Since then, prices haven’t magically lowered themselves, and I haven’t won the lottery, proving the truth of the longtime Lotto tagline—I was not in it, and therefore, could not win it. But Hamilton was playing at Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre for a limited run, at a fraction—a substantial fraction, but a fraction, nonetheless—of the New York City show’s ticket prices. With running up debts an American tradition dating back to Alexander Hamilton himself, my family and I decided to go for it.
The show entertained while shining a light on an often underappreciated figure: an aide and commander in the War of Independence, co-author of the Federalist Papers, and the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. With $20 Hamilton water bottles for sale at the show, along with $40 Hamilton T-shirts, it was easy to catch a glimpse of the man’s visage on U.S. currency—yet no one calls $10 bills “Alexanders” or even “Hamiltons” the way that $100 bills are “Benjamins.”
Despite being one of the Founding Fathers, Hamilton’s membership in that unofficial supergroup was, until the musical renewed interest in his accomplishments, much like that of Hawkeye in Marvel’s Avengers, or Flash in DC’s Justice League—accepted, but not respected in the same way as heavyweights like George Washington (Captain America, Superman), Thomas Jefferson (Thor, Batman), and Ben Franklin (Iron Man, and um…Wonder Woman?). Also, some would argue that like many comic book characters, the most interesting thing about Hamilton was the story of his death. (Unlike a comic book character, Hamilton stayed dead.)
All the reminders of Alexander Hamilton’s critical role in our country’s history made me wonder about the town I live in. I’d always assumed our township was named for Alexander Hamilton; after all, our neighboring town of Robbinsville used to be Washington Township until fairly recently (2007), and what was more natural than Washington and Hamilton, side by side? Upon reflection, though, it seemed strange that there was no mention of Alexander Hamilton in any public places—no statues, no plaques, nothing. According to Wikipedia, Hamilton Township in Atlantic Country is named for Alexander Hamilton, but for our Mercer County edition, it says, “Hamilton Township derives its name from the village of Hamilton Square, which might have been named for Alexander Hamilton.”
Wikipedia not having all the answers isn’t news, but the uncertainty seemed strange, and nagged at me. The listing for Mercerville-Hamilton Square, New Jersey is more definitive, saying that “Hamilton Square was named after Alexander Hamilton in a wave of anti-British sentiment at the time of the War of 1812.” The rationale seemed to make sense, but there was no direct source provided.
I’m no historian, but I’ve done enough research to get a sense of when some fudging of the facts might be happening. I reached out to Hamilton’s own local historian, Tom Glover, who told me that he’d searched in vain for 40 years for hard evidence that our town was named for Alexander Hamilton. Tom had even searched meeting minutes from 1842, when Hamilton was incorporated, but found no mention of the man’s name.
Intrigued, I followed Wikipedia references to a 1945 book called The Origin of New Jersey Place Names by Viola Hutchinson. The book consists of little more than a list of townships, cities, and other places in New Jersey in one column, and a very brief derivation of that name in another. It lists Hamilton as a township in both Atlantic and Mercer counties, and the derivation for both is simply given as “Alexander Hamilton.” Hutchinson’s book seems like a faithful report of the prevailing wisdom of 1945, but again, with no other evidence, this still felt a little too much like a close-but-not-quite-right jigsaw puzzle piece being hammered into place.
Next stop was the Hamilton Township Library’s special reference section, which holds a number of fascinating histories and old speeches. They contain plenty of mentions of General Hugh Mercer, namesake of Mercer County, but nary a word about Mr. Hamilton. It’s a puzzling omission—even though Alexander Hamilton’s post-mortem popularity has waxed and waned over the past 200 years or so, he’s always been a pretty big name in the history of our country, the kind of guy who’d be likely to come up in conversation.
Many of you reading this might be thinking, “What’s the big mystery? Who else could it be named for?” Well, a lot of people, actually. There are at least 35 areas in the United States called Hamilton, and while Hamiltons in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Kansas are all named for Alexander, Hamilton, Illinois was named after Artois Hamilton, Hamilton, Georgia was named after Paul Hamilton, and Hamilton, Alabama was named for A.J. Hamilton. Beyond the borders of the U.S., all bets are off—Hamilton, Bermuda is named for Henry Hamilton, and Hamilton, Ontario is named for George Hamilton (a merchant and politician, not the perpetually tanned actor). Hamilton is a fairly common British surname, so it’s possible, if unlikely, that a different Hamilton than Alexander inspired our town’s name.
With no documented “origin story” or official declarations regarding our own Hamilton, it seems we 21st century Hamiltonians have an opportunity to make it official, one way or the other. And, even discounting the heightened post-musical attention to Alexander Hamilton, why not decide in favor of a major historical figure? Even if your tastes run more toward James Madison, John Adams, or even Aaron Burr (it could happen), Hamilton is the card we’ve been dealt, so why not make the most of it? At the very least we’d be one-upping the surrounding towns’ names—no offense to George Robbins, William Trent, Joseph Borden, or James Lawrence, of course.
So let’s give the guy a statue, or a monument, or a plaque already! We already have plaques for every local politician who ever dedicated taxpayer funds to a ball field or school, and enough sculptures of questionable merit at Grounds for Sculpture and the Hamilton Library that something traditional would be a nice change of pace. Plus, we could have a township-wide dedication ceremony! A proclamation! A celebration! We could invite Lin-Manuel Miranda! We could invite the 160 people in the United States today who are named Alexander Hamilton! (That tally provided by HowManyofMe.com.) Heck, we could also invite the 22 people named Aaron Burr, and, as a grand finale, let the Alexander Hamiltons take their long-delayed revenge!
Dueling with real guns could raise liability issues, but luckily there’s a less violent, slightly less authentic way to achieve historical satisfaction. Water pistols at dawn!