After putting it off for months, I finally listened to the soundtrack to "Hamilton: An American Musical" a few weeks ago and I was transfixed from the start. I've listened to it a lot more since then, and I can say that the awards and nominations are well deserved. For years I told my students that we study the past to make sense of today, and it is obvious that "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda agrees, having written a play that states unequivocally that "immigrants...we get the job done". I initially wanted to write two pieces, one discussing the art of this particular musical and another covering the historical accuracy, but it is impossible to separate the two, so I've put both things together below. Please note: the following will contain "spoilers", if there can be spoilers for something so plainly based on historical fact. But if you are waiting to see the play, you might want to stop here.
As I've mentioned in previous posts (such as this one), I spent 12 years teaching history at the high school level (in fact, every year my final exam had a section of matching questions for which the right answers were the acrostic "HAMILTON"), and have been a serious student of American history for decades. Back in high school when I applied to Hampshire College, I had the idea that my Division III (think, senior project but really big) would combine my love of theatre and American history by writing a one-person play about the life of socialist labor leader Eugene Debs. Ultimately I went in a totally other direction (I studied labor-management relations in major league baseball) and decided that while it wasn't impossible to write a good play about American history (a classmate named Karen Sabo wrote a one-person play about Hollywood blacklisting and it was super), I KNEW it was impossible to write a musical about America that would be excellent artistically as well as historically.
So imagine my surprise when I first heard about this musical. And not to pat myself on the back, but I am not a Johnny come lately to this topic, having read a long article about it in the New York Times four years ago, which referenced an even earlier public performance at the White House shortly after President Obama was inaugurated, that left me very eager for more. To that end, when I read this review of the play in its pre-Broadway run I eagerly petitioned to lead a school field trip to see the show. Unfortunately the history department head at my old school was a very hidebound person, and he rebuffed me, saying "I hardly think that there is any place for 'rap music' in a discussion of history."
Well, let's just say that if I had a ten dollar bill for every time that guy was wrong about something I could afford to see "Hamilton" on Broadway! But there's no use crying over spilled milk.
Miranda has often told the story that, when reading Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton, he was struck by the contemporary relevance of the man and his times:
“Just the hustle and ambition it took to get him off the island — this is a guy who wrote his way out of his circumstances from the get-go. That is part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself. This is a guy who wrote at 14, ‘I wish there was a war.’ It doesn’t get more hip-hop than that.”
I spent a long time teaching the Revolutionary War, the ratification of the Constitution, the Washington and Adams administrations, the election of 1800 and the Burr-Hamilton duel to hundreds of students, and all I can say is, Miranda sums it all up amazingly well. His musical numbers are not only tuneful, rhythmic and dynamic, but they also express the agreed-upon facts concisely and clearly. At this point, I think that any U.S. History teacher who doesn't play excerpts from the soundtrack in class is missing a great chance to engage with the students.
The musical is divided into two acts, each of which has Aaron Burr in the role of a Greek chorus, setting the stage with laser-cut imagery that would give any attentive audience member the basic historical grounding to follow what is about to come next. Act I follows Hamilton from his origin in the West Indies to his arrival in America as a talented, orphaned immigrant at the outset of the Revolutionary War. We meet characters like Burr, the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington, and Elizabeth, Angelica and Peggy, Hamilton's future wife and sisters-in-law, the Schuyler sisters. By the end of the first half of the show, the Revolutionary War has ended, and both Hamilton and Burr (who in many ways are mirror images of each other throughout the musical) are new fathers, as well as fathers of our country. Act II introduces us to new characters such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Maria Reynolds, with whom Hamilton had a disastrous adulterous affair (in a "you can't make this up" twist, in real life Maria Reynolds later divorced her husband and her lawyer was---Aaron Burr). The second act gives us a great look at Washington's neutrality policy, at the debate over the assumption of state debts, and the Election of 1800, and culminates in the duel in which Burr fatally shot Hamilton.
There is much that I'd like to say about this show, but in the interest of brevity and clarity, I've confined myself to four topics. Each of them will let me explain what I like so much about this musical while also sharing some reflections about the history behind the lyrics.
There is much that I'd like to say about this show, but in the interest of brevity and clarity, I've confined myself to four topics. Each of them will let me explain what I like so much about this musical while also sharing some reflections about the history behind the lyrics.
Alexander Hamilton:Miranda is best, in my mind, when dealing with the biographical and psychological aspects of the title character. Hamilton was a desperate young man when he came to America, who (in a society that was very stratified and inaccessible to a man without property) longed for a war in which he could make his mark. A recurring theme lyrically and philosophically first appears in the third musical number, "My Shot". In it, Hamilton and his young friends are eager for the opportunities war will bring, and repeatedly vow, "I am not throwing away my shot." Miranda's Hamilton shows that he identifies with the new country which he will help build with his own blood and toil when he says: "Hey yo, I'm just like my country, I'm young, scrappy and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot."
The show is also great at expressing the idea that Hamilton was a ball of energy (his wife asks him "why do you write like you're running out of time?") and ambition due to the difficult circumstances of his youth. That said, while not masking Hamilton's flaws, the show does minimize them. While the show does note that "Martha Washington named her feral tom cat after him", it is presented as an aspect of his personality prior to the marriage with Elizabeth Schuyler that (in a day when a wife's property became her husband's) established him at the upper levels of New York society. In real life, Hamilton was a serial adulterer and probably what we would call a functioning alcoholic (though, so were a lot of people at a time when the average American drank seven gallons of alcohol yearly). I used to describe him to my students as "the most self-destructive person in American History", and that is somewhat minimized in the musical.
The arc of the narrative does a good job of mirroring the arc of Hamilton's life. At the end, after playing a key role in ending his rival Burr's political career, and following the death of his oldest son, Philip in a duel over Hamilton's honor, the former Federalist firebrand retired to a quiet life in New York. His nearly ruined marriage is depicted as recovering slowly, but it's clear that the ultimate politician has no future in government. It is really left up to the audience members to decide if Hamilton accepted Burr's challenge out of pride, or with a death wish. We've heard throughout the play that "history has its eyes on" Hamilton, and there is no doubt that his everlasting fame (at least, before Miranda got a hold of him) was due to his famous death.
The musical does a good job of establishing Burr's reputation as a chameleon-like political figure whose ethos "speak less...smile more" conceals his true feelings. Burr was an orphan, but as the show makes note, he came from what at the time was American royalty. His grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, whose "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God"was the prototypical "fire and brimstone" sermon of the Great Awakening, while his father was a founder of what became Princeton University, thus making Burr the perfect mix of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment; a sometimes incompatible mix that still causes conflict in our society today. I really like how the show seems to, in some ways, revolve around Burr's (remember, he's the narrator) frustration at having been passed in the race by a nobody. As Burr's character says at the start of Act I:
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of whore
And a Scotsman,
Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by Providence,
Impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
Not to take anything away from Aaron Burr. Burr was a legitimate war hero, having served in the doomed attack that was the Battle of Quebec, but he never reached the rank of general (compared to the younger Hamilton, who after years as Washington's aide-de-camp eventually rose (during the Adams presidency) to command the army of the United States. In the 1790's Burr was a senator from New York (replacing Hamilton's father-in-law), and he became the third Vice-President of the US (and first to fail to become Chief Executive in his own right) in 1801. The play does a good job of showing how Burr and Hamilton had careers and lives in parallel for a long time, including serving as lawyers together, and having kids who (at least a little) might have humanized and settled them down. Tragically, both men outlived their oldest children.
If Hamilton "wrote like he was running out of time", he wasn't alone. One of the great songs in the musical has characters marvel:
"Look around, look around at how lucky we areand it wasn't just in New York that history was happening. For the first time, a small set of colonies overthrew the rule of the most powerful nation on the planet. A few years later, the people of France rose up against their rulers and literally remade the world. And after that, a smallish soldier born well but in a colonial backwater, rose up to become the Emperor of Europe. The example of Napoleon and his rapid rise along with the other titanic changes mentioned above must have made the similarly vertically challenged Burr (and Hamilton) believe that they lived in an annus mirabilis when dreams could come true. That gives extra meaning to the exchange at the end of Act II after Burr has defeated Philip Schuyler for the Senate:
To be alive right now!
History is happening in Manhattan and we just
Happen to be
In the greatest city in the world!"
Burr: ..Schuyler's seat was up for grabs, so I took it!Of course, another of the many tragedies (both in the musical, and in real life), is that like Eliza Hamilton, Aaron Burr lived for 32 years after the fateful, fatal duel and never achieved what he must have thought was his destiny.
Hamilton: I've always considered you a friend.
Burr: I don't see why that has to end!
Hamilton: You changed parties to run against my father in law!
Burr: I changed parties to seize the opportunity I saw.
I swear, your pride will be the death of us all! Beware: it goeth before the fall.
The Duel:I've been fascinated by the Burr-Hamilton duel ever since I was a teenager, when I first read "Burr: A Novel", by Gore Vidal, and when I saw the unrelated but visually striking movie, "The Duellists". One thing that makes me so interested is that there is no authoritative "truth" about the fatal gunfight between the sitting Vice-President and the former commanding general of the U.S. Army, therefore, it is the perfect example of how history can be whatever one wants it to be.
I think it's important to remember that the age of Hamilton and Burr was one of short lives, quick death, and was in a lot of ways a small world. People didn't have long to make their mark, and in a small country, it was easier than it is now to rise to fame. The population of the United States in the 1800 Census (not counting Native Americans) was just over 5 million, and of them the following people couldn't vote:
as a result, in a close election like that of 1800, reputation mattered--there were only a few thousand voters in each state (even the bigger ones like New York) and a man's character was closely related to his honor, which at that time was the linchpin of his financial prospects. In a time when banks were rare and unstable, and when many people's wealth was tied to things of limited liquidity (such as crops yet to be grown, or slaves unable to be sold) wealthy men depended on their ability to borrow money from other men of the same social stratum. Many of the Founders spent their lives in debt to other wealthy men, and this was due to the fact that a gentleman would accept the word of another gentleman ("on my honor") that a debt would be repaid in full. In many cases, loans were made without collateral, because a man's honor was said to be enough.
- men who did not own sufficient real estate
- people under 21
- all women
- all slaves
In the musical, as in life, Hamilton was brought down not by the adultery (and the related blackmail payments) of the Reynolds affair, but by his lengthy, detailed "Reynolds Pamphlet". In it, to show that he never abused the public trust, he told the world about his extra-marital affairs. Hamilton was so myopic that he could only focus on his reputation for financial probity and didn't care what he revealed about his shameful sexual behavior (and what it said about him as a husband)--after all, he wasn't looking for loans from women, was he?
No one knows what ultimately prompted the duel between Hamilton and Burr. As you probably remember from your history classes, the Constitution as written did not initially account for what was then known as political factions (we would say "parties"), and as a result the elections of 1796 and 1800 saw bitter rivals seeming to run together. In 1796, the Federalist John Adams became President while his Vice-President was Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. For the next four years, Jefferson did everything he could to weaken Adams (while Hamilton, who was also a Federalist, did the same). To avoid such a thing happening again, the parties tried to establish a clear candidate for President and a younger, dare I say "lesser" candidate for Vice-President four years later.
The election of 1800 ended in a tie in the Electoral College between Jefferson and Burr. Adams and his sidekick Charles Pinckney clearly lost, but who won? Elections took much longer to conduct back then, and for months Burr refused to do what many (certainly Jefferson) expected him to do and admit defeat. Imagine the recent tension between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but instead it's the actual election, and Sanders was young and refused to yield. Burr kept saying "as far as I can tell, I'm President", and he worked hard to get the House of Representatives to confirm it. When he finally lost to Jefferson on the 36th (!) ballot, he hoped that the Virginian would know that it had just been politics. Unfortunately, few people held grudges like Thomas Jefferson, and he made sure to ruin any chance of Burr ever rising to the White House.
Burr eventually accepted that he would have no place on the Federalist ticket in 1804, and instead sought to be elected governor of New York. Unfortunately a cabal including the unlikely partnership of Jefferson and Hamilton saw to his defeat. That same year, a letter to Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Schuyler was published in a newspaper in Albany, saying that at a recent dinner, Hamilton was heard to say "despicable" things about Burr. At this point, Burr had lost the votes of the powerful men in Albany, and he was probably in a vulnerable state. The letter said that Burr couldn't be trusted with power (which was bad enough)--what could have been more "despicable"?
We'll never know. But following the code of honor that made one accepted as a gentleman, Burr demanded Hamilton retract his statement and apologize. Hamilton essentially said that he was too drunk to remember what he said, and that he said so many things that he refused to apologize without Burr being more specific. The only result after that which would let Burr maintain face, maintain honor, and maintain status as a gentleman, was to challenge Hamilton to what they would have euphemistically called "an interview".
In my classes I would spend a day telling this story, and explaining the Code Duello, and how so-called gentlemen on both sides of the Atlantic would fight for honor. In typical fashion, Lin-Manuel Miranda does it better than I did and much more quickly, in the Act I number (reprised in Act II) "The Ten Duel Commandments". I would much rather play this recording than do my usual poor acting in front of the class!
Anyway, we know that Hamilton's pistols had a hair trigger, which would make them easier to fire. And as Miranda has Burr sing, "They won't teach you this in your classes, but look it up, Hamilton was wearing his glasses. Why? If not to take deadly aim?" Unfortunately, duelling was only quasi-legal then (in fact, it was against the law in New York, which is why gentlemen of the city rowed to New Jersey to fight), so there were not many witnesses. After everything was done, the two seconds (William Van Ness for Burr and Nathaniel Pendleton for Hamilton) issued a joint statement, but it doesn't say much. Basically, the men stood 10 paces apart; Hamilton's second would give the command to fire; the seconds disagreed over who fired first. Burr's papers from the time were lost at sea in the shipwreck that killed his daughter and grandson, so any contemporaneous record of his observations no longer exists.
On the other hand, Hamilton (who always wrote like he was running out of time), penned a statement about the duel before he left for his rendezvous in Weehawken, in which he stated that his "religious and moral principles are strongly opposed to the practice of Duelling", and "I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire--and thus giving a double opportunity to Col. Burr to pause and to reflect." (italics in original) Basically, in a letter that was only to be read in the event of his death, Hamilton claimed that he planned to shoot his pistol in the air, to show Burr that he had "no ill will". But wouldn't it just have been easier to apologize then? Especially since to many, a refusal to fire at one's opponent was also a dishonorable act?
In other words, at the end of his life, Hamilton would have us believe that he planned to "throw away his shot". This adds even greater poignance to the times earlier in the musical when he and other characters swear that they will NOT do so (in a different context, of course).
At the end of the song "The World Was Wide Enough", Burr sings:
"Now I'm the villain in your history.I was too young and blind to see...I should have known.I should have knownThe world was wide enough for both HamiltonAnd me."
This is a great reference to one of my all-time favorite lines! Every year when I taught this class, I would have Burr's statement about the duel written on the board:
"Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me."
I love this quote. Not only is it a rueful acknowledgement by an old man of his previous lack of maturity, it also shows how books and authors can be so influential to our view of and conduct in the world.
I am not a connoisseur of hip hop and modern R&B, so I will not be able to competently address the many references within Hamilton to music of the last few decades, though you can read articles that do so in what seems to be a very thorough fashion. What I can do is write about how the music makes me feel.
So many of the songs are so clever! I love how the character of King George comes off like the jealous ex-boyfriend par excellence in a song that sounds almost like '60s pop and sings, "when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love". I love how Lafayette sings in a silly French accent (and then the same actor plays Thomas Jefferson in Act II, newly returned from France). I love the feeling of pride that swells up in me when I hear "The World Turned Upside Down", which describes victory at the Battle of Yorktown, and conveys the feeling of limitless opportunity.
It's important to remember that it's not just young men at pivotal points in history who believe that the world lies at their feet. That is a sentiment common with the young, especially the young of a relatively privileged background. I've previously quoted from the song "The Schuyler Sisters":
"Look around, look around at how lucky we are /To be alive right now! / History is happening in Manhattan and we just / Happen to be / In the greatest city in the world!"
When I first heard the recordings, and every other time since, hearing the characters sing of their joy and optimism has filled me with a deep sadness. Miranda is such a great writer, that he can accurately put his characters into an authentic state of self-awareness. To a young person, with the future yet to be written, such moments are genuinely exciting and full of limitless potential. But knowing as I do what is to befall the characters, and the country, I can't share their hopeful feelings. There is also the fact that I'm not 24 anymore, and I know how time can change people's lives. All of that comes through for me when I hear this song, and I tip my hat to Miranda for being such a powerful writer.
Speaking about sadness, I am not ashamed to say that parts of this musical brought tears to my eyes. Apparently I'm not alone, because if you Google "Hamilton makes me cry" you get over 2.5 million hits! Others have written about this ("10 Times I Lost My Sh*T Watching Hamilton The Musical"; Hamilton An American Musical Has Me Crying Nerd Tears; The Emotional Hooks of Hamilton, Why The Soundtrack Makes Me Cry Every Single Time) better than me. But I have to say that several parts of the show never fail to get me; I listened to the soundtrack on an airplane recently, and sat flying over Louisiana with tears streaming down my face. Without discussing the music itself, the the songs whose lyrics have the biggest emotional power over me are:
- A Winter's Ball and Helpless: "A Winter's Ball" shows when young, good looking (but out of his depth) Alexander is put into the orbit of the Schuyler sisters. Miranda is so good at using vocal style to convey young Alexander as being unprepared for what he sees in New York (but willing to learn how to succeed). After setting the stage that a good marriage can make a man, the show segues into "Helpless". I love the harmony of the three sisters, and when they sing, "Helpless! Look into your eyes and the sky's the limit I'm helpless! Down for the count and I'm drowning in 'em" I can't help but think of how I feel when I look at my wife.
- Satisfied: In this song, Angelica Schuyler is at the wedding of Hamilton and her sister. She remembers falling in love almost at first sight with Alexander, but deciding that a match with him would be unwise, and passing him onto her sister, so "at least I keep his eyes in my life". Later in the show it is clear that Angelica has always had an affection for Hamilton, though when his infidelities disrupt Eliza's life, her sister is clearly on her side. I have always been deeply affected by stories of someone loving another from afar, and this song touches that nerve.
- Dear Theodosia: I'm not a father, but even so, songs about fatherhood have always ripped me up. This one from the end of the first act is particularly moving; the song shows the humanity (previously unglimpsed) in Burr (who sings to his new baby daughter) and Hamilton (who sings to his new baby son). Knowing that both men would outlive their children adds poignancy to the music. What parent, or for that matter caring adult hasn't looked at an innocent child and felt "I'll make the world safe and sound for you...If we lay a strong enough foundation we'll pass it on to you, we'll give the world to you, and you'll blow us all away"? This song is incredibly moving on its own, but it also lends power the the duel scene in Act II, when Burr swears that Hamilton "will not make an orphan of my daughter".
- It's Quiet Uptown: This song from Act II shows a despondent, broken Hamilton trying to recover after the death of his son Philip in a duel. The refrain of the song breaks my heart:
"If you see him in the street, walking byHimself, talking to himselfHave pity,He is working through the unimaginable"
I know that I can't imagine a sorrow deeper than that of a parent who loses a child. This song in particular makes me think of someone close to me whose son (whose middle name was Philip)died before his time, as well as all of the other people who have to get on with their life in the face of incalculable grief.
- Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story: Other than losing a child, losing a spouse is the other unfathomably horrible tragedy a person can face. In my own group of family and friends there are several examples of this, and it is my deepest personal dread. This song tells how Eliza Hamilton tried to carry on her husband's work (and posthumously burnish his reputation) for the decades after his death. She worries if "when my time is up, have I done enough?", and notes that her greatest pride is in founding an orphanage:
"I help to raise hundreds of children.I get to see them growing up.In their eyes I see you, AlexanderI see you every time."
Having devoted my own life to teaching other people's children, this line really hits me hard.
The night before the duel, among the many other documents Hamilton penned, he wrote to his wife:
"I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me....Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me. Ever yours, AH."
I have no doubt that Alexander Hamilton was as I spent years describing him, a bitter, self-destructive man whose paranoia and hate led to a death before his time. But I am indebted to Lin-Manuel Miranda for his perceptive understanding of the man's personality, as well as for his brilliant, keen writing, which has helped me regain an appreciation of Hamilton as a person (as opposed to An Historical Figure) whose emotions I feel I can now touch and comprehend. If you haven't seen Hamilton, I hope you will try to get tickets if it comes to your town or if you go to New York. If you haven't listened to the soundtrack, I hope the excerpts in this article inspire you to buy the album. And if you haven't studied this period of history since school, I hope this might make you want to go to the library to pick up some books; it will definitely be worth the trip.