The second biographical musical I’ve seen within a month, Hamilton is a new musical which has recently moved to Broadway from the Public Theater. Its official opening is on August 6th. I know I have quite a few visitors who are not from the United States and who therefore might not be familiar with Alexander Hamilton. The first secretary of the treasury hardly sounds like an inspiring title. However discussions of the early years of the U.S. government and differing factions that fought to shape the nation are often labeled “Jeffersonian”, after the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, and “Hamiltonian.” U.S. students are a generally require to read The Federalist Papers, in order to understand the ideas that lay behind the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The Federalist Papers consist of 85 short articles, two-thirds of which were written by Hamilton.
Hamilton was born out-of-wedlock on the island of Nevis in the West Indies. When his mother died, he was left without any money or property with the exception of her books. Later, while working as a clerk on the island of Saint Croix, local community leaders who were impressed with his writing ability raised money to send him to the colonies on the North American mainland to be educated. He attended King’s College in New York which is now Columbia University, where he took up the revolutionary cause, writing in its favor.
Keeping the story brief, he joined the Revolutionary Army and became General Washington’s aide. He also fought and was considered a hero.
On July 31, 1781, Washington… assigned Hamilton as commander of a New York light infantry battalion. In the planning for the assault on Yorktown, Hamilton was given command of three battalions, which were to fight in conjunction with the allied French troops in taking Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 of the British fortifications at Yorktown. Hamilton and his battalions fought bravely and took Redoubt No. 10 with bayonets in a nighttime action, as planned. The French also fought bravely, suffered heavy casualties, and took Redoubt No. 9. These actions forced the British surrender of an entire army at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending their major British military operations in North America.
He was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society.
During the war, the colonies had operated under an agreement known as The Articles of Confederation. After the war, it continued to serve as a constitution, but it failed because the central government was too weak. (Here, again, I’m trying to be brief. A full discussion of the pros and cons of the Articles of Confederation is beyond a blog post, let alone a theatre review.) Hamilton was among those who argued for a new constitution and was a delegate from New York for the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The constitution needed to be ratified by the states and gaining support of the state of New York was key. It was to persuade New Yorkers to support the new constitution that Hamilton, along with James Madison and John Jay, wrote the Federalist Papers.
George Washington became president in 1789 and later that year appointed Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. According to Ron Chernow who wrote the biography which inspired the musical,
In 1789, George Washington tapped the thirty-four-year-old Hamilton as the first Treasury secretary. With its tax collectors and customs inspectors, Hamilton’s Treasury Department eclipsed in size the rest of the federal government combined, making him something akin to a prime minister. Drawing on a blank slate, Hamilton arose as the visionary architect of the executive branch, forming from scratch the first fiscal, monetary, tax, and accounting systems. In quick succession, he assembled the Coast Guard, the customs service, and the Bank of the United States—the first central bank and the forerunner of the Federal Reserve System. Most significantly, he took a country bankrupted by revolutionary war debt and restored American credit. All the while, he articulated an expansive vision of the Constitution, converting it into an elastic document that could grow with a dynamic young country.
Various scandals, most notably a sex scandal, hampered his career.
He is credited with by some as the author of Washington’s “Farewell Address,” as speech which is covered in U.S. high schools. At the very least he aided Washington in its composition.
The election of 1800 resulted in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The decision was then turned over to the U.S. House of Representatives and Hamilton was instrumental in Jefferson becoming president.
Quoting Chernow again:
One reason Hamilton was vilified by his enemies is that they feared him as an agent of modernity at a time when his Jeffersonian opponents espoused an American future that stressed traditional agriculture and small towns. In a stupendous leap, Hamilton argued for a thriving nation populated by cities, banks, corporations, and stock exchanges as well as traditional agriculture. In his famous Report on Manufactures, he enumerated how government could foster manufacturing and provide employment for immigrants. He shaped, in a virtuoso performance, America’s financial infrastructure in its entirety. On the Wall Street of the early 1790s, only five securities were traded: three issues of Treasury securities, the stock of the Bank of the United States, and the stock of the private Bank of New York—all created by Alexander Hamilton.
Well, I hope I answered the question, “Who the heck is Alexander Hamilton and why would anyone make a play about him?”
I’m going to have to invoke my right as a blogger to be unprofessional. I was hoping to see the play and write a review immediately afterward. I see, as usual, I’ve gotten a little sidetracked and I’m going to have to finish it tomorrow because I’m sleepy after staying up all night trying to write this. So, two quick things before I try to get a little nap…
Historical accuracy –
Off the top of my head, drawing on previous knowledge, it passes the smell test. I haven’t done any research to double-check, but it seemed to jive with what I already know. Two minor quibbles. Gouverneur Morris was not included as a character. Morris was one of the principal authors of the U.S. Constitution and a close friend of Hamilton. Also, the play seems to imply a closer relationship between Burr and Hamilton than I was aware of. Certainly, they were both lawyers in New York City, which had a population of less than 24,000 in 1786, they were both involved in politics and their paths must have crossed regularly, but were they as familiar as they appear to be in the play. Also, I was under the impression that New York City was a Loyalist stronghold during the Revolution. Although the play doesn’t explicitly say otherwise, it leaves one with that impression.
I don’t see those quibbles as marring the play and I still think it can be considered historically accurate.
Thumbs up/ Thumbs down –
I hope to get to a little more description of the production tomorrow, but it is definitely a good play. Very good. Do go see it if you get the chance.