National Archives News

Archives Displays Hamilton’s Documents in Exhibit Incorporating Musical’s Lyrics

By Kerri Lawrence  |  National Archives News

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The Featured Document exhibit, “Alexander Hamilton: An Inspiring Founder,” runs from June 7 through September 19, 2018 at the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC.  (National Archives photo by Kerri Lawrence)

WASHINGTON, June 7, 2018 — Records related to one of our nation’s Founding Fathers are coupled and displayed with lyrics from a smash Broadway musical in an innovative new exhibit at the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC. Original records from Alexander Hamilton’s life and legacy are paired alongside the rap lyrics from the highly acclaimed Broadway hit, Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was best known for his role as the first Secretary of the Treasury during the nation’s earliest years. However, until recently he was one of the lesser known Founding Fathers. His legacy includes establishing the first National Bank, the U.S. Mint, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interpretation of Alexander Hamilton’s life story was inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, which author and historian Ron Chernow researched at the National Archives. Chernow's biography was influenced by the Alexander Hamilton Papers supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. You can read transcriptions of Hamilton's letters on Founders Online.

Miranda’s musical sets itself apart from other Broadway musicals with a lively score containing songs heavily influenced by hip-hop and its recasting of America’s Founding Fathers with a diverse cast of actors. 

“I chose to pair the records that I selected for the exhibit with related lyrics from the popular musical to help visitors relate those moments to the real historical documents from Alexander Hamilton's life and legacy,” said Corinne Porter, a National Archives exhibits information specialist and curator of the exhibit, “Alexander Hamilton: An Inspiring Founder.”

The Featured Document exhibit, open from June 7 through September 19, 2018, includes Hamilton’s Statement of My Property and Debts, with Remarks. Hamilton penned the handwritten document in early July 1804, just days before he died from wounds suffered in his duel with lifelong arch nemesis Aaron Burr. He wrote it with hopes of explaining his financial circumstances, as he feared that his debts would be burdensome to his family after his passing. The document inspired the Hamilton song “Best of Wives and Best of Women,” in which his wife, Eliza, asks him, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”  

George Washington’s Nomination of Alexander Hamilton to be the First Secretary of the Treasury, written on September 11,1789, is also featured in the exhibit. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton implemented an ambitious plan to strengthen the new nation’s economy. He consolidated individual states’ Revolutionary War debts into a single national debt, instituted a Federal excise tax to raise revenues, and created a national bank to improve the nation’s credit and transact Federal financial business.

An original copy of Hamilton’s letter to the Marquis de Lafayette describing his actions at the Battle of Yorktown details his unit’s successful assault and capture of Redoubt 10 during the Siege of Yorktown. The British Army’s loss of this defensive stronghold contributed to General Cornwallis’s surrender, bringing an end to the Revolutionary War. The Hamilton song, “Yorktown” was inspired by the war events.

Elizabeth “Eliza” Hamilton’s Petition Asking Congress to Publish Alexander Hamilton’s Writings, 1846, is also displayed in the exhibit. After Hamilton’s death, his widow spent her remaining 50 years dedicated to preserving her husband’s legacy, as demonstrated by her petition to Congress requesting assistance to fund the publication of his papers. She argued that publishing and preserving his papers would demonstrate to the American people how necessary Alexander Hamilton was to the nation. Congress subsequently passed legislation to publish, distribute, and preserve those papers. The musical’s song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” was inspired by Eliza’s dedication to preserving her husband’s memory and legacy after his untimely death.

Get a behind-the-scenes preview of some of the documents on display via our recent Facebook Live. The exhibit will be featured in the East Rotunda Gallery at the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EDT daily. Admission is free.

The exhibit opens in conjunction with the debut of Hamilton at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, from June 12 through September 16, 2018. In 2016, the musical received a record-setting 16 Tony nominations, winning 11, including Best Musical, and was also the recipient of the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Hamilton Documents on Display in the Rotunda of the National Archives.

Alexander Hamilton’s “Statement of My Property and Debts, with Remarks,” July 1, 1804. (National Archives Identifier 306690). See the National Archives Catalog for the transcribed text of Hamilton's handwritten statement.