The Caribbean origins of Alexander Hamilton - and his contemporaries' connections to other parts of the globe – serve as the jumping-off point to retell an American story using the extraordinary collection of the John Carter Brown Library. Hurricanes and preachers, sugar plantations and the Federalist papers sit side-by-side with battle maps of Yorktown and the philosophical musings of the man from Monticello. All are here on display, enticing you back to the colonial Americas within the walls of the JCB, with the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, and Hamilton as your guides.

The title of this exhibition – “So what’d I miss?” – evokes the connections that scholars at the John Carter Brown Library piece together every day from historical materials in our collection. It refers to the hidden stories that lurk beneath the surface of the page and the missing knowledge that only assiduous researchers can bring to light: Alexander Hamilton’s humble Nevis origins; the Marquis de Lafayette’s interest in emancipating slaves in French Guyana; and Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to Haitian independence under black rule, despite his avowed opposition to slavery.

This exhibition – which in its original iteration honored Brown graduate Daveed Diggs ’04 and the entire cast of Hamilton: The Musical, celebrating the power of retelling history through the creative arts – connects the founding generation of the United States with its contemporaries across the Atlantic World, bringing Hamilton, Lafayette, Jefferson, and Bolívar together once again on the same revolutionary stage.

THAT THE MASTERMIND BEHIND THE UNITED STATES' FIRST FINANCIAL SYSTEM was born in the British Caribbean colony of Nevis [1] is only the first unexpected twist in Alexander Hamilton’s meteoric rise to prominence in the eighteenth century. Another twist – or twister – came in the form of a hurricane, reported here in a sermon by one of Hamilton’s mentors, Hugh Knox. Knox, a Presbyterian minister, was instrumental in raising funds to send the young Hamilton to New York City after his own account of the hurricane was published in a local paper: “The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels,” Hamilton wrote, describing the damage and destruction on St. Croix, otherwise the icon of bucolic, colonial agricultural productivity [2].

WHAT WAS ONCE CONSIDERED THE "MEXICAN ARCHIPELAGO" (shown here in a late-seventeenth century map by the Italian cosmographer Coronelli) [1] became a contested space of mercantile competition and colonial rivalries in the age of revolutions. Hamilton’s service at the merchant-house of Beekman and Cruger’s in St. Croix exposed him not only to cargoes of sugar and slaves, but also to ships plying the waves from the Spanish Main to Curaçao. Following his move to New York, he made the acquaintance of Hercules Mulligan, a tailor living in lower Manhattan (on Water Street) who claimed to have introduced Hamilton to Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) President John Witherspoon, an advocate for West Indian youth taking up a college education in one of the colony’s nine colleges. Aaron Burr, Jr., Hamilton’s eventual nemesis, attended the College of New Jersey (where his father, Aaron Burr Sr., helped build Nassau Hall [2]), though Hamilton himself would eventually matriculate at King’s College (later Columbia University).

HAMILTON MET THE DASHING MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE IN 1777, the year that the Vermont Constitution abolished slavery [1]. The two became fast friends. At Yorktown, in 1781 Lafayette participated with Hamilton in the American victory there thanks in large part to a French naval blockade [2]. But he was also aided by a young slave named James Armistead, who successfully spied on Cornwallis and the British. Although clearly influenced by the work of Condorcet [3] and others, it may have also been thanks to Armistead that Lafayette developed his interest in an “experiment to free the Negroes, and use them only as tenants,” as he wrote to George Washington in 1783. Lafayette purchased a plantation for this purpose along the banks of the Oyapoque River in Cayenne (now French Guyana), which he called “La Belle Gabrielle.” At the plantation, later run by Lafayette’s wife Adrienne de Noailles, the slaves were educated and paid for their work, though the French Revolution and Lafayette’s imprisonment brought an end to this precocious experiment.

WHEN THOMAS JEFFERSON RETURNED TO NORTH AMERICA FROM FRANCE IN 1789, he was pitted directly against Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury under Washington and architect of the nation’s first solution to the financial crisis in the wake of the Revolutionary War. Jefferson was author of many tracts of anti-federalist rhetoric [1], much to the chagrin of Hamilton, and he was also author of the Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in London, where he outlined the unique character of the New World as seen through a Virginian’s eyes. This particular volume was a presentation copy to Edward Bancroft, shape-shifting author of an important essay on the natural history of Guiana [2] but better known as a double-agent for the British. These underground connections between Jefferson and Bancroft – and Bancroft’s own unconfirmed mastery of South American poisons – also parallel Jefferson’s interest in the Caribbean, where despite supporting the abolition of slavery he opposed the independence of Haiti due to his fears that an unstable Haiti would lead to further military conflict in the broader Caribbean and the nascent United States.

LAFAYETTE RETURNED TO THE UNITED STATES FROM FRANCE IN 1824, two months after then-President James Monroe issued a doctrine that would transform the hemisphere and have long-lasting effects on the South American republics that had only recently declared their independence from Spain. During his valedictory tour, he met with his old friend Thomas Jefferson, who by then had retired from public life (he would die two years later, on July 4, 1826, as would another of Lafayette’s close friends and associates, John Adams). While in New York, Lafayette visited the Free School of Young Africans, which was administered by the Society of the Emancipation of the Blacks, and attended a meeting of the American Colonization Society, a group established in 1816 to assist free people of color to return to Africa [1] and reverse the forced migration of Africans to the Americas during the colonial period.

While Lafayette never met Bolívar personally, he did send along a set of pistols – by way of Bolívar’s nephew, Fernando, then studying in the United States – and the two would correspond in later years, as seen in this 1828 letter [2] (from the Maury A. Bromsen collection) from Bolívar to Lafayette providing an introduction to his compatriot Gerónimo Torres and asking for Lafayette’s assistance in settling him into European society.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA'S GENIUS IN HAMILTON: THE MUSICAL was condensing the complex stories of Lafayette, Jefferson, and Hamilton into a single two-hour stretch, accompanied by brilliant lyrics and a powerful hip-hop beat. A number of Hamilton’s songs were directly inspired by historical documents within the JCB's collection and the historical events outlined in the other cases. The hemispheric reach of the John Carter Brown Library allows these connections to emerge clearly. But we take great pride in providing some of the greatest textual hits of North American history as well.


This exhibition was curated by JCB staff on the occasion of Brown University's 2017 Commencement.