“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.”
– Hamilton, An American Musical
Sometimes vindication and fame come a little late.
Alexander Hamilton would appreciate this fact. Despite featuring on the $10 bill (a privilege he may soon be losing), the youngest of the Founding Fathers has been (until recently) supremely undervalued for all that he accomplished on behalf of our country.
To read off a little of his resume, he was Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolution, and an active participant in writing the Constitution. He penned 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers that rallied support to the Constitution and the new form of government it embodied (they are still used today in court as a source of Constitutional interpretation). He was America’s first Secretary of Treasury, rendering us stable economically, establishing America’s good credit, and making us an international contender in the financial sector. He founded New York’s first bank, the first National Bank, and America’s first political party. He personally saw to Thomas Jefferson’s election as president. He also founded the Coast Guard.
He accomplished all of this as a bastard immigrant from impoverished circumstances before dying at the age of 49.
I never cease to be amazed by Alexander Hamilton – he was the ultimate wildcard. No other founding father came from such a complete disadvantage, and absolutely no one saw him coming…kind of like a certain spectacle that debuted recently in New York.
But I will get to that in a minute. In the meantime, let me give you the skinny on Hamilton’s unexpected rise to prominence.
He grew up in devastating poverty, the orphaned illegitimate son of a degenerate Scotsman and an unfaithful married woman in the Caribbean. The father left before Alexander was 10 years old, and by 13, Alexander was an orphan left penniless and alone in St. Croix, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
Most people would have been lost after that, forgotten beyond the backdrop of history. But not Hamilton – Alexander was nothing if not self-motivated. He got himself apprenticed to a local merchant and set about giving himself the education he wouldn’t get otherwise. He read his way through every text he could get his hands on. He developed his writing to the point that it drew attention – local people set up a fund and sent him to the American colonies to attend college.
So at 17, Hamilton found himself at King’s College in New York on the eve of the American Revolution. He quickly sided with the revolutionaries, befriending the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette, and caught the attention of General George Washington himself.
The General – some 25 years Hamilton’s senior – saw the bright mind and burning talent of the young man and appointed him his aide-de-camp, his right hand man. For the rest of the war, Hamilton hardly left Washington’s side, writing all of his orders and dispatches, acting as an adviser, and a secretary in all his affairs. He even fought in a position of command in the final battle of the Revolution, and saw America come out victorious.
To the Victor Go the Toils
Hamilton approached his life after the war with the same ambition and unrelenting work ethic that got him into America in the first place. He set up a burgeoning law practice and was an active participant in the Constitutional Convention that drafted the Constitution.
When support for the new document came out shaky, Hamilton did what he always did in times of crisis – he put pen to paper and wrote furiously for the next 6 months, churning out essay after essay in support of the Constitution, explaining its many facets. The Federalist Papers, as the essays were soon called, turned the tide in favor of the Constitution and subsequently each state individually approved the new document as the supreme law of the land.
He was Washington’s first choice as a member of the first presidential cabinet, and was immediately named Secretary of Treasury. In the end, he also took on a role like a White House Chief of Staff, handling many of the nitty-gritty details of the first presidency on his own. He ghostwrote the majority of Washington’s addresses and speeches.
Wheelin’ and Dealin’ and Duelin’
When Washington stepped down after two presidential terms, Hamilton continued to exercise great political power despite his growing number of enemies (he was known for many things, but keeping quiet about those he disliked was not one of them).
When the Presidential Election of 1800 came down to a tie between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson – both of whom Hamilton disliked with a fiery passion – he became the swing vote that determined who would be America’s third president. Seeing Jefferson as the lesser of two evils, he openly campaigned amongst the men of his party to ensure that Aaron Burr would never be president. He succeeded.
This disappointment coupled with other insults and grievances from Hamilton spurred Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton accepted.
Most duels of the day didn’t end in death – the parties would usually come to a peace agreement beforehand, or if not, they would fire their arms into the air as a gesture of completing the duel and satisfying their honor without injuring their pride. This wasn’t the case July 11, 1804 at Weehawken, New Jersey where Hamilton and Burr stood 24 feet apart at dawn. At the count of 10, Hamilton fired his arm into the air but Burr’s aim was deadly. The bullet entered Hamilton’s abdomen, ricocheting and splintering some ribs which in turn caused severe damage to his internal organs. He died the next day.
It was a sudden end to the life of a man so caught up in the founding of the new nation. But Hamilton’s legacy was anything but small.
But history strikes back in funny ways. In a twist that I don’t think anyone could have seen coming, Hamilton is finally getting the attention he deserves – from a musical.
A hip-hop musical no less.
And one that’s rapidly gaining ground in popularity.
Who Tells Your Story
The Broadway musical had its inception some 6+ years ago, and was first announced at a White House dinner to which writer, director and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda had been invited and asked to perform. “I’m actually working on a hip-hop album,” he announced as prelude to his performance. “It’s a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.” Amidst the ensuing chuckles, he calls out, “You laugh, but it’s true!”
He then performs what would become the musical’s opening number –
Some in the crowd that night probably thought Miranda was being tongue-in-cheek about our friend Alexander Hamilton, that he’d created an entertaining diversion for the evening and that was the end of it. But Miranda was very serious, and far from done.
In February 2015, the musical debuted off-Broadway, and then transitioned indefinitely to Broadway itself August 2015. Since then, the musical has climbed in acclaim – everyone’s seen it and loved it from President Obama to Paul McCartney, from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Rupert Murdoch. The critics are crazy about it, but they’re not the only ones.
I’ll admit I laughed out loud when I heard that my favorite founding father – whom I’d written a paper about in high school – was being honored with hip-hop on Broadway. Then I looked into it.
Turns out this is my new favorite musical.
Hamilton, An American Musical is actually the best thing that could have happened for Alexander Hamilton – it’s inspired in every way.
I don’t know how else to say it – Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius. The context in which he composes the musical, the ethos he lends it, grounds the work in a modern reality that translates brilliantly in a way no other approach to Hamilton could.
Miranda himself is the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant – his father Luis A. Miranda Jr. came to America at the same age as Hamilton and pursued his graduate degree with something of the same relentless energy and ambition (he taught himself english while a student at NYU). Needless to say, Miranda saw much of his father in the man who left St. Croix in the Caribbean to find a new life in New York City, and he immediately set about translating Hamilton’s story into modern terms.
“Oh, this is a hip-hop story,” Miranda said in an interview. “We take it as a given that hip-hop is the music of the revolution….The hip-hop narrative is writing your way out of your circumstances.” So what could be a more appropriate approach to the revolutionary whose penned his way up and out of poverty into the upper echelons of America’s political elite than a musical in the style and mode of people who aim for the same? And I’ll tell you – the songs are not just literary and stylist works of genius. They’re catchy.
Yet another stroke of brilliance on Miranda’s behalf is the approach to the cast. He enlisted actors and actresses of all colors and backgrounds to fill the parts of his play. “This is the story of America then, told by America now,” he says. “It looks like America now.”
As such, Hamilton and his crew of fellow 20-somethings come off as they should be seen – a group of rag-tag revolutionaries with something to prove, trying to create a new nation. The major figures of history – from Washington to Jefferson to Hamilton – usually etched as god-like figures of marble in the annals of history come off instead as wonderfully, incredibly human and real. And since Hamilton was a hardcore abolitionist and envisioned a multi-racial America, it sends a marvelous message.
I love Alexander Hamilton, and I’ve always felt he’s been short-changed by history, that he got the short end of the stick. I couldn’t be happier that now he finally is getting the attention and fame he deserves, especially from such a worthy – if unexpected – source. I’m going to be going about my days singing the songs for years to come.
Just goes to show that sometimes recognition doesn’t come when it should – but it’s often worth the wait.
And sometimes the things that come from nowhere are the best things that could possibly happen.
Check out the complete music of Hamilton here (via Spotify).