On May 3, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to his friend and political ally Joel Barlow. The president confided that he had been spending some of his spare time reading the first volumes of his cousin John Marshall’s biography of George Washington. Jefferson had a low opinion of the biography, as he did of his cousin. The book was intended, he concluded, for “electioneering purposes.”
So Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison “cut out a piece of work” for Barlow: to write a history of the United States since the Revolution’s end in 1783. While Marshall had had the benefit of access to Washington’s extensive papers—which had been left in the charge of Marshall’s colleague Justice Bushrod Washington—Barlow would have the advantage that Jefferson and Madison were “rich ourselves in materials” and could “open all the public archives” to him. Not only did Madison have the best record of the Philadelphia Convention and associated correspondence, but he and Jefferson both had extensive political correspondence on other matters, and no one else would have access to “all the public archives.”
Barlow, to Jefferson’s chagrin, did not yield to the president’s request. Jefferson went to his grave wishing that someone, anyone, would write an equally partisan answer to the Great Chief Justice’s slanted magnum opus. No one in his generation did.
Jefferson agreed with his friend John Adams’s observation that the Revolution was unlikely ever to be accurately described by anyone who had not participated in it, and indeed even by any of them: “The History of our Revolution,” Adams fulminated, “will be one continued Lye from one End to the other.” Jefferson began his intellectual life thinking history was a useless pastime, but by the end he considered instruction in the history of republics an essential tool in any good citizen’s stock of intellectual equipment.
If not properly instructed, citizens might be persuaded to jettison respectful commemoration of republican heroes’ feats—as indeed Democrats in Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, and Connecticut have recently done in deciding to cast off their former plighted affection for Jefferson by dropping his name, along with Andrew Jackson’s, from what had formerly been called Jefferson-Jackson dinners. In our time, any of our republican forebears not committed to today’s pieties concerning race and sex, not to mention an all-powerful central state—meaning, if you go back far enough, virtually any of them—is to be thrown into oblivion. Meanwhile, John Marshall’s ideas, rather than Jefferson’s, form the basis of instruction in constitutional law in every law school in the country.
As if that were not bad enough, Alexander Hamilton himself, Jefferson’s bête noire, has swept Broadway. A new musical sympathetically retelling the story of its namesake’s meteoric ascent from “bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler” to dynamo of the Washington administration is sold out for many weeks to come. It wins rave reviews from whoever reviews it. Art, as Jefferson realized, can shape men’s commitments, their affections, their senses of self. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York, seems apt to do so.
As Miranda explains it, he came upon the subject of Hamilton quite by accident. Oddly choosing Ron Chernow’s monumental Alexander Hamilton as beach reading, he found himself completely enthralled. The son of an immigrant father, Miranda heard echoes of his father’s story in that of George Washington’s right-hand man. He immediately thought it was a classic hip-hop story.
You read that right: he thought Alexander Hamilton’s life was the classic hip-hop story. Googling “Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical,” he was surprised to find nothing. He would write it.
Amazingly, it works.
Miranda performed the play’s first and key song, “Alexander Hamilton,” for President and Mrs. Obama at the White House Poetry Jam early in 2009. Obama insisted that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had to hear it. (If you have not seen this performance, this is a good time to listen to it on YouTube.) Miranda’s song, sung in the character of Aaron Burr, is a brilliant summary of Hamilton’s career—his life—and America’s story. In what other land, in Hamilton’s era, could a man have risen so far on the basis of hard work, ostentatious bravery, and genuine genius? Nowhere.
Let me add that unlike many of my ideological confrères, I am conflicted over Alexander Hamilton. I disagree with Hamilton’s total devotion to assimilating American government and society to the British model. Yet how can one fail to admire an impudent whelp who dared to stake out the Patriot position against established authority in public prints even while a college undergraduate? How can we not admire Hamilton’s almost reckless valor as an artilleryman? How can we doubt that his assistance was essential to George Washington’s—America’s—success in the American Revolution? Besides that, didn’t the War of 1812 prove that Hamilton, not his Republican opponents, was right in regard to the need for a permanent, professional military establishment?
From the moment that Leslie Odom Jr. strode out onto the stage at the performance I attended and began belting out “Alexander Hamilton,” I was surprised by my response to it. Hamilton’s father’s abandonment, his mother’s death, his cousin/guardian’s suicide… it was all so sad. What a hard life.
And yet, what a life. Imagine someone hearing a barista at your nearest Starbucks recite a poem and telling him, “I’m going to pay your way through Columbia University!” That, more or less, is what happened to Hamilton. At what was then King’s College, Hamilton befriended Gouverneur Morris and John Jay, among others. Soon enough, he met Burr. The chief conceit of the musical, not far from accurate, is that Hamilton and Burr encountered each other over and over again, up to the moment Vice President Burr mortally wounded the former general/secretary/Founding Father in an 1804 duel.
True to its hip-hop form, this musical features untraditional casting. Hamilton is played by a Puerto Rican actor, Miranda. Burr is black. Lafayette and Jefferson are brought to life—brilliantly, in Jefferson’s case—by Daveed Diggs. Renée Elise Goldsberry, also black, is a revelation as Angelica Schuyler, the highly literate Schuyler sister Hamilton did not marry, despite their inclinations. Jonathan Groff is a very white King George. The dancing, the singing, the musical accompaniment… all are just as they should be. With the exception of Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison, the casting director has done a wonderful job, in this amateur’s estimation. The casting not only fits the form, but it underscores the message that “in New York you can be a new man!” and that that is what Alexander Hamilton did.
The Richard Rodgers Theatre, which looks straight out of the antebellum era, is a perfect setting for this drama. It is intimate, the lines of sight are perfect, and other than a minor microphone malfunction, which Diggs handled with aplomb, the sound was excellent.
“Was it historically accurate?” more than one person has asked me. “As accurate as you might hope,” is my answer. So Jefferson stands in one scene in place of James Monroe—who does not appear in the musical and whose inclusion would have required the addition of some awkward set-up material. Hamilton’s role in writing the Constitution is exaggerated, as is the importance of The Federalist—which, come to think of it, is what I said in these very pages of a recent Madison biography’s handling of its subject’s contributions to the same projects. Miranda draws applause (and laughs) by having Lafayette refer to himself and Hamilton as “immigrants,” when in fact Lafayette remained a Frenchman. Hey, it’s a play: what do you want?
Again, this story is sad. When Hamilton’s next-to-brother John Laurens first appears on the stage, not their mirthful interactions with Lafayette and others but Laurens’ youthful fate came to mind. The same goes for the first scene with Hamilton’s son Philip, who preceded his father in death by dueling. (I suppose most theatergoers, not knowing all of Hamilton’s story, would not respond this way.) Hamilton’s wife Eliza, heedlessly wounded by his dalliance with another woman then publicly humiliated by him in the name of saving his public persona, deserved better by him. Miranda, to his credit, makes this clear.
The deadly duel with Burr is very imaginatively staged. Here as elsewhere, the details are what make this play outstanding.
Left-wing historians lamented a decade ago that the New York Historical Society entitled an exhibition on Hamilton “The Man Who Made Modern America.” Today, a progressive administration contemplates replacing Hamilton on the $10 bill with a woman, any woman. Yet no one is making a Broadway show about Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or even George Washington. Jefferson hit the nail on the head: the Fame (note the capital) for which Hamilton thirsted is his. In some ways, he earned it.
Kevin R.C. Gutzman is the author of James Madison and the Making of America.