A Hamilton for Our Times

Alexander Hamilton

“What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.” John Adams (1818)

John Fraim

Today’s greatest story is less about striking out against one’s oppressors and more about the events and relationships leading up to this striking out. For those who focus just the actions of history rather than their context, a brief encounter with American history through the American Revolution is instructive. The events of the America’s striking out at her British oppressors in various battles is recited repeatedly in our history books. Yet there is much less information about the context of the actions before and surrounding the revolution. 

Ideas about something new swirled in the atmosphere of Washington, Boston and New York in the years surrounding the revolution. One can depend partly on memory of these events learned from history. But perhaps one the best ways to refresh one’s knowledge of the revolution is to see it through the eyes of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. A good way to see the revolution through Hamilton’s eyes is contained in historian Ron Chernow’s 2004 book, Alexander Hamilton.

The following about an author and a playwright is pulled from internet content from various sources. Sometimes it is edited and sometimes left alone. Perhaps the modern job of that emerging new digital author is to simply act like a kind old guide, gently nudging readers in a certain direction. Putting the pieces together. These pieces sometimes (already) formed out there. Why not use them instead of “reinventing the wheel” so to speak. Using them seems to allow time for the meat of this article after the following biographical information. 

The Chernow Hamilton

National Book Award winner Chernow tells the story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.” Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time.

“To repudiate his legacy,” Chernow writes, “is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.

Hamilton’s Birthplace on the Island of Nevis in the Caribbean

Historians have long told the story of America’s birth as the triumph of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. 

Chernow’s Hamilton is far more human one than we’ve encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton’s famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804.

Chernow’s biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America’s birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.

* * *

While on a vacation in 2008, a recent graduate of Connecticut Wesleyan University and young playwright in New York City, son of a clinical psychologist and Democratic political strategist, a young Puerto Rican named Lin-Manuel Miranda, read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. It was not the way others had read it. Miranda saw in this period of American history with the events surrounding the American Revolution so much more interesting and important than the actual battles of the revolution, our history books always stress. His vision was to recast the context around the founding of the nation and the American Revolution. Not in terms of the debates of history books about white men arguing ideas of the time, arguing politics. But rather black men, arguing through the metaphor to hip hop battles like those in the film 8 Mile. In terms of Miranda, it related to an improvisation hip-hop group he co-founded in 2003 in NYC called Freestyle Love Supreme. 

The short of things (to keep this to an article) is that Miranda wrote rap about Hamilton that he performed for the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word on May 12, 2009. Miranda later said he spent a year writing the Hamilton song “My Shot.” Revising it countless times for every verse to reflect Alexander Hamilton’s intellect. By 2012, Miranda was performing an extended set of pieces based on the life of Hamilton, which he then referred to as the Hamilton Mixtape. Miranda’s brilliant visionary masterpiece, Hamilton: An American Musical premiered off-Broadway at the Public Theater in January 2015. Directed by Thomas Kail. Miranda wrote the book and score and starred as the title character.

Act One of Hamilton

A quick summary of Act I of Miranda’s Hamilton is in order at this point. Miranda’s key source is Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton. This period surrounding the American Revolution is re-imagined for today’s younger generation from the perspective of the 21-year-old immigrant Hamilton. The songs accompanying the events are listed in parenthesis.

The orphan Alexander Hamilton experiences a hard early life, and through his smarts, leaves his home, the island of Nevis a small island in the West Indies of the Caribbean Sea. In New York in 1776, Hamilton meets Aaron Burr, John Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Hercules Mulligan. He impresses them with his rhetorical skills (song “My Shot”). The latter three and Hamilton affirm their revolutionary goals to each other, while Burr remains apprehensive (song “The Story of Tonight”).  Later, the daughters of the wealthy Philip Schuyler—Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy—go into town and share their opinion on the upcoming revolution (song “The Schuyler Sisters”). At this time, Samuel Seabury warns everyone about the dangers of Congress while Hamilton disagrees and counters Seabury (song “Farmer Refuted”) until King George III insists on his authority (song “You’ll Be Back”).  During the New York and New Jersey campaign, Hamilton accepts a position as George Washington’s aide-de-camp despite longing for field command (song “Right Hand Man”). 

The Pompous King George III
King George III sings “You’ll Be Back” to the Colonists

At a ball hosted by Philip Schuyler (song “A Winter’s Ball”), Eliza falls hopelessly in love with Hamilton, who reciprocates her feelings to the point of marriage (song “Helpless”) as Angelica suppresses her own feelings for the sake of their happiness (song “Satisfied”). After the wedding, Burr and Hamilton congratulate each other’s successes (song “The Story of Tonight: Reprise”) while Burr reflects on Hamilton’s swift rise while considering his own more cautious career (song “Wait for It”). As conditions worsen for the Continental Army (song “Stay Alive”), Hamilton aids Laurens in a duel against Charles Lee, who had insulted Washington (song “Ten Duel Commandments”).  Laurens injures Lee, who yields, while Hamilton is suspended by Washington over the duel and is sent home (song “Meet Me Inside”). 

There, Eliza reveals that she is pregnant with her first child, Philip, and asks Hamilton to slow down to take in what has happened in their lives (song “That Would Be Enough”). After Lafayette persuades France to get involved on the colonists’ side, he urges Washington to call Hamilton back to help plan the final Battle of Yorktown. Washington agrees (song “Guns and Ships”) but explains to Hamilton—who is convinced he should die a martyr and a hero in war—that he should be careful with his actions because whatever he does will be known for ages to come (song “History Has Its Eyes on You”).  At the Battle of Yorktown, Hamilton meets up with Lafayette to take down the British, revealing that Mulligan was recruited as a spy, helping them figure out how to trap the British and win the war (song “Yorktown: The World Turned Upside Down”).  

The Battle of Yorktown

Soon after the victory at Yorktown, King George asks the newborn America how it will succeed on its own (song “What Comes Next”) while Lafayette returns to France with plans to inspire his people to have their own revolution. Hamilton’s son Philip is born, while Burr has a daughter, Theodosia, and the two tell their children how they will do anything to protect them (song “Dear Theodosia”).  Hamilton receives word that his long-time friend John Laurens has been killed in seemingly pointless battle after the war was won and throws himself into his work (song “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us”). He co-authors The Federalist Papers and is selected as Secretary of the Treasury by newly elected President Washington, amidst Eliza begging Hamilton to stay and Angelica moving to London with her new husband (song “Non-Stop”).  

Finding A New Hamilton?

The question Miranda is really interested in is in asking if there are any Alexander Hamilton’s out there today to rise to challenge things like the original Alexander Hamilton of history. It is a good and productive question and a type of call-out to modern versions of Alexander Hamilton. 

A contemporary Hamilton is at the center of the zeitgeist of the times rather than on some far-flung periphery of this zeitgeist. This center pulls things toward it rather than repels objects away. Its energy crosses the boundaries of many energy fields. It connects social and economic groups who had never gotten together before. It connects various generations rather than being the message of one generation.

These new groups have been held apart for so long by the memes of the popular narrative, there will most likely be surprise at the commonality of the groups. The original Hamilton is seen through the words of Ron Chernow and the words, music, and dance of Manuel-Lin Miranda. Will modern youth be inspired by this revisionary history? Will they see the possibility for creating a modern Hamilton from the chaos of current events?

Seeing A New Commonality

The potential for a new type of leader like Hamilton might arises in our period. It is the common belief that the great battle today is between Conservatives and Liberals, Republicans and Democrats. But so much has changed in the past year under the spell of the pandemic. New coalitions have been formed. A great network has been created of those challenging the official narrative of the world. Those that pose the potential for an alternative narrative to the general narrative. 

This is a large group, crossing political boundary lines. There is the general narrative of those who enforce control. There are those who follow control. There are those who question control. These are the dynamics of the popular narrative. The tensions are always present between those who have chosen to follow the narrative and those who have chosen to challenge it. But the ranks of the two groups are not set in stone as followers and questioners continue merge and separate like oil in old lava lamps. 

A group wants to keep citizens within the traditional stockyard gates, like cattle, prodded down narrow pathways defined by metal bars. But citizens can only be prodded so much from behind once the carrot is removed from the front. A question arises in many. Am I an actor or a spectator to life? It is a question being asked by members of both political parties, by both political ideologies. It is another one of those questions that crosses political boundaries. 

What Can We Do?

The question was posed with a little different framing on a call-in radio program I was listening to the other day while driving on the outer belt of Columbus, Ohio. It was another one of our humid August days and I had the air-conditioning on full blast. The guys on the program were discussing the new set of rules for the pandemic. There has just been reported a new variant of the virus said to be more contagious than the original virus. New lockdown rules are being considered in states. There is the uneasy and depressive feeling of a life full of lockdowns in America’s future. 

Many feel the times are out of joint and a particular chaos and irrationality has taken over things. This feeling hangs in the air, with the ubiquity of California smog, wearing no party affiliation. The opening stanza of the poem “The Second Coming” by Yeats comes to mind. 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

I never understood the poem in the context of my relatively ordered high school years when we studied the poem. But now it seems to express our times in an almost prophetic way. This feeling of disjointedness wears no party label and crosses back-and-forth over political boundaries. It is the zeitgeist of the times we live in. Jung might have referred to it as the collective unconsciousness of our era. 

* * *

The well-known filmmaker and author Dinesh D’Souza is a guest on the radio program I was listening to. One of the callers asks D’Souza what we can do to change things. The caller speaks for millions of listeners to the program and perhaps millions of others. The nation’s ship seems to push forward through dangerous waters without anyone at the helm of the ship. Leaders have disappeared and no one seems to have come up with a new map to navigate the ship of state through the perilous waters. 

D’Souza’s answer is practical rather than profound. No revolution has ever happened, he says, by the efforts of just one person. People must connect with others, discuss their commonalities and differences. Today, they might find many more commonalities than artificial differences that define them, imposed on them, from without. Discover of commonalties and connections between people and groups are needed if a new leader is to emerge from the people.

Perhaps one of the greatest commonalities is where people place themselves in the overall narrative of the world today. Commonality and unity might be found not just in one’s ideology but rather where they position themselves in the narrative. Do they see themselves at the beginning of a story? The middle of the story? Or, the end of the story?

Act One Cohorts

There might arise a new coalition between all those who believe we’re at the beginning of a story, a narrative. We are living in Act One of some great story. Perhaps similar in many ways to Act One of Miranda’s Hamilton or the opening parts of Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton. This is where the greatest connections are to be found, where the greatest possibility to mold the future lies. It adds a new element of connection between people and groups today. 

It suggests that people are connected by the place they see themselves in narratives rather than just the traditional themes and genres of narratives. In this sense, those who feel they are participating in Act One of a narrative have little connection with those who feel they are participating in Act II or Act III of a narrative.

Much of this narrative positioning applies to Miranda’s vision of America’s founding and its general placement in Act One of the American Revolution. As Marshall McLuhan might say, this is the cool, participatory part of the revolution when connections and relationships were established.

Lin-Manuel Miranda focuses on the connections and relationships that expressed themselves in such events like the marriage of Hamilton, the Acts of Congress, the Battle of York, and the Federalist Papers. The context of the revolution more than the content of it. This context tested those who came forward to lead the nation against King George III. We see that his focus is not as much on the biography of one person but miniature slices of the biographies of participants in the times (actors not spectators) put into the context of their times.  

Magnetism of the Times

Magnetism doesn’t have a political allegiance. It works by electric currents that pulls things together rather than pulling them apart. The magnetism draws people together during certain times in history. It pulls many towards the burning issues and ideas of the times. Not just political ideas but broad social and cultural ideas transcending politics.

It works its greatest power during times of chaos and disruption when, as Yeats says in his poem, “things fall apart” and “the centre cannot hold.” The period of the American Revolution was one of these times and it was Miranda’s vision to focus on this period. 

His focus on this period of American history offers a lesson for our period of American history. Like a magnet, millions have been drawn back in time to the American Revolution and are re-examining it or examining it for the first time. Will we learn a lesson from our examinations? And, will learning this lesson move us towards a modern American Revolution? 

The Birth of Something New

Control versus Freedom. Equality versus Individuality. The two, grand, symbols of opposition through American history. All cultural images pulled to one of the symbols representing Freedom or Control. The symbols were present at the paradoxical founding of the nation and continue to appear in various guises. In many respects, they move in cycles from one to the other dominating the zeitgeist of culture. Both are within all of us. 

One of the teachings of this is that commonality with related groups for one might not be in what they want now, but rather where they are in their version of the story position, they found themselves within. It was perhaps as important as the theme of the entire story they were embroiled within. Traditionally, one picks peer groups from outward signs. But what if a new cohort group is formed not around one’s outward signs but from their position in the grand narrative we are all cast in today? Time continues to run into the future at a faster and faster pace. One continues to hold the final threads of reason within the saturating propaganda of emotion and irrationality. 

Ultimately, it seems the real power of Miranda’s Hamilton is in providing hope to Americans that change and revolution are still possibilities. Even in these strange times of the pandemic, it is possible to see our time as one of birth and beginnings rather than death and endings. These people will be the founders of a new America. From their ranks, a new Hamilton for our times will emerge.

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