On the evening before our exciting trip to see Hamilton in Chicago, I sat and listened to my family debate the merits of the man, Alexander Hamilton and whether or not he should be admired.
Hamilton was certainly not the model portrait of a historical figure we should admire. He was an arrogant, hot-head who let his pride, his mouth and his actions lead to not only to the demise of his career, but also to his and his own son’s untimely death (who died defending his name in a dual – ironic foreshadowing to his own demise). Hamilton, in short, is no great role model to present to our kids.
While he contributed greatly to the establishment of our government and the economic foundations of our nation, there is a reason he has stood in the shadows of Washington and Jefferson in our history books and memories until now. He simply was not the most influential player and he didn’t do much for his reputation either.
However, despite all of this, for some reason we have become obsessed with this musical, and subsequently this man. Why?
I’ll freely admit that I have not read the Hamilton book by Ron Chernow on which Lin-Manuel Miranda based his script (it’s on my list, but you know… life). But whether conveyed in the book or just in Lin-Manuel’s imagination, what is presented in this musical is not just the story of a founding father, but also the story at the heart of us all. It is a story of self doubt and of pride. A story of longing to belong, and to make a name for ourselves and to leave a legacy. It is the story of mistakes, of missed opportunities, and of disappointing the people we love.
Why I think this story is so compelling is that it truly presents the humanity of these figures that seemed only to be stoic marble statues of indifference taught to us in our history books. It is what I have always loved about history, which is understanding that these figures are all people just like you and me. Flawed, yearning for meaning and for acceptance, trying to find their way in this crazy, confusing, messed up world.
Hamilton, our “hero” spent his eàrly life longing to be a somebody. In his military career, he wanted nothing but infamy as a commanding general, but alas, he was held back from reaching his goal by his mentor and leader, Washington. You see and hear, in the music just how many times Hamilton asks to be given a command only to be disappointed over and over by Washington. How many of us have also aspired to one position or another at work, only to be told we are “not ready” or our “skills are needed elsewhere”?
Burr, our “villain”, is presented as a brilliant and successful man, in his own right; but he is constantly overshadowed by the workings, opinions and flamboyant declarations of Hamilton. He struggles with self doubt and jealousy his entire life. I challenge any one of us to not name the person at work or on social media who seems to be living the perfect life we want or gets the promotion, house or opportunity you thought should be yours.
Other characters, Jefferson, Madison, Angelica, Eliza, even King George are plagued with almost childish frustration when they don’t get what they want or can’t pursuade others to think the way they do. We may not throw temper tantrums, but so many of us can go to a dark place in our minds when the world is not turning in the way we expect.
Even the stoic George Washington is shown to be beaten down by the hardships of war, politics, and the heavy burden his role as a leader has had on him. I can think of few individuals who, by the time of their retirement, are not ready to lay down their banner, set aside the burden of responsibility and wander off into quieter pastures.
These are the struggles of us all, the story of our nation and the stories of our lives. Lin-Manuel has presented to us the humanity on which our nation was founded. He has presented the mistakes and the pain and the poison as the pillars on which we try to build better lives for our sons and daughters, to show them our follys to try to prevent history from repeating itself.
The meaning of this show, I contest, really has nothing to do with Alexander Hamilton. He just serves as the character through whom the message is transported. It could just as well have been about any number of historical figures or even some fictional character in Lin-Manuel’s imagination. But what it tells us and teaches us is that we are not alone in our ambition, our toil, our longing, our fatique. It tells us to rise up, to not throw away our shot, that the world is wide enough and that someday you’ll blow us all away.