The Education of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton grew up on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. The island was famous for its sugar plantations.

He didn’t attend the Anglican schools on the island but he got some home schooling. He learned French from his mother and read all the books he could get his hands on. Hamilton’s mother bought books for him and his brother James. It’s unclear what kind of education Rachel Hamilton had, but she made sure her sons read Machiavelli and Plutarch, along with some poetry and sermons. The boys became orphans when their mother died after an illness; their father James Hamilton left the family when the boys were younger.

Young Alexander was taken in by a merchant named Thomas Stevens. Hamilton became best friends with Stevens’ son Edward. He also got a chance to use his natural curiosity by doing interesting work. The firm Beekman and Cruger supplied whatever the sugar planters needed. Hamilton always viewed his apprenticeship there as the most useful part of his education. He learned to track freight, chart courses for ships, and calculate prices in different currencies throughout Europe.

Despite his interest in business, Hamilton wanted to move up in society. He hoped to go to college like his friend Edward Stevens who was studying in New York. In a letter to his friend, Hamilton wrote, “my ambition is so prevalent that I…would willingly risk my life, tho’ not my character, to exalt my station.” Fortunately for Hamilton, some of his poems and a letter he wrote describing a storm on the island were published in The Royal Danish American Gazette when he was seventeen. The local businessmen were so impressed with his writing that they raised money for him to sail to America and attend college.

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Painting of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792

Though Hamilton was naturally intelligent, his lack of formal schooling meant that he needed to take some extra classes before applying to college. He studied Latin, Greek, and advanced math at Elizabethtown Academy (near Princeton). After completing those classes, he applied to Princeton. The school, however, wouldn’t let him take as many courses as he wanted. Hamilton attended King’s College in New York in 1773. King’s College was more conservative than Princeton and many staff members were Tories who supported the British monarchy.

Hamilton was in a hurry to catch up to other students who started college at a younger age than he did. Some speculate that he altered his birth year from 1755 to 1757 so he would seem closer in age to his fellow students. He spent his free time auditing classes and reading books in the university library.

While in college, Hamilton and his friend Robert Troup formed a club. The club focused on writing and debating—skills that Hamilton later drew on during his political career. The club also helped Hamilton refine his political views. He wrote anti-British pamphlets that clashed with the views of his college professors. Fortunately, his first political tract—a defense of the Boston Tea Party–was anonymous.

Play Ball! Introducing the Mesoamerican Ball Game

The Mesoamerican ball game became the New World’s first organized team sport. It seems to have started around 1600 B.C. No courts were discovered from that time—only balls. The first ball court was built by the Maya in 1400 B.C. at Paso de la Amada. 1,300 courts have been found all over Mesoamerica, though the size of the courts varies.

The only eyewitness account of the game comes from Spanish priest Diego Duran. He saw Aztec games played in the 1570s. At that time, courts were shaped like the letter I. They had a central alley with sloping walls. On top of the walls, spectators could watch the game. There was no standard size for the courts; they varied between 100-200 ft. Stucco floors painted with the city’s patron deity acted as a kind of mascot for the team.

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A Mayan ball court in Uxmal, Mexico. Image by Tato Grasso, April 2007.

Aztec teams had between four and six players. They bounced a solid rubber ball back and forth using their buttocks and their knees. It was against the rules to use their feet or their hands. A center line was drawn down the court. The goal for each team was to get the ball back to the other side of the court by bouncing the ball only once on their side.

A team lost points if more than once bounce occurred or the ball went out of bounds. Points were earned by hitting the back wall of the opponent’s side. Most players guarded the back line so it was hard to score. A couple of players stayed up front to try and return balls. At the center line, rings were placed high up on the walls. If a team managed to get the ball through the ring they won automatically, but this was very difficult to do, especially without the use of their hands.

The ball was made of solid rubber and could kill a player if they were hit with it in the face or the stomach. Players who had survivable injuries viewed them as a badge of honor. Players often got injured because they didn’t have much protective gear. They wore only loincloths, thigh pads, and gloves.

Ball games were spectator sports. The audience bet on the outcome of the game, though nobles obviously bet more than the poor. People bet their land, crops, and some even sold themselves into slavery. Nobles had the best seats to watch the game. Afterward, the players expected them to throw gifts to the winning team. If some nobles tried to leave without giving anything to the winning team, those players were allowed to rob them.

The game served an important function in communities beyond just entertainment. Since each city had a team, disputes between cities could be resolved via a ball game. This solution was more practical and less bloody than starting a war.

Unlike many of today’s sports figures, Aztec ball players were unpaid and poor. They received some gifts and gambling earnings, but not enough to support themselves. Their payment came in the form of fame if they won. Many of the less successful players ended up as slaves to nobles.

The Mesoamerican ball game is still played today. It’s called Ulama de cadera, which means hip ball. Cancun brings in ball players to attract tourists. Guatemala has a national team and is trying to revive the game.

The Role of Aztec Kings

The king was at the top of the Aztec social hierarchy. They called him the Tlatoani, which meant speaker because he acted as a spokesman for his people. Unlike most European societies, the position was not hereditary. Nobles elected the king. At least in theory, the position was based on merit, though the son of a king might find ways to bribe the nobles.

An Aztec king had many privileges. He lived in a huge palace with hundreds of rooms. He also had hundreds of servants and slaves to tend to his every wish. The palace was decorated with handmade tapestries and murals. Since cleanliness was important to the Aztecs, the king had his own private bathroom where he bathed daily. If guests came to visit him, they also had their own bathrooms. Within the palace, the king housed his many wives. When he dressed, he put on embroidered clothing decorated with many feathers.

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King Moctezuma I, reigned 1440-69. Image from Tovar Codex, 16th century.

Not only did he live in a palace, but he owned all the city lands. He gave grants of land to nobles, but only the king could decide who received a grant. Besides land grants, the king decided on all laws and taxes.

Despite all of the king’s privileges, he had great responsibilities. The king served as the high priest and oversaw many of the daily sacrifices to the gods. The Aztecs believed that their sun god, Tonatiuh, required regular gifts of human hearts to be made to him. Without these sacrifices, the sun would stop shining and the world would end. As high priest, the king was responsible for the continuation of the universe.

In addition to his religious duties, the king served as general of the army. He led his men into battle and made battle plans. He conquered other lands and generally enabled his people to feel secure.

The king not only led the army, but also led political relations with kings from other city states. He formed political alliances with their Tlatoanis. Alliances were often formed during elaborate state dinners. As many as 300 plates were set at the king’s table, which was piled high with the best food from the local markets. Singers and dwarfs provided entertainment during the dinner. After the feast, the king and his guests left and the servants who prepared the feast had their meal.

In general, the Aztecs expected their king to set a good example for others to follow and to provide them with a good life.

Travel Brochure for Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan

The Aztecs didn’t have brochures in the fifteenth century. Based on their experiences with the Spanish conquistadors, they weren’t looking to attract many tourists, either. If they had a brochure for visitors to their capital of Tenochtitlan, however, it might have read something like this:

Welcome to Tenochtitlan!

The Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan makes every city in the New World look small, and some in the Old World, too. An estimated 200,000 people live here, compared to 150,000 in fifteenth century Paris.

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Mural by Diego Rivera showing life in Aztec city Tenochtitlan

Places to visit include:

The City Zoo

Don’t miss seeing the zoo, the likes of which have never been seen by Europeans. The first section houses birds of prey such as eagles. The second section houses reptiles, mammals, and exotic birds. The Spanish call most of the mammals lions because they’ve never seen an ocelot or mountain lion before. These big cats are fed parts of sacrificial victims. The Spanish find this disgusting, but it is unwise to voice your opinion as a tourist. Among the reptiles you can see rattlesnakes, or as the Spanish like to call them, “snakes with music in their tails.”

Public Theater

Aztecs enjoy all kinds of art, and artists are treated with respect. The theater, or cuicacalli, which means house of song, has several different functions. It is both an opera house and a school of music for youth. Young people who have musical talent can come there and learn to play the drums, the flutes, or trumpets.

The theater is also the place where dances are performed for the community. Aztecs like to refer to dancing as “singing with your feet,” so singing and dancing are naturally performed under one roof.

Botanical Gardens

As you make your way around the city you will notice the fine public gardens. The finest garden in Tenochtitlan, however,  belongs to King Moctezuma. His palace houses plants from every part of Mesoamerica, even ones that should not be able to grow here. Between 300-500 gardeners check on the hundreds of plant species. If one species dies, then an expedition is sent out to get another sample.

Tlatelolco Market

Tlatelolco is the sister city of Tenochtitlan. When you walk through its marketplace, you can find merchants selling pottery, cloth, gold, and jewelry. Slave auctions also take place here. After shopping you will probably be hungry. The marketplace has many restaurants that serve food from all over Mesoamerica. Entertainment is available from street dancers and singers. Overall the marketplace is a great spot for families to spend time together and for residents to socialize.

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Model of Templo Mayor by S. Shepherd, 23 Nov. 2006

Templo Mayor

Downtown you can see the Templo Mayor from a great distance. It is 60 meters tall, and has two flights of steps that lead to two temples at the top. Each temple is a different color–blue for the rain god, and red for the war god. Daily sacrifices are performed to appease the gods. The heart is cut out of the human being sacrificed. The Spanish are a bit queasy about this practice, but Moctezuma has warned them to act like the guests that they are in the city.

 

 

John F. Kennedy’s Childhood and Education

John F. Kennedy, or Jack as his family called him, was born on May 29, 1917. He had an older brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. and seven younger siblings. He spent the first decade of his life in Brookline, Massachusetts. JFK’s father Joseph Kennedy Sr. didn’t play an active role in young Jack’s life since he was often away on business. His mother, Rose Kennedy, did have help with the children though. She needed it since Jack was often ill. The family joked that if a mosquito bit Jack, it would be sorry because it would catch whatever illness he had at the time.

Eventually the Kennedys moved to Bronxville, New York. Thanks to his father’s successful business ventures, the family could afford several different homes. They spent summers in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Easter and Christmas holidays took place at their home in Palm Beach, Florida.

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Kennedy family at Hyannis Port Sept. 4, 1931. JFK at left in white shirt, Joe Jr. far right

Jack and his older brother were extremely competitive. Joe Sr. encouraged this quality in his sons. He often said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Unfortunately for Jack, his brother was both two years older and stronger, so if they fought Jack got beat up. Jack couldn’t best Joe as a student, either. Joe had ambition. Since childhood Joe said that he wanted to become the first Catholic President of the United States. While Joe worked hard in all his subjects, Jack tended to pay attention only to the ones that interested him, such as English.

When he enrolled at Choate boarding school in ninth grade, Jack found other ways of distinguishing himself from Joe. While Joe was the better student and an accomplished athlete, Jack became the class clown. He formed a group at Choate called the Muckers, which was responsible for many school pranks. Most memorably, they exploded a toilet seat with a firecracker. Jack was nearly expelled for that incident. Instead, poor health interfered with his studies. He was diagnosed with colitis. It made him tired and he also lost his appetite. He got well enough to graduate in the middle of his class. Despite his mediocre performance as a student, his classmates voted him most likely to succeed.

Jack’s colitis interfered again when he entered Princeton and had to quit after six weeks. In 1936, he enrolled at Harvard. While there, he produced a campus newspaper called the “Freshman Smoker” and got a spot on the varsity swim team. He wanted to play football, too, but he ruptured a disk in his spine. From then on JFK always lived with back pain.

In 1938, Joe Sr. served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain. Both Jack and Joe Jr. went to Great Britain to work with their father. To prepare for his senior thesis, Jack traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. He returned to London on September 1, 1939—the same day that World War II began. Jack’s thesis pointed out that Great Britain was unprepared for war because it had neglected its military. Published as Why England Slept, his work became a bestseller. He used the money he made from the book to buy a Buick convertible, but he also gave the royalties he made from Great Britain to charity.

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Lt. John F. Kennedy, 1942

After graduation, Jack joined his brother in the U.S. Navy. Joe was a flyer and Jack was a Lieutenant assigned to the South Pacific. Only Jack came home. Joe Jr. died when his plane blew up during a mission in Europe.

Joe’s death changed everything for JFK. With his oldest son gone, Jack’s father encouraged him to abandon his interests in writing and teaching to run for Congress. JFK won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1946. His political career had begun.

Presidential Pets: Dogs in the Kennedy White House

President John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie loved dogs, which meant that First Kids Caroline and John-John had several furry playmates in the White House.

The most famous Kennedy dog was Pushinka, whose name meant fluffy in Russian. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the mixed breed dog to Caroline as a gift after the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the Secret Service checked the dog for bugs to make sure the Soviets weren’t using it as a spy, Pushinka became part of the family. JFK Jr. remembered that he and Caroline taught Pushinka to go down the slide on the White House playground. “Sending the dog down that slide is probably my first memory,” he said.

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White House dog handler Traphes Bryant with Pushinka and puppies, July 1963

Pushinka struck up a romance with the Kennedy’s Welsh terrier, Charlie. In June 1963, Pushinka had puppies. Caroline and John-John named them Butterfly, White Tips, Blackie, and Streaker. JFK referred to the puppies as “pupniks” since Pushinka was the daughter of a dog who had been to space on the Russians’ Sputnik 2. When the puppies were two months old, the First Lady picked two children from the thousands that had written to the White House asking for one of the pups. That’s how Butterfly and Streaker got adopted. The other puppies were given to family friends.

The father of the puppies, Charlie, was “large and in charge.” He bossed the other dogs around and made sure he got first dibs at dinnertime.  When given the chance, he showed humans who was boss, too. If a visitor ignored him, Charlie peed on that person. Although he was not an official watchdog, he growled if someone got too close to JFK.

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First Lady Jackie Kennedy with children and dog Charlie, Dec. 25, 1962

 

Charlie loved to play fetch, but he got so obsessed with the game that the president got annoyed. Fortunately, Charlie and the president both enjoyed swimming and long walks.

Charlie may have been one of JFK’s favorite dogs, but the First Lady preferred a German shepherd named Clipper. A gift to the family from JFK’s father John Kennedy, Clipper velcroed himself to the First Lady’s side. He was the only Kennedy family dog to get formal obedience training. Caroline and John-John enjoyed tagging along with their mom to watch Clipper and other German shepherds at the training site.

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First Lady with Clipper, Jan. 15, 1963

 

Mrs. Kennedy valued her privacy and Clipper helped her with that, too. Sometimes the president and Mrs. Kennedy walked the dogs outside the White House grounds in the evenings so no one would recognize them. Mrs. Kennedy walked Clipper and the president usually took Charlie. The Secret Service car had to follow at a distance, but it relaxed both humans to have that little bit of freedom.

Note: this is not a complete list of the Kennedy presidential pets, but includes some of the most popular ones.

How to become an Ancient Spartan Warrior

Sparta was a city state in the southern part of ancient Greece separated from the mainland by the Gulf of Corinth. Being a Spartan was tough, but that’s how the citizens wanted it. Spartans conquered a lot of land and people around their city state. Each Spartan had a portion of land farmed for him by slaves known as helots. To keep the helots in check, the Spartans created the best military in ancient Greece.

They kept their military strong by raising boys to become warriors. When a male child was born, Sparta’s elders demanded to see him. If he seemed unhealthy in any way, the elders took the boy to the woods and left him there to die. If, however, the child had no obvious flaws, he continued to live with his parents until the age of 7.

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Spartan helmet exhibited at British Museum. Photo by John Antoni, April 24, 2012.

At 7 years old, boys were enrolled in a state run school. The school didn’t require the students to learn how to read and write or do math. Instead, the students spent all of their time playing sports and learning military skills, such as how to use weapons. This might sound like fun, but the constant competition often became exhausting. Boys were forced to compete in wrestling and boxing matches. If a student lost, he was humiliated. Though they were young, they were being toughened up to serve in the military.

Another way of making the boys tougher was by not feeding them much food. Without enough food, the boys had to creep out at night and either find and kill wild animals or steal from the kitchens. The experience gave them skills needed in warfare, like how to move around stealthily in the dark and how to live off the land. Students also were not allowed to wear shoes, even in the winter.

During the last couple of years at school, students joined the Krypteia, Sparta’s intelligence agency. The goal of the Krypteia was to spy on the helots in case they were planning an uprising.

To complete their education, each student was sent out at the age of about 20 to assassinate a helot in the Spartan conquered land of Messinia. The young Spartan was sent out unarmed and without food. If he was successful, he was judged ready to be a full Spartan citizen. At this point, the young man joined a men’s club called the Syssitia where he would continue to practice warfare.

 

King Narmer: Egypt’s First Pharaoh

Before the pharaoh Narmer came to power in 3100 B.C., Egypt was divided into small areas called nomes. Feuds between nomes and crime in general went mostly unchecked since there was no centralized state to enforce laws. In 3100 B.C., however, Narmer succeeded in uniting the country of Egypt. He first gained control of Upper Egypt (where the river Nile begins in the South) and then defeated a coalition from Lower Egypt (where the Nile spreads into the delta region in the North).

How do we know that Narmer was responsible for the unification of Egypt? Fortunately, archeologists discovered a stone carving in the shape of a shield that documents Narmer’s achievements. The carving is called the Narmer palette.

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Front of Narmer palette, known as “the smiting side”

 

The front of the palette shows Narmer as the largest and most central figure. He is identified by the hieroglyphs at the very top of the palette. His figure is very muscular, and he is preparing to smite an enemy with his upraised mace. On this side of the palette, he wears the white cobra crown that signifies his rule over Upper Egypt. Below the king are two naked enemies that are trampled beneath his feet. Since Narmer already wears the crown of Upper Egypt, the enemies are likely from Lower Egypt.

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Back of Narmer palette

The back of the palette shows Narmer wearing the red vulture crown of Lower Egypt. He has clearly vanquished the enemies seen on the front and is celebrating his victory. Royal standard bearers walk ahead of the king in a procession. The procession stops in front of ten beheaded enemy bodies.

Thanks to the discovery of the Narmer palette, we have documentation for Egypt’s unification. The palette also emphasizes the strength and dominance of the pharaoh. In fact, the so-called smiting scene on the front appears repeatedly in ancient Egyptian art when a pharaoh wanted to document a victory.