By Maddie Orton
If “Hamilton” lyrics about Princeton University and the Battle of Monmouth made your ears prick up, you’re not alone. The story of Alexander Hamilton as an American revolutionary starts here in New Jersey and ends here in New Jersey. With unprecedented fandom surrounding the 11-time Tony Award-winning musical, tourism to Hamilton-related historical sites is on the rise.
So we at NJTV News set out on our own two-part Hamilton History Tour. Today’s journey starts in Elizabeth. Formerly Elizabethtown, Hamilton studied at what was then the Academy of Elizabethtown — now a community and cultural center called the Snyder Academy. And he stayed at what’s now Liberty Hall in Union.
“Hamilton came at the age of 14. He was a young man, already very precocious. But he had this incredible opportunity to meet these people who were colonial leaders, who in some cases were even world leaders,” said Snyder Academy of Elizabethtown Program Consultant Elliot Dee.
“And his mentors were Elias Boudinot and William Livingston — those were the kind of men he looked up to as he learned how to be a gentleman, and they lived here. … He resided both with the Livingstons and with the Boudinots, kind of back and forth. … If you wanted to rise in the ranks of America back then, you kind of needed to get an education and that’s the society at the time,” said Liberty Hall Museum Director of Museum Operations Bill Schroh.
A future colleague of his also studied here.
Is it right to say that Aaron Burr also went to the Academy of Elizabethtown?
“He did. Aaron Burr was also a student here at the Academy. Hamilton and Burr missed each other by just a few months. And sometimes I wonder, maybe if they had had a chance to be students here together, if the outcome for both of them would have been better later on in their lives,” Dee said.
Flash forward a few years to a fledgling nation declaring its independence. And the start of the Revolutionary War.
Hamilton led troops in both the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton.
At Princeton, Hessian soldiers — Germans fighting for the king — took over Princeton University’s Nassau Hall. It was called The College of New Jersey back then. Americans were forced to fire on their own building.
“The story goes that Hamilton set up a battery with a cannon that fired on Nassau Hall, and a cannonball went through the window of Nassau Hall and hit the portrait of the king, basically decapitating him, and rallied all of the soldiers who then took back Nassau Hall from the Hessian soldiers,” said Historical Society of Princeton Director of Programs and Visitor Services Eve Mandel.
Mandel says it was a turning point for the Americans.
“They were then able to go to the French and ask for their support. To say, ‘Look. Look what’s going on. The tide has turned. Please give us money so we can continue our efforts,'” Mandel said.
Also in Princeton? Aaron Burr’s grave site. The historic Princeton Cemetery where he rests was once referred to as “the Westminster Abbey of the United States.”
In addition to Burr, his father and his grandfather, the cemetery is also the final resting place of Declaration signer John Witherspoon; George Gallup, founder of the Gallup Poll; and President Grover Cleveland.
“Within the past year, Aaron Burr’s grave site has become the most popular grave in the cemetery. It used to be Grover Cleveland, but in the past year, with the Hamilton musical, it’s definitely been Aaron Burr. … The legend has it that he said, ‘Please bury me at the foot of my grandfather for that is as close to heaven as I shall ever be,'” said Princeton Cemetery Digitization Project Manager Allen Olsen.
Later this week we’ll look at other sites that are seeing a wave of new interest from Hamilton mania, including Morristown’s Schuyler-Hamilton House, Paterson’s Great Falls and of course the site where Hamilton met Burr “one last time” — the dueling grounds in Weehawken.