Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, is a phenomenon. A smash hit on Broadway. A critical success. Winner of many, many accolades, including 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer. The show’s hip-hop music is being played and replayed across the country. Almost single-handedly the show has saved Alexander Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill. The sold-out production will run for a long time, unfazed by Miranda’s recently ending his star turn in it. As a patriot and historian, I approve. Calvin Coolidge declared: “it is only when men begin to worship that they begin to grow. A wholesome regard for the memory of the great men of long ago is the best assurance to a people of a continuation of great men to come, who shall be able to instruct, to lead, and to inspire.”
In this time of racial tension, it’s inspiring to see “an American Musical,” as the show is billed, which celebrates the founding, and in which all the lead roles are played by minority actors. But what sort of regard for the great men of long ago does the musical foster? And what kind of great men does it anticipate? What kind of America does it promote? That is more problematic. The show, drawn loosely from Ron Chernow’s bestselling 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton, notes that Hamilton was a man of 1776 and played a leading role in establishing our republic. It celebrates his opposition to slavery. But why did he oppose slavery? Why did he support a republican revolution? Why did it succeed? On that front, Hamilton is open to some criticism.
Love of Fame
If one theme drives the drama it is Hamilton’s desire for glory. One hears the refrain “I am not throwing away my shot!” repeatedly as Hamilton rises from obscurity to glory: he was not going to miss his chance to make his mark on the world.
It is not that Hamilton and the other founders didn’t want fame. They certainly did. But they were also republicans, which shaped and constrained their quest for glory. They recognized that the “spur of fame,” as historian Douglass Adair called it, came at a cost. In The Federalist, Hamilton called “the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” From the perspective of republican governance, the function of the love of fame is to spur noble action, to lure the ambitious soul to sacrifice self for the public good. But Hamilton knew that. He and the others understood that their desire for glory was a mixed bag; it had a substantial personal cost. In the end, it killed Hamilton. Yet, seeking fame for noble deeds, as opposed to base ones, is worthy of praise, a good use of one’s time on earth. Hamilton said the republic needed a certain number of “public fools” to survive. The phrase is an echo of Paul’s injunction in I Corinthians that “we are fools for Christ,” who willingly sacrifice self, status, and reputation for the Savior’s glory.
George Washington saw the problem with panting after glory. In his second term as president, he said that he regretted his decision to run again “but once…and that was every moment since.” Part of him always wanted out, desiring nothing more than to sit under his own “vine and fig tree,” to quote the prophet Micah. The founders were not Romans or Spartans, living for the glory of the republic and nothing else. On the contrary, Washington and his fellows also drew upon a version of the Christian ethic—an essential part of the reason they opposed slavery. Even as it was wrong for one man to own another, so too was it wrong for the republic to own any citizen or all citizens. In America, unlike Sparta, it takes a family to raise a citizen. That respect for private life channeled and constrained the quest for fame. Contrast Washington’s humble family tomb with Napoleon’s monumental resting place in Paris.
One story that runs through the play is the rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Burr, the show’s narrator, opens the drama asking, “How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman…grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The show ends, essentially, with the duel. Between is the story of these two “orphans” (Burr’s parents died by the time he was two). In the show, Hamilton is brash and audacious, and Burr is more willing to hold back. Unmentioned is that Burr was the son of Princeton University’s (then the College of New Jersey’s) president, and the grandson of Jonathan Edwards. Hamilton was like those freeswinging baseball players from the Caribbean: bases on balls don’t get you off the island.
Why in the end did Hamilton and Burr duel? “Affairs of honor” were common in the founding era, but they often were negotiated to satisfaction before they made it to the dueling ground. The song “The Ten Duel Commandments” brilliantly describes the process of negotiating these affairs, following the outline Joanne Freeman described in her Affairs of Honor (2001). Next time I teach the duel, I might play the song in class. But in this case Hamilton refused to negotiate. Why? And having agreed to a duel, why waste his shot (that is, purposely miss his opponent), as Hamilton did? It is not clear within the show. Moreover the show’s portrait of Burr is generally sympathetic, so much so that Hamilton’s view of him as a charlatan, as Hamilton states on stage, rings false. Writing at The Federalist website, Natasha Simmons calls Burr “the real hero of ‘Hamilton,’” a reading suggesting that Miranda doesn’t take seriously Hamilton’s critique of Burr, or the difference between his character’s republican quest for fame and Burr’s Napoleonic ambition. The best answer is that it had to do with the relationship between Hamilton’s ambition and his desire to serve. Henry Adams explained that the duel was politics, not personal. In Hamilton’s own words, “[t]he ability to be in the future useful…in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.” This is where Hamilton’s thirst for glory and his extreme self-regard made him a slave. He opposed dueling on principle and as a Christian, and yet to remain a public figure, he concluded that he had to bend to public opinion. After Washington’s death in 1799 and Thomas Jefferson’s election a year later, Hamilton’s position was weaker, even if he was able to keep Burr from being elected governor of New York in 1804. Hamilton’s efforts there led to Burr’s challenge. Dueling would, Hamilton thought, reaffirm his reputation. To put it in the language of the show, to have refused would have been to throw away his shot!
In his account of the duel, Miranda focuses on Hamilton’s concern with his legacy, rather than on his desire to be able serve in the future as he had in the past; just before the duel, he asks: “If I throw away my shot, is this how you’ll remember me?” pointing back to his first major number:
I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young, scrappy and hungry,
and I’m not throwing away my shot.
He continues a bit later,
Don’t be shocked when your hist’ry
book mentions me.
I will lay down my life if it sets us free.
Eventually, you’ll see my ascendancy.
At the end, he reflects: “What is a legacy? / It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” He goes on,
America, you great unfinished symphony…
you let me make a difference
a place where even orphan immigrants
can leave their fingerprints and rise up.
The image of an “unfinished symphony” is Romantic or Whitmanesque: America is a canvas on which artists and other great men, from Hamilton to Miranda, may paint and repaint, leaving their “fingerprints” for later generations to see as a sign of the great man’s “ascendancy.” The republic becomes a blank canvas on which ambitious and talented men, of whatever character, leave their mark. If so, there would seem to be, as in the show, little moral difference between Hamilton and Burr.
Step on a Journey
That reading comes through in Hamilton’s rendering of the Declaration of Independence. Miranda gives us a “girl power” story, almost certainly part of the show’s appeal to contemporary audiences. The only line presented from the Declaration is “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” sung by Hamilton’s soon-to-be wife, Eliza Schuyler, and her sisters. “When I meet Thomas Jefferson,” Angelica Schuyler exclaims, “I’m ’a compel him to include women in the sequel.” A potent anachronism—imposing a 21st-century meaning on the words of 1776. It would do more justice to the founding to recognize, as Abigail Adams famously did, that the principles of 1776 by their very nature applied to all humans, including women. That was “self-evident” in the strict sense of the term. Yet borrowing from Abigail would celebrate the founders over today’s creators, and turn the focus to transcendent principles.
But, we might ask, in what sense are all human beings equal? As possessors of rights endowed by their Creator. That many did not yet enjoy those rights in 1776 meant that there was work to do; the recognition that perfecting American liberty was the project of generations is why the American Revolution, unlike the French, did not crash and burn. As Lincoln recognized, the words of the Declaration were “a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for…even though never perfectly attained.” He also noted that the words, left unchanged, serve as “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” Rather than respecting the essential truth of American life, Miranda’s Hamilton gives us the Declaration as a step on a journey, as truth evolves, part of an unfinished and unfinishable symphony. It does not point to a political standard and to the eternal negotiation between what is best simply and what is possible, here and now. It leaves little room for politics, rightly understood.
The same holds for Miranda’s decision to have a non-white cast, rather than simply hiring whoever was best able to portray each character. When the immortal words of the Declaration are read, a combination of the Schuyler sisters and a “Female Ensemble” declares:
At how lucky we are to be alive right
The last bit alludes to the English poet William Wordsworth’s “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” the memorable line from his poem, “French Revolution,” a reflection on a very different revolution, which Hamilton saw through quite early on. That latter revolution was more Rousseauian and Romantic than ours. It was much more compatible with the march of History Miranda puts on the stage than with “a truth, applicable to all men and all times.” Although the show notes that the American Revolution was more stable than the French—hence Hamilton’s support for President Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality—there is little or nothing in the show that would suggest why the American Revolution was a success and the French was not.
Given this perspective, it’s no surprise that the word “nature” is absent from the show. It might be implicit at the start, in the hurricane that terrifies young Hamilton, but that is nature as a problem to be overcome, not a bountiful creation, the source of rights and obligations. “God” is not entirely absent, as in Hamilton’s “God. I wish there was a war.” (The last six words are, in fact, Hamilton’s, from his 1769 letter to Edward Stevens. Miranda added the “God.” In general, Miranda does a good job of integrating Hamilton’s words into the dazzling score.) “Creator” does not appear, but the word “create” and its cognates appear a few times; notably, as the revolution comes, “every action’s an act of creation!” Creation, in this sense, is the creation of meaning, which leaves nature behind or pretends it does not exist. Hence one is most alive when one is making history, and a creator like Hamilton, and perhaps Miranda, is more truly alive than the common sort. Our Creator, or even “nature’s God,” who made the “laws of nature,” which justified revolution and made slavery a wrong, is conspicuously absent from the score. That Miranda has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and has been a recurring player in gatherings at the Obama White House are consistent with this gloss on the founding and on the nature of rights.
After her husband dies, Eliza Hamilton opens an orphanage—an effort to honor her late husband, by providing other orphans a shot at life. But that is not what she says. Instead Miranda inserts a feminist moral into the story, projecting into Mrs. Hamilton an ambition similar to that of her husband. “When my time is up, / Have I done enough? / Will they tell my story?” A few lines later, the show ends,
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Will they tell your story?
Who lives, who dies—
Who tells your story?”
She is more concerned with being remembered in history than with helping orphans. And it’s about women being remembered in addition to men—perhaps I should write “great men.”
The stories of the two Georges—George Washington and King George III—offer, however, a contrary example. George III provides a foil for the American experiment. He mocks and derides the Americans with perfect comic timing and cartoonish pomposity. When the Americans declare independence, he confidently sings: “You’ll be back.” And when Washington rejects Hamilton’s plea that he run for a third term, King George is dumbfounded: “I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do. / I’m perplexed. / Are they going to keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?” (The king’s famous comments about Washington’s resignation had to do with his stepping down as commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1783, but close enough.)
In 1796, Hamilton wanted Washington to serve a third term as president, and probably to remain president for life. Washington refuses: “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. / It outlives me when I’m gone.” The nation is Washington’s legacy. But Washington also introduces a different ideal, “Like the scripture says; / ‘Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree / and no one shall make them afraid.’” The republic Washington, Hamilton, and the others founded is a free republic. Each of us has duties to it; but each of us also has private rights, to sit peacefully on his own property, and manage it as he sees fit, presumably with no federal bureau of fig tree management. Yet Washington’s story is, in the context of the show, overwhelmed by the story of the Hamiltons and their ambition to be remembered. There is no recognition of the goodness of a private life, even one, like that of Mrs. Hamilton, devoted to charitable service. The show would have to allow room for the goodness of life in civil society for that to come through. The life devoted to serving orphans would have to be good in its own right, and not as a vehicle for achieving fame.
Miranda silently edits history to make it fit the story he wishes to tell. A relatively small matter is that he makes Hamilton look like the essential man at Yorktown; more largely, he embellishes Hamilton’s works, as if the true story were not enough to demonstrate America’s debt to him. At Yorktown, as Chernow notes, Hamilton was “panting for a combat role,” and kept “badgering” Washington for one. Washington finally relented. As the siege closed he let Hamilton lead one of the final charges. Heroic certainly, but Hamilton was hardly the hero of Yorktown the show presents. Before the battle, they sing the lines that also close the show: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” the words that reappear at the end of the show, as Miranda gives Mrs. Hamilton her glory.
In general Miranda pushes aside ideas that were important to Hamilton and to the founding, like the survival of liberty, but which, one suspects, don’t fit into his own point of view, or which might not sit well with his audience. When discussing Washington’s Farewell Address, which Hamilton drafted, Miranda mentions the president’s desire to defend neutrality in foreign affairs, and his criticism of partisanship. No mention, though, of his reaction to the French Revolution, best seen in his concern for the moral character of citizens:
[L]et us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle…. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
On the importance of morality and religion, Hamilton was on the same page as Washington, even if he was not always orthodox himself. He seems to have grown more observant after his son Philip died in a duel, shortly after Jefferson became president. Chernow argues that for Hamilton “religion formed the basis of all law and morality.” Of Eliza, Chernow notes, she “was a woman of such deep piety that she would never have married someone who did not share her faith to some degree.” But that story, however true as history, is not the story Miranda wants to tell.
Hamilton’s rewriting of history is most clear in the story of Alexander and Eliza. Miranda renders it beautifully and tragically. In the show, Eliza’s sister Angelica meets Hamilton first, and is clearly smitten. But Eliza is her sister, and she is also smitten, and Angelica surrenders to her sister’s happiness. Angelica is portrayed as the more intellectual of the two—and becomes a vehicle for the show’s efforts at consciousness raising. In fact, in 1780 when Eliza met Hamilton, Angelica was married, having eloped with British M.P. John Barker Church in 1777. On stage Miranda turns the story into a romantic myth, wonderfully seductive in its own right. At least Miranda is honest enough to tell the audience that, Eliza having destroyed her correspondence with her husband, their story is essentially made up from about the time that Hamilton’s adultery with Maria Reynolds was exposed in 1797. This mythic version romanticizes an already romantic story. On stage, Miranda has Eliza break with her husband after he publishes his “Reynolds Pamphlet,” the long public essay confessing his affair, but vindicating his public honor. Chernow notes that Eliza was more angry at those who revealed the affair than she was at her husband. Moreover, the biographer suggests that “[o]ne imagines that she had tolerated some discreet philandering from Hamilton before,” albeit nothing so public. Miranda suggests that Eliza was so angry at her husband that she effectively separated herself from Hamilton from the time of the Reynolds pamphlet until after their son died in his duel. (Miranda moves Hamilton’s pamphlet attacking President Adams from the election season of 1800 to the start of Adams’s term, and the Reynolds pamphlet ahead in time to late in Adams’s term. He also moves Philip’s duel back in time, to just before the election of 1800. That Eliza was three months pregnant at the time of Philip’s duel suggests that Miranda is creating a past that did not exist.)
What we do know is that Eliza never forgave James Monroe (not Burr, as in the show) for revealing the affair. When Monroe visited her in the 1820s, after his presidency, she was still expecting an apology. In general the record suggests that Eliza never considered herself a public person, and that if she, like Martha Washington, destroyed her letters to her husband, it was because she had no interest in becoming an historical character. For her, a good life was a private life, not a public one. She spent her last years working on her husband’s historical reputation, not her own.
By juggling the timeline, Hamilton sets the famous duel in the context of this romantic story and, at the same time, simplifies the politics—part of the reason why the story of the duel is not clear in the show. One wonders: does Miranda do that because he doesn’t know how to portray Hamilton’s mixed feelings about dueling? When the show began with “I’m not throwing away my shot,” I was expecting it to end with exactly such a reflection. There appears to be no room for it in the moral world of the show. Though its embrace of the famous men of long ago is obvious, it isn’t discerning enough to capture the vital differences between Burr and Hamilton, or between Hamilton’s morality and that which is common on Broadway today.
Ultimately, Miranda’s blockbuster rewrites history to play up what he takes to be our new, improved 21st-century understanding of human equality, brought to you by heroic Creators. Hamilton, in other words, is a musical well suited to the age of Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Today’s would-be heroes pant to contribute to our “unfinished symphony” whether, allegedly, to restore the republic to its former greatness or to “fundamentally transform” America moving “forward” to a perfect future. But absent nature, can there be any standard? Or do we risk proving the show’s King George right: Americans are on the way back, becoming, whether in the name of “greatness” or “progress,” mere fodder for would-be tyrants claiming to be our friends? And aided by an ever-growing host of court followers, sycophants, and bureaucrats who write, enforce, and judge the law.
Though very much of the contemporary age, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show points Americans by the thousands back to the founding, leaving them rapt and rapping, and for that he should be thanked; but once there they would be wise to look elsewhere for stage direction.