After buying tickets and waiting almost a year, we finally got to see “Hamilton,” the smash Broadway musical. It was midweek, and the line of ticket holders waiting to get in stretched halfway around the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York City. The music is hip-hop, the cast is young and multiracial, and the wry and witty lyrics are delivered in faultless diction. But that alone doesn’t explain its magic, or the effect it’s been having on audiences since it first opened off-Broadway. The day we went, the mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged audience roared approval at the close of each scene as if it were a rock concert.
Even more radical than employing hip-hop as the means of conveying the story is “Hamilton’s” reckoning with our country’s creation myth. Says Rolling Stone magazine: “There’s an almost indescribable power in seeing the Founders, in an otherwise historically rigorous production, portrayed by a young, multiracial cast.”
“It is quite literally taking the history that someone has tried to exclude us from and reclaiming it,” says Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr. “We are saying we have the right to tell it too.”
“Hamilton” is the brain-child of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who got the idea for the musical after reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” while on vacation in Mexico. He was drawn to Hamilton’s up-from-the-bootstraps immigrant story, which reminded him of his own Puerto Rico-born parents’ experience. He also saw in Hamilton’s headstrong personality and rhetorical prowess, links to such modern-day rappers as Tupac Shakur. It seemed only fitting that Hamilton’s story be told using the music and vernacular of hip-hop—“the language of youth and energy and rebellion,” he says.
Miranda wrote the show’s first song for a performance at the White House in 2009, part of an evening celebrating the American experience. His rapping tribute to Hamilton—“The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter”—received an enthusiastic reaction from the White House crowd. Encouraged, Miranda set about expanding it into a full-scale musical.
Once Miranda felt he had a viable script, he asked Chernow to read it for accuracy. “You mean you want me to tell you when something is in error?” asked Chernow. “Yes, I want historians to take this seriously,” replied Miranda. “Well, that was music to my ears,” Chernow said later. “I think very often when Broadway or Hollywood does American history, they start out with the assumption that it’s boring and that it has to be spiced up for the contemporary audience. Whereas Lin realized that the most dramatic way to tell this story was to stick as closely to the facts as possible.”
While other Founding Fathers were born into privilege and wealth, Alexander Hamilton grew up in a tropical hellhole of dissipated whites and fractious slaves. Says Miranda: “I guess the direct line I can pull on the most is between Hamilton’s life story and the immigrant narrative in our country. The fact immigrants have to work twice as hard just to get here, but that also, at some point, it’s going to be thrown in your face as a negative. In Hamilton’s case, it was Jefferson and Madison writing basically the same things you would hear about Obama during the election cycles: ‘How do we really know where he’s from?’” Hamilton also had to deal with being taunted as a bastard throughout his life—“my birth is the subject of the most humiliating criticism,” he wrote in one pained confession. He turned his early family history into a taboo subject which he wouldn’t discuss and never wrote about.
Which brings us to the other thing that drew Miranda to Hamilton—his skill as a writer. As with Miranda, Hamilton distinguished himself with the pen. Says Chernow: “Hamilton didn’t have a lot of formal schooling. Still, he was one of those people who seems to have read everything, can remember everything and is able to retrieve everything . . . he could write a 10,000 word memo overnight, without needing to make any changes to it when he was done. By the end of the process (researching and writing Hamilton’s biography) I felt that compared to him I was a tongue-tied idiot.”
FROM NEVIS TO NEW YORK
Here’s what we do know about Hamilton’s early life: he was born on Nevis, a tropical island in the Caribbean. His father vanished, his mother died, his cousin and supposed protector committed suicide, and his aunt, uncle, and grandmother all died. At age 12, Alexander and his brother James (age 14) were then stripped of their meager inheritance in a court of law, and were left to fend for themselves. James apprenticed as a carpenter while Alexander—with a head for numbers—went to work in a counting house on the island of St. Croix. When the island was ravaged by a hurricane, he wrote an essay about the experience which was published in the local newspaper. Impressed by Alexander’s writing ability, a Scottish tutor arranged a scholarship that sent him off to a college in New York (today’s Columbia University). A month shy of graduation, Hamilton quit school to form a regiment for duty in the American Revolution. Within a year, he was invited by General George Washington to join his inner circle. Hamilton was a part of the beleaguered Continental Army during the devastating winter at Valley Forge, and the even more devastating winter two years later at Morristown. Two years after that, with bayonet in hand, he led a charge into the battle lines at Yorktown that helped turn the battle and win the day.
Two things happened to Hamilton during the war: (1) he married the daughter of a prominent wealthy New York family, Elizabeth Schuyler (together they would have eight children), and (2) he made an exhaustive study of economics that brought him to the attention of Robert Morris, “the financier of the American Revolution.” Later, after Washington was elected president, Hamilton was one of the few people—perhaps the only one—with the financial knowledge to solve the riddle of the skyrocketing public debt. More about this in a moment.
After Yorktown, Hamilton studied law and after one year was on his way to becoming the number one attorney in New York City. He did a stint in Congress (where he met James Madison) and quickly realized the Confederation Congress, without the power to tax, was little more than a debating society. Something had to be done or the young Republic would go the way of the carrier pigeon and vanish from the face of the earth. In 1786, he and Madison called for a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to be held the following summer. The new Constitution that emerged was not what Hamilton had hoped for, but he put 100 percent of his support behind it, including writing 51 of the 85 essays that comprised “The Federalist Papers,” written to convince New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution.
FOUR STATE PAPERS
When Hamilton was appointed Treasury Secretary in September 1789, no one had any idea how much the nation owed its foreign and domestic creditors. A three-man treasury board under the Articles of Confederation had spent three years going over vast amounts of data and failed to come up with a number. It took Hamilton but three months to determine the total amount ($76 million). Many people saw the debt as a national curse, something to be repudiated and forgotten. Not Hamilton. Having made a study of Britain’s deft management of public debt, which had underwritten the island nation’s rise to power, he drafted a somewhat similar plan but with several key differences and presented it to Congress as the best means of addressing the debt. “A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing,” he wrote. “It will be a powerful cement of our union.”
The paper was the first of four state papers he would write that would become the blueprint for the America we know today. The state papers are: (1) Report on the Public Credit (Jan 1790), which made provision for the public debt; (2) Report on a National Bank (Dec 1790), which created the Bank of the United States, forerunner of today’s Federal Reserve; (3) Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank (Feb 1790) written in response to Jefferson’s contention that such bank was unconstitutional; Hamilton’s rebuttal originated “the implied powers doctrine” which every president of consequence has cited in justifying expansion of presidential powers, including Jefferson himself; and (4) Report on the Subject of Manufactures, a bold plan for making the U.S. a manufacturing powerhouse, and perhaps Hamilton’s most ambitious paper.
Years ahead of his time, Hamilton viewed an American manufacturing capability as a means of rendering the United States “independent (of) foreign nations,” particularly “for military and other essential supplies,” and thereby completing the task begun in 1776. Hamilton noted in his report that “to cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise, is not the least considerable of the expedients, by which the wealth of a nation may be promoted. . . . Every new scene, which is opened in the busy nature of man to rouse and exert itself, is the addition of new energy to the general stock of effort.” Though Congress refused to adopt this last state paper, he alone among the founders championed an American spirit of enterprise that eventually transformed a Third World nation into the greatest economic power ever known.
Says conservative columnist George F. Will: “There is an elegant monument to Thomas Jefferson in Washington, but none to Hamilton. However, if you want to see Hamilton’s monument, look around. You’re living in it. We honor Jefferson, but live in Hamilton’s country, a mighty industrial nation with a strong central government.”