Topic: Editor’s perspective

History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor and Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
June 27, 2017

New York City’s Times Square starkly contrasts the small, quiet town of Charlottesville, Va., where The Washington Papers is based. Throngs of tourists pack the streets, performers vie for attention, and video advertisements overwhelm the eyes. In the midst of this sensory overload, an escape to a side street is a relief. Choose the correct street, and the Richard Rodgers Theater, the home of Hamilton the musical, will quickly appear on your left. Before you know it, you may find yourself humming a tune about Thomas Jefferson or quietly reciting George Washington’s Farewell Address in a rhythmic fashion. A far-fetched scenario just a few years ago, Hamilton has catapulted revolutionary history into the stratosphere. In the words of one teenage fan, “This is, like, crazy cool.”1 And after recently attending a performance of the show, these documentary editors wholeheartedly agree.

Is Hamilton an academic, perfectly accurate historical interpretation? Of course not. But what it does do is use catchy tunes—and primary sources—to make history accessible and entertaining to a new generation of Americans. Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address is one such example. In “One Last Time,” Washington informs Hamilton that he will not be running for a third term as president because the nation is ready to move on. The president asks Hamilton to revise a draft of his address to the people in order to “teach them how to say goodbye” and to express his hopes for the new nation. In an impressive display of history reimagined, the resulting lyrics seldom deviate from the actual address. The following lyrics are drawn from the musical, with additional text from the historical address in brackets:

Assistant editor Lynn Price (left) and research specialist Elisa Shields (right) waiting in anticipation for the show.

Consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest . . . I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize [, without alloy,] the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.2

Hamilton ushers spectators through a veritable maze of laughter, sadness, excitement, and political intrigue. Hamilton creator Lin-Manual Miranda originally portrayed the character of Alexander Hamilton in the musical. Before Miranda (who is of Puerto Rican descent) brought Hamilton the historical figure to Broadway, most Americans likely did not know that the first secretary of the treasury was born in the West Indies. He was, in other words, an immigrant. It is doubtful that Americans considered the Federalist Papers, co-written by Hamilton, a captivating read. And in the story of the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel, Aaron Burr was not liable to receive a sympathetic assessment. Today, however, both Hamilton and Burr are starting to receive the attention and recognition they deserve—the former for being the mastermind behind the nation’s financial, legal, and political systems, and the latter for being a more nuanced and multifaceted figure than most history books acknowledge (not to mention an essential player in Hamilton’s short but intense life). While Hamilton is the namesake and star of the show, Burr remains its central figure. Not only does he narrate almost every song (the Hamilton song “Dear Theodosia” best exemplifies the more humanistic view of Burr), but the events often spiral around him.3 Leaving the theater with a new appreciation for the maligned figure known principally for killing Alexander Hamilton was only one of many delightful effects of an exceptional and inimitable Broadway experience.

In the development phase of his hit musical, Miranda extensively researched historical figures for context. This process included visiting the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, a journey that many of the show’s fans now repeat. If you were unaware that it was in the neighborhood, you would never guess that Hamilton’s estate, The Grange (his “sweet project” as he liked to call it), humbly stands a few blocks away from the campus of the City College of New York in Harlem.3 Other than a Hamilton Terrace street sign, there are no indications of the site’s presence as you stroll along West 141st Street. And yet, there it is: a charming yellow house, cozily surrounded by trees and what used to be bare land. Inside, the charm continues as visitors are encouraged to visit the house’s first floor, which consists of four rooms, most of which are incredibly luminous and welcoming. It is intriguing to visualize the house being moved—twice!—in the last 200 years in response to a growing city. Even as Hamilton’s old neighborhood becomes unrecognizable to his era, this piece of history remains.

It is difficult to dispute Hamilton‘s Schuyler sisters when they chant that New York is “the greatest city in the world.”4 One can only imagine how it must have felt for a young Alexander Hamilton, fresh off a ship from Nevis and arriving in a place of such excitement and opportunities. Perhaps some things don’t change over time. We arrived and left New York City with a “head full of fantasies” (and Hamilton songs on repeat).5

All photos courtesy of the authors.

 

Notes

1. Erica Milvy, “Hamilton’s teenage superfans: ‘This is, like, crazy cool’,” The Guardian, June 22, 2016, accessed June 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/22/hamilton-teenage-superfans-this-is-like-crazy-cool.

2. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” accessed June 14, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp; Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)—Act II Booklet, 14-15, accessed June 14, 2017, https://warnermusicgroup.app.box.com/s/98o13fgs1vrb2wxqe1zel2ugw7ppryv9/1/4712017338/38329308850/1.

3 Leslie Odom, Jr., and Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Dear Theodosia,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

3. “From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, [19] November 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-22-02-0154. Also available in print: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 22, July 1798 – March 1799.

4. Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, “Schuyler Sisters,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

5. Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., “Right Hand Man,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

My Set of John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington: A Research Puzzle

by William M. Ferraro, Research Associate Professor and Acting Editor in Chief
June 16, 2016

An exceptional benefit of editing the Papers of George Washington is exposure to so many sources on early American history. A notable one that I encountered not long after starting with the project in June 2006 was John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington (5 vols.; Philadelphia, 1804-7). I discovered that the American edition’s sixth volume included maps of the Revolutionary War. I decided to visit the University of Virginia’s Harrison-Small Special Collections Library, just steps from my office, in order to examine the maps for my editing of Revolutionary War letters.

The maps proved to be wonderfully detailed and helpful, but the real find came as a complete surprise. The map volume listed all the subscribers who financed publication of Marshall’s multivolume biography.1 The names of individuals and institutions appeared under towns, cities, and counties grouped by state. Groupings also existed for the District of Columbia and foreign countries. Arranged in six columns per page, the subscribers numbered about 9,000. If properly cataloged and researched, this subscribers list could help scholars, and such work is a long-term aspiration of The Washington Papers. Nevertheless, even in its raw state, the list provides a wealth of information and intellectual opportunities.

I used some of that potential in a class I taught during the Fall 2016 semester. For a writing assignment, I asked each student to choose one-to-three subscribers from his or her hometown or the nearest place on the list. The student then prepared a research paper describing that locality and its people, and suggesting why a subscriber might have been interested in George Washington. An unanticipated problem arose for students from Florida, Colorado, and other places outside the settled or jurisdictional boundaries of the United States in the early nineteenth century. Unable to select a subscriber from their hometowns, these students identified listed localities associated with parents or grandparents. A particularly interesting paper emerged when a student from Denver discovered that her research subject, from Newburyport, Mass., was a distant relative!

The success of this assignment increased my desire to own a set of the Marshall biography volumes, a foundational work in both George Washington biography and U. S. historiography. Marshall wrote the books at the behest of Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew and Marshall’s U.S. Supreme Court colleague. Bushrod made available the vast collection of his uncle’s papers in his possession and encouraged Marshall to write on a scale commensurate with the achievements of its towering subject. While Marshall can be chided for borrowing heavily from other sources (in that period’s customary manner), his volumes captured the nationalist spirit that animated contemporary Federalists and unflinchingly positioned George Washington as the crucial figure in the founding of the United States.2

Since the original volumes of the first American edition are both scarce and expensive, you may imagine my delight this past winter when a full set (minus the map volume, which is very rare and expensive) landed on the shelf of Daedalus Used Books—a landmark shop for bibliophiles in Charlottesville—for only $125. According to Sandy McAdams, the sociable proprietor, the books “had walked through the door” only a day or two earlier. He further explained that the modest price was due to the fourth volume missing its end boards, or being “hurt,” in his more colloquial parlance. The other four volumes, however, looked fabulous. I happily carted the set home with thoughts that its subscriber probably had lived in central Virginia, because Daedalus primarily obtains stock from the surrounding area.

Unlike some book collectors, I like old books with the names of previous owners and marginalia that show past intellectual engagement. I eagerly paged through my Marshall volumes looking for clues about their history. A few turned-down page corners indicated prior reading, but pressed leaves and flowers in the first two volumes were the most prevalent evidence of former handling.

No volume contained writing, but the first volume did have a printed label pasted inside the back cover with useful information: “RARE, SCARCE, and OUT OF PRINT BOOKS, DOCUMENTS, Etc. For Sale By WALTER M. MURDIE, 134 Radcliffe Ave, PROVIDENCE, R.I.” Poking around the internet revealed that Walter M. Murdie was active in the Rhode Island capital during the 1920s and 1930s. The address was and is situated in a largely residential neighborhood, so he apparently operated his business out of his home.

Murdie’s pasted label dismissed my initial thoughts that the subscriber had lived in central Virginia and focused my attention on Providence and nearby jurisdictions. Having written my dissertation on town-meeting government in Rhode Island, I was quite familiar with the politics and prominent figures of the state.3 Subscriber listings in the map volume show 67 names under Providence, including Eliza Nightingale (1780–1863), a woman who never married. Another six can be found between nearly adjacent Cumberland and Warwick. The Providence subscribers include many people of note: Samuel G. Arnold, historian; Jabez Bowen, the state’s lieutenant governor during the Revolutionary War who corresponded regularly with Washington; John Brown, businessman and benefactor of Brown University; Theodore Foster, one of the state’s first U. S. senators; and Thomas P. Ives, merchant.

It will take an inordinate amount of research and extreme serendipity to confirm the subscriber who owned my set of Marshall’s books. Until that unlikely conjunction of circumstances, I will take pleasure in using the contents for my study and teaching, all the while thinking about the volumes’ distinguished Rhode Island owner and their largely mute past.

All photos courtesy of author.

 

Endnotes

  1. The Life of George Washington: Maps and Subscriber’s Names (Philadelphia, 1807).
  2. For an overview of Marshall’s authorship of his The Life of George Washington, see the “Editorial Note” in Charles Hobson et al., eds., The Papers of John Marshall: Volume VI, Correspondence, Papers, and Selected Judicial Opinions, November 1800–March 1807 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990), 219–30. For an examination of Marshall’s use of sources that stops just short of calling him a plagiarist, see William A. Foran, “John Marshall as a Historian,” in American Historical Review 43 (1937-38): 51-64.
  3. See William M. Ferraro, “Lives of Quiet Desperation: Community and Polity in New England over Four Centuries: The Cases of Portsmouth and Foster, Rhode Island,” PhD diss., Brown University, 1991.

More Than Meets the Eye

By Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
January 24, 2017

The common adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is often adapted into tale, the most popular of which is “Beauty and the Beast.” The timeless story opens on an old beggar woman seeking shelter from the storm at a prince’s castle. The prince, though noble and handsome, is also cruel and unkind. He dismisses the ugly old beggar woman, unaware she is a powerful sorceress. The sorceress transforms into her beautiful self and warns the prince not to be deceived by outer appearance. To instill this lesson, she turns the prince into a horrific beast, placing a curse upon his castle that can only be broken when he finds someone who will reciprocate his love despite his beastly appearance. Following a period of prolonged self-reflection and caring for others, the prince finally breaks the curse. This tale has engaged audiences across the world, blossoming into a beloved romance and children’s bedtime story. But the theatricality of “Beauty and the Beast” might divert the audience from its moral.

While searching for newspaper articles about Martha Washington, I came across a similar story in the Alexandria Gazette.

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What I learned from keeping an eighteenth-century correspondence in the twenty-first century

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
December 22, 2016

I understand that to many of our readers, the idea of writing handwritten letters to a friend is not so much a fun challenge as it is a (very recently) outmoded form of communication. But as someone who grew up in the computer age and spends most of her work hours reading and transcribing Martha Washington’s letters, I was inspired to write some of my own. I also hoped keeping a correspondence would provide me with a glimpse into the culture and practicalities of letter writing in the eighteenth century.

And so, I decided to write a letter every week for about a month to my friend Rachel, hoping this would help me reach a deeper affinity with Martha Washington and her correspondents.

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A Discovery in the Library: My Treasure Hunt through the George Washington Papers Shelf List

by Elizabeth Higdon, Undergraduate Worker
October 31, 2016

This fall, I returned to UVA, beginning my second year in the College of Arts and Sciences and at the Washington Papers. Usually, my job around the office is determined on a day-to-day basis: some days I’m combing through newspaper databases, other days researching people on Ancestry.com. This year, however, I had a more substantial project awaiting me. I was to review the shelf list, take inventory, and organize all of the books belonging to the GW Papers. It seems like a straightforward task, and it is, for the most part, but when you take into account that the shelves in these five rooms hold more than 3000 books (and more every day), it becomes slightly daunting.

I started with history publications, autobiographies, and letters, everything you would expect an eighteenth/nineteenth century documentary editing project to have on hand. Then, I moved on to more obscure materials: museum guides, orderly books, and assorted pamphlets made illegible by cramped writing. I found books on woodworking, textiles, and freemasonry. One full shelf was dedicated to less prominent eyewitness accounts of the American Revolution. There was an entire cabinet filled with rolls of microfilm. It was at this point in my project that things got interesting.

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My Summer with Martha

By Katie Herring, Former Undergraduate Intern
July 29, 2016

Former undergraduate intern Katie Herring.

Former Undergraduate Intern Katie Herring.

Fresh off I-81, I arrived at the University of Virginia in my Virginia Tech sweatshirt. You could say I stood out. But no matter: I was welcomed into the Washington Papers family as if I were one of their own, not just as an undergraduate who would be there for several weeks, but as another historian and aspiring archivist.

I was unbelievably excited to come to Charlottesville, not for the city itself, of course, but to work. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was looking forward to hiking and going to wineries, but that’s a story for another blog post. I couldn’t wait to start working with the Papers. The musical Hamilton had just gotten popular, and the first time I heard “Right Hand Man” only increased my excitement. I got chills when George Washington’s character was introduced in Hamilton. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. The entire musical amplified my enthusiasm for the Revolutionary Era. This internship really couldn’t have come at a better time for me—or in pop culture.

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Get Dressed or Get Embarrassed

By Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
June 29, 2016

After a difficult spring semester, I returned home from the University of Virginia to visit my family, exchanging the stirring smell of coffee from Alderman Library for the welcoming aroma of authentic Vietnamese food. Being home is always a welcome, much-needed break. My productivity level plummets, and my motivation to look presentable disappears. I constantly find myself wearing pajama pants and T-shirts, and I usually think my fashion choices are fine. Being home is a break from the necessity to appear “put-together”…or so I thought.

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The Heartbreaker

By Mary Wigge, Research Editor
June 21, 2016

Letters reveal a great deal about the sender and recipient—their relationship, their opinions on particular matters—as well as overall historical context. Condolence letters do that and more. George Washington’s death resulted in a deluge of condolences to Martha, from family members, friends, organizations, acquaintances, and even strangers. Sending their regrets, these letters vary from brief notes to lengthy passages. As a research editor, it’s eye-opening to see the spectrum of emotions conveyed.

I first read these condolence letters in 2014 as research on the papers of Martha Washington. Sitting in Mount Vernon’s special collections room with one of my colleagues, I found myself robotically skimming through one condolence letter to Martha after another. I was unfazed. That may sound insensitive, but most of the letters followed a formulaic pattern: regret for Martha’s loss and hope for a swift recovery. The end. A light touch of sympathy with a dash of suggested solace—there was no effusive heart-pouring nor anguished despair. It was not until Lafayette’s letter that I truly felt loss for the “beloved General” Washington.

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A Lesson About Duty from General George Washington

By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
June 4, 2016

Recently, someone contacted the Washington Papers for help with locating a specific document. They were looking for a letter in which George Washington explained why patriotism was not enough to win the Revolutionary War. Fair payment for the men who fought was also needed:

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Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

Impressions of Martha Washington: A Visit to New Kent County

By Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
May 12, 2016

Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

Historical marker for New Kent County, Virginia.

Sometimes I’ll go stand in front of our shelves of Martha Washington documents and give them a calculating look-over. Each decade has its own shelf, from the 1750s to the 1800s. The 1790s and 1800s bulge with the most envelopes, and get a contented nod. The 1750s get a narrow look because we don’t yet have anything earlier than 1757. That’s 27 years of Martha’s life that have escaped, for the most part, from the documentary record.

I yearn to know more about her younger life, about her relationship with her first husband, about her family, about her home, about what her favorite dresses were, even.1 Who was this girl, Patsy Dandridge, before she became the wealthy Martha Custis, before she was thrown into the spotlight as Martha Washington? Alas, I’m forced to settle for getting only glimpses of her, when I can get them.

So I was excited to visit New Kent County, Virginia, with our Martha team. I wanted to walk the land she grew up on, to see her Pamunkey River, and to wander about the foundations of her family homes.

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