For the past two years, the hip-hop musical Hamilton has been the toast of New York, winning all the awards—Grammys, Tonys, and even a Pulitzer Prize—and grossing higher receipts than any Broadway show in history. It’s coming to London later this year, November 2017, and judging by the interest and hype is already guaranteed to be a sell-out success for years to come. But this is not a musical biography of a town called Hamilton, nor of that most scholarly of Scottish football teams, Hamilton Academicals, nor of the Formula One driver of that name, who might seem on the face of it to live the kind of exciting life that would lend itself to the drama of musical theatrics. Rather, the subject of this blockbuster show is an ideologist, politician, statesman, soldier, and author who lived in the American colonies in the middle of the eighteenth century and took a leading role in achieving American Independence. How come? Who cares?
A biopic on George Washington might carry the day; a show devoted to Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, he of the lightning rod and other experiments with electricity, and another Revolutionary hero, might have its interest. But to make a musical out of the life of the Secretary of the US Treasury, even the first such, must surely be a recipe for disaster, one of those shows that opens and closes inside three days, never even reaching a Saturday matinee. Imagine an equivalent in Britain about the life of a chancellor of the exchequer: thrill to the thoughts of Gordon Brown, set to music the search for George Osborne’s political identity, or explore the tragic inner world of Philip Hammond. No, they wouldn’t work, would they? But very many people will spend considerable sums on tickets to see a show about a man no one had heard of before the author of the piece, Lin-Manuel Miranda, set Alexander Hamilton’s life to music.
In fact, for aficionados of early American History and of the history of finance more generally, Alexander Hamilton holds a special place in our affections. For he had the early vision to see the future of America as industrial, commercial and urban while many of the colleagues with whom he had made the revolution, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth Presidents respectively, thought of the new United States as an agrarian republic of farmers. Hamilton not only saw the future correctly; he helped to make it happen by controversial but far-sighted measures when in office in the early 1790s, and by writing three famous reports on national credit, a national bank, and manufactures which charted the course to the future. He saw something else, as well, in these formative years of the Republic: the utility of public debt. Americans had to be given a reason to support their new national government, established by the Federal Constitution of 1787, and debt could help in this. By encouraging them to lend to the new United States, to become its creditors, the national debt thus established would bind the people to the health and durability of their new institutions, giving them a stake in the “great experiment” in popular self-government that is America. If it failed, they’d lose their shirts.
But though these ideas were controversial and gave Hamilton a reputation for financial trickery not unlike that of unloved bankers today, they are hardly the stuff of which a musical is composed. Try setting the national debt to music. Nor can much be made, it might be thought, from Hamilton’s most enduring literary legacy, his contributions to the Federalist Papers, the most important commentary on the principles of the American Constitution and the workings of American government ever published. In the winter of 1787–8, Hamilton joined with John Jay and James Madison, two other federalists—supporters of a federal government and a union of the American states to make a new nation—to write a long series of essays, some 84 in all, to persuade the citizens of New York City to support the new political structures devised the previous summer at a four-month convention in Philadelphia. Dissecting and explaining the Constitution in minute detail, these essays take us into the minds of the founding fathers of America and stand for all time as a commentary on the political thought of the Revolutionary generation. But hip-hop they are not. It’s difficult to imagine many citizens of New York making clear sense of these difficult academic articles which were published three times a week in the city’s newspapers in 1788, let alone setting them and their ideas to music and serving them hot to audiences in New York and London, the cities where America was won and lost, nearly 250 years later.
So what’s going on here? In fact, Hamilton’s life has human interest in abundance. He was born in the British West Indies, found his way to New York, attended what became later Columbia University, and like many graduates after him, became a lawyer. So far, it’s a story of hard work, determination, talent and upward social mobility. Drawn into revolutionary circles, Hamilton volunteered to fight in George Washington’s Continental Army and his abilities swiftly saw him appointed as aide de camp – first assistant – to the great general who became America’s first president. Victory over the British was in some measure Hamilton’s victory.
Unity among those who made the revolution was fractured, however, once the United States came into being and the hard business began of governing a new nation in the 1790s. Hamilton’s vision of the future was not shared by his erstwhile colleagues and collaborators, Madison and Jefferson. They favoured France in the wars that erupted in Europe in the 1790s, while Hamilton openly admired the British flair for finance and stable government. They saw rolling fields of corn stretching across America—“those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God” wrote Jefferson—while Hamilton foresaw roads, ports, and factories. Hamilton could see how finance could be set to work to secure support for the Revolution; his opponents looked on banks, bankers, and debt as the devil’s work. The revolutionary elite, who had fought and schemed together, now parted ways, and Hamilton resigned as Secretary of the Treasury in 1794. Personal tragedy was to follow: Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel trying to defend his father’s reputation. Meanwhile, Hamilton himself developed a bitter animosity towards a political opponent and rival, one Aaron Burr. While Burr was serving as the third Vice President of the United States, he killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804.
Historians may find fault with the details of this musical, but they always will. That’s their job. That’s why we have historians, to tell us what’s wrong when people use and abuse the past. The issue here is not the small liberties that the show takes with Hamilton’s life and the details of the Revolution. Rather, it’s the difference between what historians prize in Hamilton’s biography—his ideas, his reports, his stewardship of the infant nation’s money, his vision of the American future—and the focus of the show on the personal details of family, love, betrayal, and death.
Yet one thing has united the historians and the mass audience for Hamilton: the campaign to keep his thoughtful, patrician features on the face of a $10 bill. Most of those who grace US dollar denomination bills—Washington ($1), Jefferson ($2), Lincoln ($5), Jackson ($20) and Grant ($50)—are presidents. The only other exception to this rule is the $100 bill bearing the engaging image of Ben Franklin. Long ago, the US Treasury had the wit to understand the enormous contribution made by Hamilton to the American future and to immortalise him as the personification of $10. But when the federal government decided that this male club should be broken up and an image of the escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman substituted for the image of a male statesman at some time after 2020, it was Hamilton they chose to stand down. However, the very success of the show and the resulting public outcry from the fans has led to his reinstatement, an outcome welcomed by the scholars. Now it is Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill who will be lost, which is surely a better choice because Jackson was a notorious and violent opponent of native Americans and a slaveholder to boot.
Hundreds of millions of people will continue to see Hamilton’s face as they pull out money from a pocket or purse to pay for a beer or a burger. They will think of a brave man with flaws, regrets, and enemies as the tunes from the show flow through their heads and out through their lips. Expect to hear singalongs at the checkout in American stores rather than recitations from the Federalist Papers. But will it matter that the author of fifty-one of those famous essays is remembered in this way? Better surely, that he should be remembered at all, than that his achievements should be overlooked and his life forgotten. Who knows, it may start a trend: Lincoln on ice; Roosevelt the ballet; Clinton the movie. On second thought…
Featured image credit: “Constitution” by wynpnt. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.