“My Folly makes me ashamd and I beg you’ll Conceal it”

st croix harbor

I love teaching this letter.  In his first extant piece of writing, Alexander Hamilton writes from St. Croix to his childhood friend Edward Stevens in New York City.  He reveals his ambitions, but is ashamed that he has them.  There is a lot to unpack here.  It also works very well when paired with Hamilton’s reflection on the 1771 St. Croix hurricane.

Dear Edward,

 

This just serves to acknowledge receipt of yours per Cap Lowndes which was delivered me Yesterday. The truth of Cap Lightbourn & Lowndes information is now verifyd by the Presence of your Father and Sister for whose safe arrival I Pray, and that they may convey that Satisfaction to your Soul that must naturally flow from the sight of Absent Friends in health, and shall for news this way refer you to them. As to what you say respecting your having soon the happiness of seeing us all, I wish, for an accomplishment of your hopes provided they are Concomitant with your welfare, otherwise not, tho doubt whether I shall be Present or not for to confess my weakness, Ned, my Ambition is prevalent that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station. Im confident, Ned that my Youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. Im no Philosopher you see and may be jusly said to Build Castles in the Air. My Folly makes me ashamd and beg youll Conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such Schemes successfull when the Projector is Constant I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a War.

Yours

Alex Hamilton

Out of the Zoo: “A Perfect Fit”

Kalamazoo to mechan

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about matters familiar to the readers of this blog. 🙂  –JF

I spent the first 18 years of my life in the same small town near Kalamazoo, Michigan. For 18 years I lived in the same old white farmhouse, climbing the same trees and sledding down the same steep hill in my backyard. For thirteen years I went to the same school district, graduating with many of the kids that were in my kindergarten class. My family switched churches a few times while I was growing up, but I was always surrounded by the same community of believers that helped raise, support and mentor my triplet siblings and I from the day we were born to the day we moved off to college. “It takes a village,” my Mom would always say. 

You can probably imagine that leaving my “village” and moving nine hours away to Messiah wasn’t easy. During my first few months at school I constantly caught myself thinking about home, sometimes to the point that it was hard to focus on schoolwork. As time passed it got easier, and I got used to life away from my family and friends back in Michigan. I learned to talk  about my feelings instead of bottling them up inside, and more importantly to trust the Lord when I was struggling. Even so, homesickness remained a familiar affliction for quite some time.

Homesickness was also a familiar feeling for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth century protagonist of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. This past week my “Age of Hamilton” class read Professor Fea’s essay that inspired the book. We read about Fithian’s life–his upbringing in rural New Jersey, the education he received at Princeton and his experience tutoring in Virginia, as well as his return to Cohansey. In class we compared his coming-of-age story with Alexander Hamilton’s, and discussed their shared desire to rise up and better themselves. However we also learned that Fithian, unlike Hamilton, was constantly burdened by homesickness–whether he was studying at Princeton, tutoring in Virginia, or performing duties elsewhere. While I am not a student at Princeton, nor do I live in the 1700s, I did find Fithian’s story to be strikingly similar to my own.

As historians, our task is to step into the shoes of the people we study–to empathize with their struggles and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes this proves a more difficult task than we expect. We get discouraged and find ourselves, like Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters, trying to jam our toes into glass slippers that are far too small. Or perhaps more frequently the shoes fit, but we find them uncomfortable or unfashionable and toss them aside.

Other times though, the historical narrative makes this an easy task. Instead of laboriously trying to squeeze our feet into a pair of slippers, we find they’re a perfect fit. When I read Professor Fea’s essay on Fithian, I felt like I could have been reading an excerpt from my own biography.  I read about how Fithian missed “hearing good Mr. Hunter preach,” (478) and was reminded of how hard it was for me to be away from home last Easter. Fithian wrote about missing Elizabeth Beatty and I thought about my own long distance relationship that began a few months after moving to school. Fithian would set aside his studies to look out the window towards home, just like I would swipe through old pictures from Michigan when I felt homesick. When I read about Fithian, I knew exactly what he was going through. I found it easier to step into his shoes not because I’m academically skilled or an expert historian, but because I’ve worn them myself.

Out of the Zoo: “The Age of Hamilton”

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English major Rachel Hungerford, theater major Brooklyn Duttweiler, and history major Chloe Kauffman strike a signature Schuyler sisters pose before “Age of Hamilton” on Monday.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her “Age of Hamilton” class at Messiah College. 🙂  –JF

I remember the first time I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack in the fall of 2015. It was my sophomore year, and I was deep in the throes of my musical theater phase. During this unique period of my life I exclusively listened to show tunes, spent all my money on seeing musicals, and obsessed over all things Broadway. Into this era of my life entered Hamilton.

If I remember correctly, I first discovered Hamilton on Instagram when a promotional video for the show popped up on my explore page. After watching Lin Manuel Miranda and his cast of diverse founding fathers hip-hop dance across my phone screen I turned to my mom and told her excitedly, “I think there’s a new musical about Alexander Hamilton!”

I spent the entirety of the next day listening to the soundtrack non-stop. Soon enough I knew all the words by heart, and couldn’t resist bursting into song whenever someone mentioned the show or said anything that remotely reminded me of it. A year later, I even got the chance to see the musical in Chicago, the day after Donald Trump claimed the presidency (my sister wrote a reflection on our experience here). With the passage of time, though, the Hamilton lyrics I memorized gradually faded back into the recesses of my mind–that is, until I registered for Professor Fea’s “Age of Hamilton” course.

As I entered Frey 241 last Wednesday, I soon realized that “Age of Hamilton” might be the most diverse upper level history course I’ll ever take at Messiah. Usually, non-history majors and minors steer clear of challenging history classes, but this course proves an exception. While a little over half half of those I observed in class on the first day were history majors, seats were filled by students from across the academic spectrum–some were theater majors, others study English or Biblical and Religious Studies, still another is pursuing a future in athletic training. Thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, now everyone loves Alexander Hamilton–not just the history majors. I anticipate that our class discussions will be deeply enriched by the variety of perspectives students bring to the table.

The second day of class we discussed Hamilton as a form of “people’s history.” As a preview to his lecture Professor Fea showed us a YouTube clip from the 2009 White House poetry jam, during which Lin Manuel-Miranda performed an early version of Hamilton‘s opening number. My friend Rachel and I smiled sheepishly at each other when we heard Miranda’s unique voice ring through the speakers. Immediately several students began to mouth the lyrics to each other, and soon enough the entire classroom burst into song.

It still baffles me that students from across disciplines will gather every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to learn about the United States’ first secretary of the treasury. Who knew that, because of a musical of all things, so many people would be able to rap about Hamilton’s immigration from the West Indies to New York. Soon enough though, our class will be able to do so much more than spout off song lyrics about Alexander Hamilton. Instead, we will gain a deep and thorough understanding of who he really was. While we will certainly continue to discuss the Hamil-mania that has swept the nation, we won’t be satisfied by a staged portrayal of his existence. Rather, we will read Hamilton’s words, discuss them, and wrestle with the complexities that defined his life. This class will surely broaden all of our horizons.

Day 1 of “Age of Hamilton” or Fea Enters His “Absent-Minded Professor” Phase

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Frey Hall, Messiah College

Yesterday was the first day of my “Age of Hamilton” course at Messiah College.  I have nineteen students enrolled in this 300-level history course.  History majors get credit toward their major, but about half of the students are non-majors taking this course as a free elective because they are obsessed in one way or another with the Broadway musical and its cast album.  I also had one student who knew nothing about the “Hamilton” phenomenon sweeping the United States.  He decided to take the course because he liked some of the Hamilton songs I played last Spring when he was a student in my U.S. History survey course.

I have spent about nine months thinking about and preparing for this course.  I thought I was ready.  Yesterday morning I  woke-up, did some reading, went for a walk with the dog, wrote a blog post, ate breakfast, stopped at Turkey Hill for my coffee (McDonald’s is closed for renovations), and headed off to campus.  Joy, my wife, sent me a text that read: “Good luck on your first day of teaching.  Glad you are going to take your shot!”  My daughter, a college freshman who I have been torturing with Hamilton songs for the last nine months, texted from Grand Rapids to wish me luck.

I got to campus at around 10:00am–plenty of time to collect my thoughts in preparation for the 12:00pm start time.  But I had left out one small mental detail: the course was actually SCHEDULED FOR 11:00AM!!

So there I was at 11:15, sitting in my office goofing around online and drinking a cup of coffee when my department chairperson walked in.  “John,” he said, “I just got a call from a student.  You apparently have a class waiting for you in Frey Hall 241.”  I was so convinced that the class started at noon that I argued with him.  “That can’t be my Hamilton class,” I said, “it doesn’t start for another forty-five minutes.”  I looked at the syllabus, which was sitting in front of me on my desk.  It said that class started a noon.  It did not occur to me that I had put the wrong time on the syllabus.

Finally reality set in and I realized, embarrassingly, that my department chair and students were right about the start time and I was wrong.  I jumped-up and ran across campus to Frey 241.  It was a humid day in central Pennsylvania so by the time I arrived I was sweating-up a storm.  When I walked into the classroom I yelled “I AM HERE!”  The class started clapping and cheering.  They were just as eager as I was to start engaging with Hamilton and Hamilton.

I guess this means that we are off to a good start.  It also means that I may have entered the absent-minded professor phase of my career.  🙂

Do I Feel a Revival of the Virtual Office Hours Coming On?

Maybe it is time to revisit our old You Tube series the Virtual Office Hours.  After watching Seth Rudetsky’s deconstruction of “The Schuyler Sisters” I thought we might be able to revive this series to correspond with my “Age of Hamilton” class in the Fall.  (Of course our videos would be mostly historical rather than musical–I don’t have Rudetsky’s skill).

I should also add that my Pez dispenser collection has grown.

Here are our most watched episodes: