Six months ago—knowing that I would be at AALS this weekend—I bought tickets for Hamilton on Broadway, which is apparently sold out for months on end. That was one of the better investments I’ve made of late. The show was spectacular. I am not particularly qualified to talk about the music or production value, so I’ll limit my review to what I know—the founding fathers.
What I loved most about Hamilton was how the show made the American Revolution and the early years of our Republic accessible to people who know absolutely nothing about the topic. By focusing on key players in those time periods, the audience was duped into thinking they were watching a personal drama. But each of the actors was an archetype for a much broader genre of the American experiment.
Of course, there is Alexander Hamilton, the namesake, but not necessarily the star of the show. Indeed, he shares the stage with his frenemy Aaron Burr, a man who stands for nothing but himself. (In the first scene Burr says he kills Hamilton, so there is no spoiler there). There is George Washington, who takes the young Hamilton under his wing, and protects him, until he resigns from office to return to Mt. Vernon. There is the Marquis de Lafayette, who provides the world view to France. There is the King George III, who can’t understand why the colonies do not want his “love.” In Act Two, we meet Thomas Jefferson (played by the same actor as Lafayette), whose first song on his return from France was “What did I miss?” There was James Madison, who served as Jefferson’s counsel, and helped enact the National Bank, and in return was able to move the capital to the Potomac. (Jefferson said, “don’t you want to be closer to home?”) Oddly, there was no actor that played John Adams, but they referred to him as this short person, unqualified for the job.
Beyond the actors, they captured so many accurate elements of the history. In one scene, Washington complained how the Continental Congress was not providing nearly enough funding for the war. Marquis de Lafayette extolled how they would bring liberty to America first, and to France later. They accurately captured the Battle of Yorktown, and the victory, and uncertainty that followed. Hamilton invites Burr to write a series of essays defending the new Constitution. Burr wasn’t interested. The next scene shows that Hamilton joined with Madison and Jay (not played) to write the Federalist Papers, though Hamilton wrote 51 himself, dwarfing the others.
As Secretary of the Treasury, George Washington often relied directly on his counsel to develop fiscal policy. They portrayed Hamilton’s surprise when Jefferson resigned to run for the presidency in 1796. Hamilton insulted the Virginia, and Washington reminded his aide—whom he kept calling “Son”—the he was also a Virginia. In the election of 1800, they showed how bizarre it was for Aaron Burr to campaign—Burr was telling people to vote for him because Adams was not a good President, and Jefferson was too extreme. They show how the electoral college tied. What broke the tie, in the show at least, was Hamilton’s endorsement of Jefferson over Burr. As much as Hamilton hated Jefferson, he did not want Burr in the Presidency.
After the election of 1800, Burr told Jefferson that he looked forward to working with him. Jefferson laughed, and said the Vice President will do nothing. Then he quips, “We should change that. I can change it. I’m the President.” Not quite. But the 12th Amendment did the trick. Even when Hamilton and Burr were corresponding about the duel, the name of the song was “your obedient servant.” That was how both of them signed the dueling letters. Also, throughout the show, there were hints to slavery, and that Hamilton was an early abolitionist—he smacked down Jefferson for using slave labor as part of the Southern economy.
One of the more powerful numbers in the entire play was a rap-off between Jefferson and Hamilton on whether the United States should establish a bank, and assume the debts of the states. This debate was strikingly accurate, as they contrasted the differing interests of the mercantilist north and agrarian south. Virginia did not trust anything they could not plant in the ground. Although they didn’t expound on the necessary and proper war—I felt like offering an impromptu lecture on the Hamiltonian/Madisonian debate in M’Culloch v. Maryland.
Another debate was between Jefferson and Hamilton on whether the United States should support France in their Revolution. Jefferson, ever the Francophile, explained that France helped the United States before, so we should return the favor to promote their cause of liberty. Hamilton said that Jefferson was blinded by his affection for the French, and that he was not there during the Revolution (burn) so he didn’t know what war was like. (Indeed, Jefferson fled the Capitol of Virginia as the British troops were invading). And, in a very subtle legalism, Hamilton said our treaty was with King Louis XIV, whose head was in a basket. This was a powerful argument, because as Washington noted, we had no relationship with the people of France, who were running the revolution. Hamilton also won this debate, and Washington asked him to draft the neutrality proclamation.
A common theme of the show was that Hamilton was such a prolific writer, who “wrote like there was no tomorrow.” At one point Jefferson said, “so long as Hamilton has a pen, he is dangerous.” The manic obsession with writing reminded me a bit of Richard Posner. The show used this passion for writing to illustrate Hamilton’s vaulting ambition, which ultimately led to his demise.
The only major historical error I noticed was that they neglected to mention that the Capital moved from New York to Philadelphia. Jefferson, as far as he travelled, never made it to New York.
On the very last scene, where Burr and Hamilton duel, they noted that Hamilton was wearing his glasses. Burr screams out—why would he wear glasses unless he was trying to aim. But Hamilton (as far as I can tell) shot up in the air. This was the same advice he had given his sons Phillip who was also killed in a duel on the plain in Weehawken.
I both hope and cringe at the prospect of making a Hamilton movie. It was such a powerful vehicle to tell the American story, but I fear a movie would ruin it. George Lucas may make a Special Edition of the production, where Hamilton shot first. (Burr shot first!).
In the meantime, if you can get tickets, go see Hamilton.