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Ambition and Talent

By: Richard Samuelson
June 13, 2016

A version of this essay will run in the Summer 2016 Claremont Review of Books.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, is a phenomenon. A smash hit on Broadway. A critical success. Winner of many, many awards, including 11 Tonys last night. The show’s music is being played and replayed across the country. A local “Soul Cycle” exercise center in Pasadena lists a special “Hamilton” work out. As a patriot and historian, I approve. Calvin Coolidge noted: “it is only when men begin to worship that they begin to grow. A wholesome regard for the memory of the great men of long ago is the best assurance to a people of a continuation of great men to come, who shall be able to instruct, to lead, and to inspire.” 

But what are Americans remembering? That is more problematic. To be sure, the show, drawn loosely from Ron Chernow’s bestselling 2004 biography, notes that Hamilton was a man of ’76 and played a leading role in establishing our republic. It demonstrates—perhaps exaggerates a bit—his opposition to slavery. But why does he oppose slavery? Why did he support a republican revolution? Why did it succeed? That is unclear, and when it tries to be clear, Hamilton is often off base.

Love of Fame

If one theme brings together the drama it is Hamilton’s desire for glory. One hears this in the First Act refrain “I am not throwing away my shot!” repeated regularly as Hamilton rises from obscurity to glory. It is also in the show’s iconic image—on the program, the album, t-shirts, cups, etc.: a silhouette of Hamilton standing on top of half of a five pointed star with his arm raised, pointing forward, as in “follow me” ye lesser mortals. Not the most democratic or even republican image for a founder. 

The founders had mixed feelings about fame, and about the “spur of fame,” as historian Douglass Adair called it. In The Federalist, Hamilton called “the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” From the perspective of republican governance, the purpose of the love of fame is that it is a spur to noble action—dangling glory before a Hamilton is like dangling a red cape before a bull, a way to lure him to sacrifice self for the public good. But he knew that. Hamilton and the others understood that their desire for glory was a mixed bag; it had a substantial personal cost. In the end, it killed Hamilton. Yet, seeking fame for noble deeds, as opposed to base ones, is worthy of praise. Hamilton said the republic needed a certain number of “public fools” to survive. The phrase is an echo of Paul’s injunction in I Corinthians that “we are fools for Christ,” who willingly sacrifice self, status, and reputation for the Savior’s glory. 

George Washington saw the problem with panting after glory. In his second term as president, he said that he regretted his decision to re-up “but once…and that was every moment since.” Part of him always wanted out, desiring nothing more than to sit under his “vine and fig tree,” to quote the prophet Micah. The founders were not Romans or Spartans, living for the glory of the republic and nothing else. On the contrary, Washington and his fellows also drew upon a version of the Christian ethic—an essential part of the reason they opposed slavery. Just as it was wrong for one man to own another, so too was it wrong for the republic to own any citizen or all citizens. Some things belong to Caesar, but not everything. We have the right to acquire, own, and manage our vines and fig trees, and to private lives. In America, unlike Sparta, it takes a family to raise a citizen. 

One story that runs through the play is the rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Burr opens the drama asking, “How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman…grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The show ends, essentially, with the duel. Between is the story of these two “orphans.” Burr was the son of Princeton University’s (then-the College of New Jersey’s) president and the grandson of Jonathan Edwards. That might explain why Hamilton felt the need to be audacious while Burr was willing to hang back and await the main chance, as conveyed on stage. The mortal duel between Hamilton and Burr is the penultimate scene. Why did Hamilton agree to a duel? The song “The Ten Duel Commandments” does a brilliant job of setting to music the rules historian Joanne Freeman has outlined in Affairs of Honor (2001). Next time I teach that, I might play the song in class. There was plenty of room to negotiate his way out of a duel before it reached the dueling ground. But Hamilton refused. Why? And, having agreed to a duel, why waste his shot (that is, purposely miss his opponent), as Hamilton did? It is not clear within the show. Its portrait of Burr is generally sympathetic, so much so that Hamilton’s view of him as a charlatan, as Hamilton states on stage, rings false. Henry Adams explained that Hamilton dueled to preserve his public role. In Hamilton’s own words, “[t]he ability to be in the future useful…in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.” This is where Hamilton’s thirst for glory and his extreme self-regard made him a slave. He opposed dueling on principle and as a Christian (Hamilton founded a “Christian Constitutional Society”). Yet to remain a public figure, he concluded that he had to bend to public opinion. To put it in the language of the show, to have refused would have been to throw away his shot!

Lin-Manuel Miranda focuses on Hamilton’s concern with his legacy, rather than on his desire to serve: just before the duel, he asks: “If I throw away my shot, is this how you'll remember me?” That points back to his first major number: “I am not throwing away my shot! / I am not throwing away my shot! / Hey yo, I’m just like my country, / I’m young, scrappy and hungry, / and I’m not throwing away my shot.” He continues a bit later, “Don’t be shocked when your hist’ry book mention’s me. / I will lay down my life if it sets us free. / Eventually, you’ll see my ascendency.” At the end, he reflects: “what is a legacy? / It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” He goes on, “America, you great unfinished symphony… / you let me make a difference / a place where even orphan immigrants / can leave their fingerprints and rise up.” The story of America, as here presented—the story of an “unfinished symphony”—is not the story of a country in which all adults may be citizens, and in which all citizens are equals, and equally free to rule and be ruled in turn, enjoying private property under our vines and fig trees. The story here verges on the Romantic or Whitmanesque: America is a canvas on which artists and other great men, from Hamilton to Miranda, may paint and repaint. Thus explained, however, freedom becomes the ability to invent meaning and impose it on the world, rather than to recognize truths about God, man, and nature and to try to live in accord with those truths—in other words, the pursuit of happiness, rightly understood.

Recall in this context Hamilton’s warning in The Federalist that the man who threatens the republic is likely to present himself as the friend of the people. Similarly, recall young Abraham Lincoln’s concern in his Lyceum Address with “men of ambition and talents” who would overturn the republic in order to gratify their own urge for fame and glory. Containing and republicanizing that urge was among the most serious challenges a republic faced, to use ambition to serve the principles of 1776, not to overturn them. Our constitution’s checks and balances were designed with precisely that idea in mind. But if all meaning is a human invention, the challenge, at its most fundamental level, is unrecognizable, for all such principles are created equal. And the worry about channeling ambition is reduced to a peculiar 18th-century concern. Absent a “truth, applicable to all men and all times,” as Lincoln called the principles of 1776, there can be no standard—or no non-arbitrary standard—by which to restrain or guide the ambitions of “towering genius.” The republic becomes a blank sheet on which ambitious and talented men, of whatever character, may compose their symphonies. 

Step on a Journey

That reading comes through in Hamilton’s rendering of the Declaration. Miranda gives us a “girl power” story, almost certainly part of the appeal to contemporary audiences. The only line presented from the Declaration is “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” sung by Hamilton’s soon-to-be wife, Eliza Schuyler, and her sisters. “When I meet Thomas Jefferson,” Angelica Schuyler exclaims, “I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel.” A potent anachronism—imposing a 21st-century meaning on the words of 1776. It would do more justice to the founding to recognize, as Abigail Adams famously did, that the principles of 1776 by their very nature applied to all humans. Yet that line would celebrate the founders over today’s creators, and turn the focus to transcendent principles and away from the genius and his works. In the world of music, it points toward Johann Sebastian Bach, who used his gift for the glory of God, rather than the Romantic artists who celebrate themselves.

But, we might ask, in what sense are all men equal? As possessors of rights endowed by their Creator. That many did not yet enjoy those rights meant that there was work to do; that they recognized this was the project of generations is why the American Revolution, unlike the French, did not crash and burn. It is wrong to treat a man as property because a human is not an animal, to be ridden as a horse—a distinction that applies to both men and women, black and white. As Lincoln recognized, the words of the Declaration were “a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for…even though never perfectly attained.” He also noted that the words, left unchanged, serve as “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” Rather than respecting the essential truth of American life, Miranda’s Hamilton gives us the Declaration as a step on a journey, as truth evolves. It does not point to a political standard and to the eternal negotiation between what is best simply and what is best possible, here and now.

Instead, it makes the story focus on contemporary fashion, including fashionable ideas. (The same holds for Miranda’s decision to have a non-white cast, rather than simply hiring whoever was best able to portray each character.) When the immortal words of the Declaration are read, a combination of the Schuyler sisters and a “Female Ensemble” declares “Hey! Hey / Look around / Hey! Hey! / Look around / Hey! Hey! / At how lucky we are to be alive right now!” The last bit alludes to the English poet William Wordsworth’s “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” the memorable line from his poem, “French Revolution,” a reflection on a very different revolution, which Hamilton saw through quite early on. That latter revolution was rather more Rousseauian and Romantic than was our Revolution. It was much more compatible with the philosophy of History Miranda puts on the stage than with a truth applicable to all men at all times. Although the show notes that the American Revolution was more stable than the French—hence Hamilton’s support for President Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality—there is little or nothing in the show that would suggest why the American Revolution was a success and the French was not. 

Given this perspective on the founding, it’s no surprise that the word “nature” is absent from the show. It might be implicit at the start, in the hurricane that terrifies young Hamilton, but that is nature as a problem to be overcome, not a bountiful creation, the source of rights and obligations. “God” is not entirely absent, as in Hamilton’s “God. I wish there was a war.” (The last six words are, in fact, Hamilton’s, from his 1769 letter to Edward Stevens. Miranda added the “God.” In general, Miranda does a good job of integrating Hamilton’s words into the hip-hop score.) “Creator” does not appear, but the word “create” and its cognates appear a few times; notably, as the revolution comes, “every action’s an act of creation!” Creation, in this sense, is ultimately self-creation, which leaves nature behind or pretends it does not exist. Our Creator, or even “nature’s God” who made the “laws of nature,” which justified revolution and made slavery a wrong, is conspicuously absent. 

This skewed view of America comes through clearly in the last scene. After her husband dies, Eliza Hamilton opens an orphanage. That is, in part, a tribute to her late husband—her effort to ensure that other orphans have a shot at life. But that is not what she says. Instead we get the “girl power” story again. “When my time is up, / Have I done enough? / Will they tell my story?” A few lines later, the show ends, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? / Time… / Will they tell your story? Time… / Who lives, who dies— / Who tells your story?” She is more concerned with being remembered in history than with helping orphans. And it’s about women being remembered in addition to men—perhaps I should write “great men.”

By George

The stories of the two Georges—George Washington and King George III—offer a contrary example. George III provides a droll foil for the American experiment. He mocks and derides the Americans with perfect comic timing and cartoonish pomposity. When the Americans declare independence, he confidently sings: “you’ll be back.” And when Washington rejects Hamilton’s plea that he run for a third term, King George is dumbfounded: “I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do / I’m perplexed. / Are they going to keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?” His famous comments about Washington’s resignation had to do with his resignation from his post as commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1783, but close enough (presenting it that way would make Washington not Hamilton the hero of the Revolution, making the story on stage less compelling). In 1796, Hamilton wanted Washington to take a third term as president, and probably to remain president for life. Washington refuses: “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on / It outlives me when I’m gone.” The nation is Washington’s legacy. But Washington also introduces a different ideal, “Like the scripture says; / ‘Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree / and no one shall make them afraid.’” The republic Washington, Hamilton, and the others founded, is a free republic. Each of us has duties to the republic—to ensure our freedom continues, and, as in the case of slavery, to address those areas where we are not yet living up to the principles of the regime. Each of us also has private rights, to sit peacefully on his own property, and manage it as he sees fit, presumably with no federal bureau of fig tree regulation. Yet Washington’s story is, in the context of the show, overwhelmed by the story of the Hamiltons and their ambition to be remembered.

How does it do that? By carefully editing history to make it fit the story that Miranda wishes to tell. A relatively small matter is that he makes Hamilton look like the essential man at Yorktown. He skips over how Hamilton took umbrage at a perceived slight by Washington and was proud that “[h]e shall, for once at least, repent his ill-humor.” Meanwhile, as Chernow notes in his biography, Hamilton was “panting for a combat role,” and kept “badgering” Washington for one. Washington finally relented. At Yorktown he let Hamilton lead one of the final charges. The other was to be led by our French allies who had organized and run the siege operation—the Marquis de Lafayette had Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat do it. Heroic certainly, but Hamilton was not the hero of Yorktown the show presents. Following the broader theme, the main concern before the battle is not the survival of the cause of liberty. Instead they sing the lines that also close the show: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” (Thus does Miranda score one for himself, in the feud between patriots and artists). Miranda simplifies the story of how Hamilton became the first Treasury secretary. He was, in fact Washington’s second choice, although he turned out to be the best possible choice. The truth would diminish the heroic account.

In general Miranda pushes aside ideas that were important to Hamilton and to the founding, but which, one suspects, don’t fit into his own point of view. When discussing Washington’s Farewell Address, which Hamilton drafted, Miranda mentions the president’s desire to defend neutrality in foreign affairs, and his criticism of partisanship. No mention, though, of his reaction to the French Revolution, best seen in his concern for the moral character of citizens:

[L]et us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle…. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

On the questions of morality and religion, Hamilton was on the same page as Washington. Chernow argues that for Hamilton “religion formed the basis of all law and morality.” Of Eliza, Chernow notes, she “was a woman of such deep piety that she would never have married someone who did not share her faith to some degree.” But that story, however true as history, and perhaps as political reality, is not the story Miranda wants to tell.

Rewriting History

Miranda frames the story of Alexander and Eliza beautifully and tragically. In the show, Eliza’s sister Angelica meets Hamilton on stage first, and is clearly smitten. But Eliza is her sister, and she is also smitten, and Angelica surrenders to her sister’s happiness. Angelica is also portrayed as the more intellectual of the two—and becomes a vehicle the girl power line. In fact, in 1780 when Eliza met Hamilton, Angelica was married, having eloped with British M.P. John Barker Church in 1777. On stage Miranda turns the story into a romantic myth, wonderfully seductive in its own right. At least Miranda is honest enough to tell the audience that, Eliza having burned her correspondence with her husband, their story is essentially made up from about the time that Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds was exposed. His mythic version romanticizes the story. On stage, Miranda has Eliza break with her husband after he publishes his “Reynolds Pamphlet,” confessing his affair, but vindicating his public honor. Chernow notes that Eliza was more angry at those who revealed the affair than she was at her husband. Moreover, he suggests that “[o]ne imagines that she had tolerated some discreet philandering from Hamilton before,” albeit nothing so public. That Betsy was three months pregnant when their son Philip died in his duel with George Eacker, a duel which took place after the election of 1800, not before as in the show, suggests that Miranda’s account of a split after the affair and reconciliation after their son’s death is pure myth. What we do know is that Eliza never forgave James Monroe (not Burr, as in the show) for revealing the affair. When Monroe visited her in the 1820s, after his presidency, she was expecting an apology. That reaction suggests that Eliza never considered herself a public person, and that if she, like Martha Washington, destroyed her letters to her husband, it was because she had no interest in taking on an historical character. She spent her last years working on her husband’s historical reputation, not her own.

Conveniently, Miranda pushes the apparent date of that revelation back toward the end of the 1790s. This change allows Miranda to set the famous duel in the context of the romantic story, and, at the same time, simplifies the politics—part of the reason why the story behind the duel is not clear. One wonders if Miranda does that because he doesn’t know how to portray Hamilton’s mixed feelings about dueling? In an age of “my body, my choice” is there a coherent argument against the practice? Or against suicide for that matter? Raising such questions, however important they might be morally, might turn the audience off. When the show began with “I’m not throwing away my shot,” I was expecting it to end with exactly such a reflection. There is no room for it in the moral world of the show.

Ultimately, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster show rewrites history to play up what he takes to be our new, improved, 21st-century understanding of human equality, brought to you by our heroic Creators. Hamilton, in other words, is the perfect musical for the age of Donald Trump and Barack Obama, an age in which Vice President Biden, celebrating the signing of a major piece of legislation, turns to History, the modern god: “And history—history is not merely what is printed in textbooks. It doesn’t begin or end with the stroke of a pen. History is made.” Contrast that sentiment with Lincoln’s much more humble view from the Second Inaugural: “If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?” 

Today’s would-be heroes pant to contribute to our “unfinished symphony” whether, allegedly, to restore the republic to its former glory or to “fundamentally transform” America moving “forward” to a future beyond the ancient divisions among peoples, and even beyond the natural differences that separate men from women. But absent nature, can there be any standard? Or do we prove the show’s King George right—Americans are on the way back—becoming, in the name of “greatness” or “progress” mere fodder for would-be tyrants claiming to be our friends? Miranda is brilliantly pointing us back to the founding, and for that he should be thanked, but once there we would be wise to look elsewhere for stage direction.