Alexander Hamilton: Patriot, heartthrob
Sophia Taborski, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, in her Alexander Hamilton T-shirt. For video, visit post-gazette.com
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Sophia Taborski, 19, a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, on April 17 stood poised in 4-inch heels and a black suit in a cavernous ballroom in Alumni Hall. Surrounded by 150 other students and their research projects, she situated herself next to her laptop and prepared to speak about classical influences on Alexander Hamilton.
An hour and a half later, still no one had showed up to inquire about her research. And so Ms. Taborski minimized her PowerPoint presentation and did what any well-informed Hamilton admirer does these days: She started rapping.
The song was from Lin-Manuel Miranda's "The Hamilton Mixtape," an album that tells Hamilton's life story through rap.
As a crowd of 15 gathered, Ms. Taborski pulled out a powder horn, a hollow device for carrying gunpowder that her grandpa had made for her as a child out of a cow horn. It was similar to one Hamilton had used in the 1770s. She promised to give $10 to anyone who could guess what Hamilton had carved on his powder horn.
"People guessed typical things: the American flag, a horse, the 'Don't Tread on Me' snake," Ms. Taborski recalled. "But no, because it was actually a unicorn."
Alexander Hamilton, once the forgotten founder, is increasingly attracting admirers in the fields of politics and economics. But he's also drawing fans. Their devotion, like Ms. Taborski's, is equal parts scholarly appreciation and pop-star fever.
Yes, Ms. Taborski said, Hamilton helped mastermind the passage of the Constitution, was appointed the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, invented the modern American financial system and levied the whiskey tax that ignited the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania. But he was also a rash, feisty orphan from the West Indies who wrote history's first 95-page pamphlet about an extramarital affair and died in a 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. He was the only founding father to carve a unicorn on his powder horn.
"That's the complete package right there. I mean, give me his number," she said.
Hamilton hasn't always been in such demand. His only monument in Washington is a fenced-off statue behind the Treasury building. In 2004, conservatives proposed replacing Hamilton's face on the $10 bill with Ronald Reagan's.
But since that year, when Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow released a Hamilton biography and Hamilton and Burr's descendents re-enacted their ancestors' famous duel on its 200th anniversary, Hamilton has reclaimed his spot as one of the most influential Founding Fathers. President Barack Obama quoted him in a major 2008 speech on the importance of government intervention in the economy. Tea Party members revere the Federalist Papers, which Hamilton largely authored.
American economists are now asking European leaders struggling with a debt crisis to look to Hamilton, who helped save the early American economy by having the federal government assume state debts. Jean-Claude Trichet, former president of the European Central Bank, was seen carrying a copy of Mr. Chernow's biography in 2011.
"There's been a rediscovery of Hamilton," Mr. Chernow said, calling him a messenger from the future. "Hamilton is the one founder who seems to have had the most prophetic vision."
And yet Hamilton's most loyal fans aren't found in the halls of Congress or the board rooms of Europe. They're on the Internet. When Ms. Taborski met with her research adviser, Pitt English professor Caroline Hamilton -- a distant relation -- Ms. Hamilton didn't request a paper on the founder's economic foresight. Instead, Ms. Hamilton, whose 2010 paper is titled "The Erotic Charisma of Alexander Hamilton," wanted a list of Hamilton fan Tumblr blogs. Ms. Taborski sent her a list that included "Aaron Burr's Sex Dungeon," "Hamilton is my Homeboy" and "Hamilton Kitty."
On Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, fans admire his "strong jawline" and "kissable lips" and post pictures of themselves clutching Hamilton statues.
History has long hankered for Hamilton. Federalist Fisher Ames once described his eyes as "eminently beautiful," while Abigail Adams wrote that Hamilton represented "lasciviousness itself." Martha Washington named her amorous cat Hamilton after his flirtatious ways.
The Treasury Department institutionalized Hamilton's makeover with its redesign of the $10 bill in 2005. On the new bill, his eyes became warmer and his face turned toward the viewer. His shoulders broadened, his face got younger and his hair became wavier.
"You get an idea of his expression and he becomes more accessible," said Douglas Mudd, curator of the American Numismatic Association's Money Museum.
Hamilton's unlikely story adds to his appeal.
As the rap song by Lin-Manuel Miranda asks: "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore /...by Providence impoverished, to squalor / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
Hamilton was born an illegitimate child to a mother who was jailed for adultery and died when he was 12. He grew up on the Caribbean island of Nevis, which Mr. Chernow describes in his book as a "tropical hellhole" populated by vagabonds and criminals. Hamilton got his break when a letter he wrote describing a destructive hurricane fell into the hands of a newspaper editor. Locals were so enamored that they took up a fund to send him to America. Soon he was advising Gen. George Washington.
"He really was the American dream," said Jessica Turner, 24, a Philadelphia screenwriter who runs Humble Egomania, a Tumblr that posts frequently about Hamilton.
According to Mr. Chernow, Hamilton's rough childhood made him into a feisty contrarian. He threatened to resign from his post alongside Washington if he didn't get a promotion. His feud with Burr escalated after Hamilton repeatedly called him a dangerous politician.
"People who filter through their thoughts are boring," Ms. Taborski said. "Hamilton says what he wants to say."
Western Pennsylvanians haven't always appreciated Hamilton's doggedness. He implemented a 1791 whiskey tax that came down hard on small distillers in Washington County. When they rebelled, Hamilton led 13,000 troops into Western Pennsylvania to crush them.
But Hamilton also nursed a softer quality that has come into full view on the Internet. He composed tender love letters. To his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, he wrote, "When I attempt to speak of my feelings I rave ... Love is a sort of insanity."
"In current parlance he's got both this emo side and this gangster side," Ms. Hamilton said. "He wears his heart on his sleeve."
Ms. Turner's favorite letter is one in which Hamilton frets over having sent 20 letters to his wife while receiving only three in return. He demands to know why his wife hasn't responded.
"That's like texting someone five times in one minute and three of those texts are 'Did you get my text?' " Ms. Turner wrote in an email. "Chill, Alexander. She'll get to them."
She went on, "He was a real person with real hopes and needs and pains."
Hamilton's honesty sometimes proved humiliating, as when he wrote a 95-page exposition on an extramarital affair to clear his name against charges of financial impropriety. But he never hid his faults.
"On the one hand he was so brilliant and productive," Mr. Chernow said. "Yet at the same time he's flawed enough that you can identify with him."
Ms. Taborski sounded more like a novelist than a history student when she spoke about Hamilton, but even she couldn't have expected quite how lively his Internet persona would become.
As history major Alisia True at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts wrote beneath a Hamilton portrait on her Tumblr, "[Baby] you can assume my debt anyday."
First Published July 4, 2012 12:00 am