I Saved Every Letter You Wrote Me: The Library of Congress Digitizes Hamilton

Aug 29, 2017
Originally published on August 29, 2017 2:43 pm

If you've seen the hit musical Hamilton — or even if you've only heard about it — you might want to know more about the founding father who was the United States' first Secretary of the Treasury. And if so, the Library of Congress just made it easier to go right to the source.

Before, if you wanted to see — for example — Alexander Hamilton's letters to his wife, you had to travel to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and even then, you'd have to view them on microfilm. Now, Julie Miller, the library's curator of early American manuscripts, says the collection has been digitized. "The web site is meant to open these up to a much broader public," she tells me — and given the increased interest in Hamilton, the timing is no accident.

Miller says the musical's enormous popularity motivated the library to make approximately 12,000 Hamilton documents available on the Internet. At a briefing, Miller and members of the library's digital team lay out some of the original documents underneath a screen displaying the new website

"We're going to start with something very, very early," Miller says. "This is actually a famous letter." In the letter, written when Hamilton was 12 years old, he expresses his desire for what he calls a larger life. "He has fantastically good handwriting," she says, "because he was a clerk in a trader's office on the docks in St. Croix, and part of being a clerk was learning how to write like that."

Hamilton signs off with a youthful flourish, a signature that ends in a series of curlicues. Bill Kellum, of the library's web division, says it's that kind of detail that makes the digital collection so fascinating. "When you take the papers or the archives of a person and put them online, you get to see all of the things that are not famous, whether it's their receipts, or their letters, or it's correspondence that previous experts have thought unimportant, you get to see those ... it really kind of humanizes a person."

One of the most moving documents in the collection is a letter written by Hamilton to his wife Eliza, the night before his duel with Aaron Burr. Miller reads a bit of it for me: "It says, 'This letter will not be delivered to you unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career' ... And then he says, 'With my last idea, I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.' And I think this is what people know from the play: 'Adieu, best of wives and best of women, embrace all my darling children for me.' And that was the end of Alexander Hamilton."

You can now see that letter — and thousands of other documents from the Hamilton collection — on the Library of Congress web site.

This story was produced and edited for radio by Tom Cole and Andrew Limbong. Petra Mayer adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The smash Broadway hit "Hamilton" has made it into the annals of history with a place in the Library of Congress. By popular demand, a digitized version of the library's collection of Alexander Hamilton's papers, both personal and official, is now online. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Until now, if you wanted to see Alexander Hamilton's letters to his wife for example, you had to travel to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Even then, you'd have to view them on microfilm. All that has changed. Julie Miller, curator of early manuscripts, says there's a new digitized version of the Hamilton collection.

JULIE MILLER: The website is meant to open these up to a much broader public.

NEARY: I don't know, is it - is it an accident that this is happening at the same time that there's so much interest in Alexander Hamilton's life?

MILLER: No.

NEARY: (Laughter).

MILLER: The short answer is no. It's not an accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALEXANDER HAMILTON")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, singing) My name is Alexander Hamilton, and there's a million things I haven't done. But just you wait, just you wait.

NEARY: Miller says the enormous popularity of the play motivated the library to make almost 900 Hamilton documents available on the internet. Miller and members of the library's digital team held a briefing recently on the collection. Underneath a screen showing the new website, Miller laid out some original documents.

MILLER: So we're going to start with something very, very early. This is actually a famous letter.

NEARY: In the letter, written when he was 12 years old, Hamilton expresses his desire for what he calls a larger life.

MILLER: So this is what the letter looks like.

NEARY: Let me see. Oh, my gosh.

MILLER: And he has fantastically good handwriting.

NEARY: I was going to say it's so neat.

MILLER: Right. And the reason he has such good handwriting is because he was a clerk in a trader's office on the docks in St. Croix. So part of being a clerk was learning how to write like that.

NEARY: Hamilton signs off with a youthful flourish, a signature that ends in a series of curly cues. It's this kind of detail, says Bill Kellum, of the library's web division, that makes the digital collection so fascinating.

BILL KELLUM: When you take the papers or the archives of a person and put them online, you get to see all of the things that are not famous. Whether it's their receipts or their letters, or it's correspondence that previous experts have thought unimportant, you get to see those and get access to them. That really kind of humanizes a person.

MILLER: One of the most moving documents in the collection is a letter written by Hamilton to his wife, Eliza, the night before his duel with Aaron Burr.

It says, (reading)

This letter will not be delivered to you unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career.

So in other words, unless I'm - you know, if I'm dead, you'll get this letter, basically. And then he says, (reading)

With my last idea, I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.

And I think this is what people know from the play.

(Reading) Adieu, best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALEXANDER HAMILTON")

MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, singing) I'll be back before you know I'm gone.

PHILLIPA SOO: (As Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, singing) Come back to sleep.

MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, singing) This meeting's at dawn.

SOO: (As Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, singing) Well, I'm going back to sleep.

MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, singing) Hey, best of wives and best of women.

MILLER: And that was the end of Alexander Hamilton.

NEARY: And there's the letter.

MILLER: And that's the letter.

NEARY: You can now see that letter and more than 800 other documents from the Hamilton collection on the Library of Congress website. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.