The musical Hamilton tells the story of the West Indian-born Alexander Hamilton’s rise from obscurity in immigrant-rich New York City to the heights of power in the first decades of United States history. Midway through the musical, at the climactic Siege of Yorktown, Hamilton and another foreign-born Patriot, the Marquis de Lafayette, meet on the field of battle and have this exchange:
LAFAYETTE: Monsieur Hamilton
HAMILTON: Monsieur Lafayette
LAFAYETTE: In command where you belong
HAMILTON: How you say, no sweat
We’re finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run
LAFAYETTE: Immigrants: We get the job done
The New York audiences laugh at this jab at the modern day Neo-Know Nothings who deny our history and insist that this country was only made by and for those who were born here. The New Yorkers no doubt see the lines as particularly aimed at a certain national political figure whose name shall not be mentioned here.
The song Yorktown from the musical Hamilton places the immigrant soldier at the center of the American Revolutionary struggle. Hamilton and the Irish immigrant Hercules Mulligan rap their parts in the war that created America.
This song may be good theater, but it is also good history. The real Alexander Hamilton was rescued from obscurity by another immigrant, the Irishman Hercules Mulligan. Mulligan had been the 18th Century version of a DREAMer, an immigrant who arrived in the New World in 1746 at the age of six and who rose in the world through education, hard work, and smarts. Mulligan went to Kings College, what is now Columbia University, and years later befriended the teenage Alexander Hamilton, an orphan DREAMer lately arrived from the island of Nevis. Mulligan encouraged Hamilton to attend Kings College as well and helped support the boy.
Mulligan’s strongly anti-British views were absorbed by Hamilton. The older Irishman had been one of the first New Yorkers to join the radical Sons of Liberty and he fought British soldiers in a street battle five years before the Revolution broke out. When Hamilton came to New York, the revolutionary agitation was in full swing and Mulligan’s influence turned him into a recruit for Washington’s army.
Hercules Mulligan himself stayed in New York and became a spy for the Patriots after the British occupied the city in 1776. His slave Cato, whom Mulligan would soon free, transmitted his secret messages to Washington’s army. In the musical, Hamilton and Mulligan sing of the Irishman’s role in keeping the Patriots informed:
HAMILTON: How did we know that this plan would work?
We had a spy on the inside. That’s right
HAMILTON/COMPANY: Hercules Mulligan!
MULLIGAN: A tailor spyin’ on the British government!
I take their measurements, information and then I smuggle it
To my brother’s revolutionary covenant
I’m runnin’ with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin’ it!
Of course, immigrants were not just part of America’s Revolutionary struggle. As readers of my series The Immigrants’ Civil War know, a quarter of the men in the United States army that saved the Union and ended slavery were foreign born. Nearly all the men in the Confederate army that sought to end the American experiment and establish a slaveholders’ republic were native-born. Immigrants helped save the country from the native born!
In World War I, so many New York immigrants joined the army that the “Statue of Liberty” Division issued orders in several foreign languages. So many men in this unit spoke Italian that the Germans thought they were fighting an Italian Army division.
As Peter Welsh, an immigrant in the Irish Brigade, assured his wife back in 1862, “This is my country as much as the man that was born on the soil.” Part of the American dream Welsh fought for and died for was the right of future immigrants to equality with the native born.
From 1776 to 2016 immigrants have fought and died for America. Tens of thousands of immigrants serve today in every branch of the military. The confident assertion in Hamilton that immigrants get the job done may draw laughs, but it is as true now as it was more than 200 years ago.