I can’t stop listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton.
Our daughter subscribed to Disney + for a month, so we could catch it. I watched it 5 times. (The soundtrack is available on YouTube.)
I love the theater. I was transported by and marveled at Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, and I still listen to those soundtracks. Hamilton has impacted me the same way.
I (like most people I’ve talked to) didn’t know much about Alexander Hamilton, other than Aaron Burr killed him in a duel. I’m ashamed of how little I remember about the founding fathers and the revolutionary war, and I think we might be less divided today if we kept in the forefront the grueling hardships and sacrifices that were suffered in order to establish what author Steven Gillon has called “the American experiment.”
In reading (and failing often in trying to sing) the lyrics from Hamilton, I shake my head at the brilliant irony of the words – how the atmosphere and possibilities of that turbulent time so resemble America’s atmosphere and possibilities today. The comparisons struck me from the very first lines of the production. (Just for fun, words in bold are song titles from the show.)
Aaron Burr wonders aloud about how someone with Alexander Hamilton‘s tattered background works his way to success:
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a 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?"
I, too, marvel at what Hamilton overcame (I had no idea, but have since researched it more fully.) From destitution to prominence and influence. Other distinguished folks quickly came to mind, others who have risen above dire circumstances – Frederick Douglass (who became a consultant to President Lincoln), many of the early presidents, Beethoven, Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, Dr. Ben Carson, and countless others.
America is the place where climbing out of hardship and cruelty is possible.
It takes work and a good amount of “scrappy” as Alexander reminds us in his story, but it is possible.
Coming from such lack and personal suffering, once in America, the young Hamilton is driven to embrace every opportunity he sees. Over and over again, he claims “I’m not throwing away my shot.”
At age 16, Hamilton attends King’s College (now Columbia University.) At 20, he becomes the top aide to General George Washington and eventually commands a battalion in Yorktown, VA. By age 25, he is a practicing attorney in New York. Two years later, he organizes the (still existing) Bank of New York. At 32, he becomes the nation’s first Secretary of Treasury. At 44, he founds the New York Evening Post. The guy is ambitious and not easily deterred.
Through the ages, America has produced similar tenacious individuals: Thomas Edison had several failed inventions (the Talking Doll, the Electric Pen, and Ore Milling) before perfecting the light bulb. Colonel Sanders got rejections from 1,009 (good grief) restaurants before one accepted his recipe and gave him a shot. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, and his first company failed. Edison said: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
The American spirit at its best is innovative and determined.
Does Hamilton make mistakes along the way? Absolutely. In the Hamilton production, he is compelled and single-minded, and he regularly pounces on people.
In a song that many characters contribute to, Aaron Burr decries that Hamilton is non-stop. Burr, who tends to “wait and see which way the wind will blow” before he makes any political moves (a glaring parallel to many politicians today), is frequently irritated with Hamilton.
Hamilton’s wife Eliza is always asking him to slow down, stop driving himself, and be home more. After every accomplishment, she urges him to “Look at where you are, look at where you started. The fact that you’re alive is a miracle. Just stay alive, that would be enough.”
But Hamilton is not satisfied. During the war, he wants to fight, he wants greatness on the battlefield. General Washington, who is a father figure to the orphaned Hamilton, warns him against such starry-eyed aspirations:
“I was younger than you are now when I was given my first command. I led my men straight into a massacre, I witnessed their deaths firsthand.
I made every mistake and felt the shame rise in me, and even now, I lie awake knowing history has its eyes on me.
Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory; you have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
Washington’s wisdom here is so poignant; he suffers his regrets and knows his failures will be remembered.
To this day, the mature and experienced caution the young and hungry about chasing misguided adventures.
But, Hamilton is persistent. Eventually, Washington relents. He appoints Hamilton to a small battalion that helps lead the successful attack at the Battle of Yorktown – the war’s last major land battle. This gives Hamilton the recognition he craves.
Today, most of us view the 1776 Revolutionary War as the cut-and-dried marker between tyranny and liberty. In truth, the war lasted 8 years, and America was established in unpolished bits and pieces.
Along the way, Hamilton, a prolific writer, continues to pester Washington, Burr, and Thomas Jefferson to see things his way. Cabinet meetings are fiery debates with big egos. (It’s disheartening to realize that after 226 years, not much in that department has changed.)
In the stage production, when Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton complains to Washington that his dissenting colleagues are the problem, Washington reprimands him: “Work it out, Alexander. Winning was easy, young man; governing is harder.”
Excellent reminder, George. Governing has never been easy and never will be.
No matter who our elected officials are at any point in time, it’s good to keep in mind that political leaders are first and foremost flawed individuals who are going to have difficult and usually no win-win decisions to make.
From the beginning, American leaders have wrestled with the challenges of self-governing. In Hamilton, Aaron Burr refuses to help Alexander hone the new U.S. Constitution because “It’s full of contradictions.”
Hamilton replies, “So is independence. We have to start somewhere.”
The uncomfortable fact is, freedom is messy, and some decisions we disagree with will be implemented.
In the show, Aaron Burr complains more than once that he's excluded from some major debates.
“No one really knows how the parties get to yes, the pieces that are sacrificed in ev’ry game of chess
We just assume that it happens, but no one else is in the room where it happens.
No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens, but no one else is in the room where it happens.”
Still true today. A few make the decisions for all. That’s why it’s important that we pay attention. A quote that is often (incorrectly) attributed to Thomas Jefferson, says it best:
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
This was first spoken by abolitionist William Phillips in 1852. Freedom is ours to keep.
Every generation has to decide.
Amidst the strife of the revolutionary years, both Hamilton and Burr become fathers for the first time. Optimistically, they dream of future America, where the combat and bloodshed are over. They serenade their infants with these words:
“You’ll come of age with our young nation, we’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you
If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you”
Such are the dreams of every parent. Responsible for unscarred, vulnerable life, we see the world’s evils more clearly and determine to do what we can to change things.
Wanting more, fighting for better, failing, but charging forward – this has been the American journey from Day 1.
After 45 years in public service, an exhausted President George Washington retires. The young country is nervous about losing its experienced and beloved leader, and the public is divided over the new presidential candidates, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The tension on the stage looks painfully like the political conflicts we see today.
Washington’s parting address (mostly penned by Alexander Hamilton) is captured in the song One Last Time:
“In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error. I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will view them with indulgence; and that after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as I myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.
I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”
Lengthy sentences to be read slowly and more than once. After all he’s done, Washington still appeals for mercy regarding missteps. The more I study this guy, the more I appreciate him.
The story advances. Over the years, Hamilton and Burr continue to be bitter political rivals. Both want acclaim and a degree of power. Burr defeats Hamilton’s father-in-law in the 1791 U.S. Senate race. Years later, Hamilton engineers Burr’s defeat in the presidential election of 1800, giving the win to Thomas Jefferson. When Burr decides to run for governor of New York, Hamilton once again manipulates his defeat.
Relentless competition/ambition is their downfall. (Two current day characters ruined by their arrogant drive came to mind for me: Richard Nixon and athlete Lance Armstrong.)
Burr’s growing animosity towards Hamilton reaches its zenith in July 1804 when he challenges Hamilton to a duel. Burr is Vice President at the time. (Interesting side note – he is arrested for treason in 1807. He is eventually acquitted, but never regains respect from the public.)
Hamilton is fatally shot and dies approximately 30, painful hours later. Hamilton is gone, and Burr’s political life is ruined.
Such a waste.
In Burr’s final song, he seems finally humbled:
“Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
History obliterates in every picture it paints
It paints me and all my mistakes
When Alexander aimed at the sky, he may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it; I survived, but I paid for it
Now I’m the villain in your history
I was too young and blind to see…
I should’ve known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”
Throughout Hamilton, different characters wonder, “When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story? When my time is up, have I done enough? Will they tell my story? Will they tell your story?”
At the end of Hamilton, it’s Eliza who tells the story. She was the keeper of her husband’s flame, the protector of his writings, and his accomplishments. She was an amazing woman who lived to be 97 and left a legacy of her own you can read about HERE.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a creative and remarkable look at the founding of America. It inspired me to research again the founding fathers, something I have not done since high school history class. It’s given me some hope, too, in these troubles times, where the country is so divided and people are so angry.
America is not impeccable, and it never will be.
The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution refers to creating a “more perfect union,” not a “perfect” one. The founding fathers bickered and brawled enough among themselves to see that, because humans were involved, lasting perfection would be unattainable.
What the founders did exhibit for us to emulate is the unending fight – the scrappy, unwavering determination to make things better.
And they did. America IS better than it was in 1780, or 1880 or 1980. Is it perfect? No. But it’s better.
And so the fight continues. There are reminders every day here in America that injustices and corruption are still with us. However, I am encouraged by this 2018 quote by author John Meacham:
“To know what has come before is to be armed against despair. If the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive destination: a more perfect Union.”
Dying thoughts from Alexander in Hamilton:
“What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone else will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference
A place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up
I’m running out of time. I’m running, and my time’s up…”
Don’t miss Hamilton. It’s worth the monthly fee of $6.99 on Disney + for your family to watch it as many times as you want.
Disney is only $6.99 a month. Cancel anytime.
Don’t throw away this shot.