set Hamilton apart from the other Founding Fathers, such as Jefferson or Washington, and even from his rival Aaron Burr, all of whom were born to wealth and privilege. Historian Rogers Smith says that many of these founders took note of the difference.

ROGERS SMITH: Because Hamilton rose to prominence very quickly, and acquired enemies along the way, both his class and his illegitimacy background were known and held against him by his critics almost from the start.

ED: Smith says that John Adams once called the ambitious young Hamilton a bastard son of a Scots peddler. Hamilton’s other opponent saw his immigrant roots as proof of his loyalty to the British. But Smith told me that Hamilton himself neither embraced nor tried to hide his background.

ROGERS SMITH: He preferred to focus on his new identity as an American, and his commitment to first, the revolutionary cause, and then the cause of building up the new republic.

ED: Do you think that there was something from being not from the North American colonies that informed his own perspective on things?

ROGERS SMITH: Absolutely. I’d stress two factors. One was that most of those who were born in the British American colonies, particularly the Virginians like Thomas Jefferson, actually thought of their colony of Virginia as their homeland, and they had only a weak sense of American national identity. Hamilton, in contrast, thought of himself first and foremost as an American, and was determined to help build up the new American national government as an expression of that identity. And it did give him a strong sense of the importance for the nation-building project of making the US a great economic power on a global scale, and particularly in relation to Europe and to Britain.

ED: So growing up in commerce, Hamilton really understood the power and necessity of commerce in a way that the Virginians, who read so many of the documents, did not.

ROGERS SMITH: Yes. Commerce, trade, and economic development were central priorities for him. And I do think that the fact that he came from a trading partner in the British Empire was an important source of that view.

ED: So your first point on that is very interesting, Rogers. It says that he’s more American because he’s not deeply rooted in any particular part of America. That he could see the entire enterprise in a way that virtually nobody else could. That’s why he’s such an advocate for the national vision?

ROGERS SMITH: Absolutely. And that was only reinforced by the fact that he became Washington’s top aide in the Revolutionary Army, so he was working for the national cause from early on as a young man. And then, of course, he went on to serve in the first Washington administration. So all his experiences combined to give him a kind of national view that almost no other founder had to the same extent.

ED: So in some ways he was more nationalist than his great mentor, George Washington.

ROGERS SMITH: Yes, although Washington was, along with John Marshall, certainly the most nationally-minded of the Virginia leadership. Even so, when Washington, who did not enjoy the presidency, went back home to Virginia, in his mind he was returning to his country as much as moving away from its center of government.

ED: And Jefferson would talk much the same way later on. And Madison and Monroe, going back home to Virginia, the great–

ROGERS SMITH: Even more so.

ED: Yeah. So, growing up in a society that was even more saturated in slavery than British North America, what Influence do you think that had on Hamilton?

ROGERS SMITH: We don’t have accounts that suggest that the young Hamilton, like the young Abraham Lincoln, was repulsed by spectacles of slavery. But it is certainly true that he had a strong conviction early on that a slave economy was economically unprofitable, as well as fundamentally immoral. Now, Hamilton was not a great anti-slavery crusader, and the play somewhat exaggerates the extent to which he spoke out against slavery. But it is unquestionably true that he thought building a strong national economy meant moving away from a slave-based economy. And all his proposals were designed to help make that possible.

ED: So, when Hamilton gained political power, did he have anything in particular to say or do about immigrants who followed him to the new United States?

ROGERS SMITH: Hamilton– prophetically– wanted manufacturing to grow in America, to give it a strong economic foundation. And he thought that if immigrants came and worked in manufacturing, they could be more productive and contribute more to the national economy than farmers did.

He was rather scornful of farming as an enterprise in which people planted in the spring and they harvested in the fall, but the rest of the time they didn’t contribute very much. Immigrant labor, he thought, in manufacturing could work all day and all night. And for him, that was an enticing prospect. He also thought you could put women and children to work in the factories, as well.

ED: Well, up to that point, I was feeling pretty good about this Alexander Hamilton guy. And it sounds to me, Rogers, as if the portrayal that you’ve given us actually accords with the play pretty well. That it captures a lot of the energy and this sort of sense of identification with a larger project, at the same time, a kind of embrace of having a marginal kind of background. Am I putting words in your mouth, or is that right?

ROGERS SMITH: No, I think that by and large he definitely was an immigrant success story. In many ways Hamilton is a prototype, not only for a self-made man, but for an immigrant who seizes on his American identity as the basis for social acceptance.

ED: Rogers Smith is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Civic Ideals– Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in US History.