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A close-up of the front of the US 10-dollar bill bearing the portrait of Alexander Hamilton

Who was Alexander Hamilton?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Alexander who? Until very recently, it was a question that even citizens of the United States might have asked. Yes, Alexander Hamilton was one of the founding fathers of the nation, but he was – let's be frank – a bit of a B-lister, at least compared to the headlining names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, just a few years ago, the US government was all set to boot Hamilton from his place on the $10 bill. Who, after all, cared?

But now, everyone cares. Hamilton is the name on people's lips around the world. The B-lister has become the breakout star of America's origin story. His sudden tsunami of popularity has even made the Treasury reverse their decision and keep him on the bank note.

It's all down to the monster success of Broadway musical Hamilton, which is about to hit these shores. It's a show which, on the face of it, makes no sense. A musical featuring a cast largely made up of people of colour, set to a soundtrack of hip-hop and R 'n' B, which tells the story of a group of white men forging a nation in the time of slavery?

But when you delve into the life of Hamilton – the real man, rather than the generically lordly figure of oil paintings and history books – it starts making sense. Hamilton was an immigrant and an underdog. He was a fighter, both literally and metaphorically. He was an orphan with little privilege to fall back on, who had nothing going for him except fierce intellect and a will to survive.

Born out of wedlock on an island in the Caribbean, the product of an illicit fling by a Scottish businessman who later abandoned him and his mother, Hamilton was later dubbed "the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler" by none other than John Adams, the second President of the United StaAfter his mother died, Hamilton could have fallen into poverty and obscurity. Instead, he excelled as a worker, and his ambitions led him to leave the Caribbean behind to study in New York. His first steps to national significance came during the American War of Independence, when Hamilton – filled with revolutionary zeal against the British – proved himself a brilliant soldier. So brilliant, in fact, that he was promoted to become the senior aide to George Washington himself. Hamilton's fearless devotion to military glory meant that he would later give up his relatively cushy job to return to the frontlines.

But Hamilton's true importance in history rests not on his exploits in the war, but on his role as midwife to the birth of the United States. This was a time of fierce squabbling between the various founders. The key question was about how the United States should be governed, and how much power the central government should have over the individual states.

Hamilton was a passionate advocate of a strong, federal government, at a time when many feared such an idea could lead to a new monarchy, or even a tyranny. These "anti-federalists" believed the very rights of ordinary people were at stake, and – shockingly unpatriotic as it may sound now – they vigorously opposed the ideas of the new US Constitution. Hamilton wrote a series of articles, known as the Federalist Papers, passionately defending the Constitution. Not only did these help sway the argument in favour of the Constitution, and the very idea of a strong, united country, but they remain a landmark work of political philosophy.

Hamilton came in for criticism, though. His fiercely federalist beliefs caused some to regard him as a covert monarchist, or even a budding Julius Caesar. But Hamilton wasn't done yet. When President George Washington appointed him the very first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton put into place the nationwide banking system that's still in place today. In fact, he was the architect of the whole economic programme for the young nation he'd helped create. Hamilton was a pioneer in less fortunate ways too, being the focus of America's first ever political sex scandal, thanks to his affair with a married woman whose husband had blackmailed Hamilton to keep things quiet.

Alexander Hamilton's career was turbulent, unexpected and changed the course of the world. And it came to a fittingly dramatic end. Challenged to a duel by his long-time political nemesis Aaron Burr, who just happened to be the Vice-President of the United States, Hamilton wanted no part of it, but went along anyway. He was shot by the Vice-President, and died the very next day. It remains one of the most bizarre episodes in American political history, but one which was almost forgotten until now. Thanks to a hit musical, Hamilton's remarkable existence on the world stage is finally getting the attention it deserves.