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History Inspires Art Inspires Life Inspires Learning

I often find myself intrigued by flawed characters and Alexander Hamilton was a bad ass. Prior to Hamilton, the musical, all I honestly knew of Alexander Hamilton was he started the first bank, he led the treasury after the American Revolution, and his face adorns the $10 bill. I never knew his immigrant background nor about his illegitimate birth, never mind how these formative details would create an internal drive that would propel his career and life choices. I never knew about his torrid affair and definitely didn’t know that upon confrontation and threat of political scandal, he would “write his way out” by confessing his affair in excruciating details in the Reynolds Pamphlet. I knew nothing of his wife, Eliza, a beautiful woman who gave birth to eight children, who loved her husband unconditionally, who bore the scandal with grace while preserving her dignity by burning all of their shared letters, who forgave him and went on to continue his legacy while protecting orphaned children. I definitely didn’t know that amongst his eight children, they too raised a special needs child who physically grew to adulthood but mentally remained a child. I knew Aaron Burr shot him in a duel, but I certainly didn’t know the complexity of their relationship nor their intertwined histories.

Ron Chernow’s biography, Hamilton, recounts the entire span of Alexander Hamilton’s life. Well researched, he synthesizes a massive collection of primary and secondary sources to create a richly detailed portrait of this founding father. His biography, as long and detailed as it may be, didn’t include every minute detail about Hamilton the man, but some details are impossible to know without evidence. So when Lin Manuel Miranda read Chernow’s Hamilton and began the creative process to compose the musical Hamilton, he realized that within the abundance of facts, details that lend themselves to stage performances were lacking. Of course they were. What source would include details like his personal mannerisms in social settings, or how he physically carried himself in a room, or how his personal insecurities influenced introductions to high society?

Many details about Alexander Hamilton’s personality required inferences to create a convincing stage character. Given his prolific writings, one can infer his desperate need to be heard, his desire to leave a mark on America’s government. His impulsivity can be inferred by his lack of restraint in speech, even when it led to significant consequences, both personally and professionally. Notable examples, of course, include the Reynolds Pamphlet but also his editorials in opposition to John Adams, which led to Thomas Jefferson’s victory as third president. With so many possibilities, so many ideas evidently swirling in his mind, Miranda conveyed this on stage by portraying him as walking in a zigzag circular pattern. In contrast, because Aaron Burr’s single-pointed focus was to rise in power, Leslie Odom’s portrayal of Burr showed him only walking in straight lines to convey this determination.

Some characteristics of the musical are factual and others unapologetically incorrect, but these choices were deliberately made in the interest of artistic license in literary development. In other words, they were made for a richer story. For example, in real life Alexander Hamilton had a close relationship with his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church. This is evident in personal letters that clearly indicate an affectionate and loving relationship. However, Angelica was already married with children when she first met Hamilton. She did not contemplate the possibility of a romantic relationship upon meeting, but Miranda made that choice because it added complexity to the story. Angelica’s so-called unrequited feelings towards Hamilton in the musical also suggests that Hamilton had a magnetism that made him attractive to women, foreshadowing future trouble.

Likewise, Hamilton and Burr’s life were intertwined in numerous ways, but not as much as suggested in the musical. Some of Burr’s interactions with Hamilton in the musical were not Burr in real life, such as Burr being the second during the duel with Charles Lee. This was done to add more coincidental connections, building the history and interconnectedness between the characters for the stage.

Hamilton the musical is art. It is based on historical fact, but it is not entirely factually correct, deliberately so. The most incredible outcome of this musical was its boon in educational engagement and interest. Kids and adults who had little to no interest in early American history suddenly were piqued. What do you know? Alexander Hamilton was a bad ass. Let’s learn more about history.


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