All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Hamilton earlier in this decade, Miranda saw a life of drama and achievements worthy of a musical. That show’s whopping artistic and commercial success has changed the general estimation of Hamilton, turning him in public minds from a volatile partisan, eschewed in some circles because of his espousal to and championship of capitalism, to an indefatigable, multi-faceted hero who, in terms of original and lasting policy and his meticulous work on framing the U.S. Constitution, influenced the American story in significant ways that resonate to his credit centuries later.
I also read Chernow’s book in the year of its publication. A history buff who enjoys becoming acquainted with the span of time in various places, I tend to concentrate most on the period of the American Revolution and the tangle of international political folly that led to World War I. Even before Chernow, I was drawn to Alexander Hamilton, for the clarity with which he saw a method for how a nation governed by its citizens could be organized and sustained and because in his zeal and appetites, he was so ineluctably human.
It’s difficult to rank the Founding Fathers in importance. I don’t brook arguments about the most crucial and laudatory of them. That’s George Washington, truly a leader and the definite Father of Our Country. Anyone who doesn’t think so can spend hours making a different case, but history and the success of the American experiment militate totally in favor of Washington. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, John Jay, John Marshall, and Benjamin Franklin all contribute abundantly to turning a colony’s declaration of and war for independence into a working entity in which every move or decision they made would be precedent. I have affection and admiration for all of them, and others such as James Monroe, Albert Gallatin, and John Quincy Adams, too. The one who always struck me as Number Two on the list, my list anyhow, is the one who, using models from various times, crafted a structure of government, conceived a finance system that would allow that government to operate, understood the need for both limits and implied executive powers, and advanced a table of laws by which a new nation, consecrated to the will of its populace, might thrive.
I’m talking about the Revolutionary era’s brilliant brat, a man whose big personality often threatened to thwart his earth-shaking ideas, Alexander Hamilton.
I haven’t read enough to know how Hamilton captured Lin-Manuel Miranda’s imagination, possibly him being born in the West Indies, or inspired a show that, so far, is the theater achievement of the 21st century.
“Hamilton” has certainly resonated with audiences. Four years into its Broadway run, which followed an off-Broadway skein at New York’s Public Theatre, “Hamilton” remains a tough ticket.
I should know. Theater and history are my passions, and I have not been able to get a ticket, neither at the box office nor through usually reliable connections. The closest I came was in June 2016, right after “Hamilton” was given the Tony for Best Musical, when at the box office, there was a great seat for July 3, 2016. I said ‘I’ll take it!” but had to relent when the guy at the wicket told me the cost would be $544.
Ah, well, another dream deferred.
Hope is high. “Hamilton” arrives in my hometown and place of residence, Philadelphia, on Tuesday, August 27 and remains through Sunday, November 17. Some time within that almost three-month range, there has to be a seat for me. I will finally know whether I share the enthusiasm for and general estimation Miranda’s work.
I’m inclined to like it. I am a pre-“Hamilton” fan of its subject, and I feel a warmth towards Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I met briefly while backstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre following a preview performance of Lin-Manuel’s previous Tony recipient, “In the Heights.” (His mother was getting his dinner ready in his dressing room.) Also, “Hamilton” will be at the Forrest Theatre, with some of the best sight lines of any theater in the country. Any show that keeps the Forrest, my favorite local theater, lit for three months is a friend of mine.
Remember how I began this piece, by expressing gratitude to Miranda.
The interest he brought to Hamilton pleases me. I enjoy seeing books, none as comprehensive as Chernow’s, about Hamilton, his wife, Eliza, and others associated with him. I enjoy seeing he is regarded as a positive figure in the books and not as a mere foil for Jefferson or Madison, the first of whom took an immediate, and jealous, dislike to him, the second of whom was a friend who veered in a different direction. Chernow sparked Miranda’s interest. Since Miranda brought Hamilton Broadway fame, dozens of books, some decent, some dashed off to take advantage of Hamilton’s new-dawned popularity, find their way to shelves to entice fans of the show.
I like that Hamilton is liked.
None of the Founding Fathers is perfect — maybe John Quincy Adams, but he doesn’t qualify as “Founding;” his father does. They are human and have flaws. Hamilton is a beehive of them.
One thing broad reading of history teaches is what I call The Rule of 100 Percent. One trait does not define a person or a situation. It’s the entirety that counts. Just as Ronald Reagan said, “A person who is 80 percent your friend is not your enemy.” People are total beings. They have good traits and bad. They make remarkable progress, and they are capable of making mistakes. Their private, or even public behavior, may be unsavory, but their accomplishments may be grand and create the foundations of something grander.
For years, Hamilton’s flaws were exaggerated. He was the unpopular or begrudgingly appreciated Founder. Some of that disdain derives from the almost universal adoration of Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s most constant and vehement rival — yes, more than Aaron Burr if not with as fatal a result. Most books depicting Hamilton and Jefferson come down, sometimes more by style than intention, on Jefferson’s side. Some center, as noted earlier, from Hamilton, as Secretary of Treasury and architect of what would account for most of America’s financial structure, being a believer in capitalism and the free trade, strong banking system, and careful monetary policy that goes along with it.
In a current world that doesn’t forgive flaws and rarely regards anything by the Rule of 100 Percent, Hamilton was often cast, a promo campaign by a local bank notwithstanding, as a thorn in the American story.
Chernow changed that. Lin-Manuel Miranda changed it more. His appreciation of Hamilton, and the breadth of both his accomplishments and personality, brought new interest to the unloved Founding Father, just as David McCullough’s biography did for the even more slandered John Adams.
Miranda made Hamilton a man of epic importance. “Hamilton,” the musical, went beyond creating respect to restoring affection for a man who earns it.
Alexander Hamilton deserves to be lauded.
His talents for organizing were recognized as early as his youth in the West Indian islands of Nevis and St. Croix. They earned him passage to New York and an education that was scheduled to be at Princeton but was at Kings College in Manhattan, which would later become Columbia.
Hamilton was sociable and studious. His revolutionary bent began when he was at Kings, in spite of the school administration being Loyalist, and he showed an early talent for painstakingly organizing complex and complicated ideas. That knack that would come in handy the structure of a government and its laws had to be made concrete. He also spoke out for what he believed, no matter the peril or the lasting umbrage his stances might engender. (The number of duels he fought are testament to his temper.)
Hamilton fought in the Revolutionary War. He was a close lieutenant and aide de camp to George Washington, who recognized his junior officer’s abilities, leading to the trust between the two when Washington was President, and Hamilton served in his cabinet.
The first 20 years after the British surrender at Yorktown are among the most telling in American history. As said, the leaders of the newly formed United States, without an historical model, were charged with putting the principles that fomented declared independence, and the battle for it, into practice.
The question was how that was to be done.
Hamilton was one of those who had an answer. Not from the top of his head, but from the study of many political systems from ancient Greece and Rome to George III and William Pitt’s just-defeated Great Britain, Hamilton had an idea of where to go. He had contemplated the subject even before some framework was called for. He saw the structure of government and realized what was to be avoided, particularly in terms of late 18th century Britain. He saw also what might have to be originated or adapted to make the American system impervious to past flaws that sabotaged the society they were to uphold, most specifically absolute rule or government by rank and station.
While I won’t brook argument about the primary spot in American Revolutionary history, and American history, occupied by George Washington, I will argue that the post-war, Constitutional period is divided in two distinct sections, the 1790s and the 1800s. Factions formed at that time usually took the side of either Hamilton or Jefferson, with Washington as the arbitrator between them during his Presidency, Adams trying in vain to erase factions and then giving them something genuine to complain about, and Jefferson being the one with his own ideas and who was not given to compromise them or to negotiate much, or fairly, with those with whom he disagreed.
Hamilton was Jefferson’s particular bête noir, because he proposed, and implanted, a structure that gave power to government and muscle to establish a robust financial policy while Jefferson favored a land-oriented agrarian society in which the federal government did little beyond facilitating in matters such as diplomacy while states had the most authority, and limited at that.
In addition to arguing that the 1790s and 1800s were two distinct eras with two distinct needs, I’ll posit that each decade, each half of the United States’s critical embryonic years were dominated by the right person — the 1790s going to Hamilton via Washington, the 1800s to Jefferson with the assistance of Madison and Gallatin. (Of course, it would have been difficult for Washington or Hamilton to influence much of the new 19th century as Washington dies on December 14, 1799, and Hamilton is killed on July 11, 1804, by Jefferson’s Vice President, Aaron Burr.)
The 1790s were a time to build a sound foundation for government, to establish policies and institutions that would see the fledgling United States through its infancy and give it a basis to thrive for decades, I hope an eternity, to come.
Jefferson’s vision wasn’t suited to such a lasting structure. You see that when he becomes President in 1801. He had some amazing successes, but all of his failures are results of going counter to Washington and Hamilton and their pragmatic, even-handed, less ideological approach.
One subject Hamilton and Jefferson fought about hammer-and-tong was the need for a national bank. Hamilton saw how, during the Revolutionary War, there was no central institution to provide funds or institute loans. The states, some of which were reluctant or recalcitrant, were responsible for financing the campaign, and they and the Continental Congress were miserable to deal with. Washington, as general of the Revolutionary Army, was always faced with shortages, insecure means, and lack of cash to play soldiers or pay for supplies. The British were sometimes helped more by the American populace because they had coin to pay their way. Hamilton was an eyewitness to Washington’s frustrations. Jefferson did not fight in the war. Nor did Madison. They did not see the deprivations or the nightmare of having to deal with a national situation without any system to collect, manage, and distribute national funds. Ownership of land, as Jefferson favored, may create wealth of a sort, but it was of little help when needed currency to secure supplies and build public structures and conveyances. Even being perennially cash-strapped did not convince Jefferson of his error.
A bank was the answer. Jefferson not only opposed this but was gleeful when the bank’s charter lapsed in 1808, and he and Madison, as succeeding Presidents, staged a campaign not to renew it.
That we have a national bank today, and have had one since the 1840s, is a testament to the prescience of Alexander Hamilton and the wisdom of George Washington.
Hamilton and Jefferson, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State, were always at odds. Cabinet meetings were verbal slugfests, entertaining given the speakers, and Jefferson viciously spoke to Washington about Hamilton behind the Treasury Secretary’s back. (Not that Hamilton was a prince in regard to Jefferson, but he was less snide and sneaky.)
Washington was always in the position to have to decide who was right between the battling factions in his administration. He also had the respect and esteem of both factions, so that what he supported became the idea to support. Jefferson often criticized the administration of which he was a member in public articles with pseudonyms for bylines, but writing that was obviously Jefferson’s.
Luckily for the precedents that set national policy, Washington usually sided with Hamilton. Jefferson would cry about violations to the Constitution, but the implied powers mentioned above allowed for the founding of a bank and other Hamiltonian creations.
Hamilton saw a broader picture while Jefferson saw a more Utopian, rosy one. Jefferson would have had each individual mind his own funds in a local bank, an idea that sounds good in theory and works on a basic level but doesn’t account for the fiscal needs of a 13-state, soon to be 16-state, amalgamation, that the United States was.
Hamilton figured out ways the government could make money. He was as careful as Jefferson about keeping the American government from competing with its stakeholder citizens in terms of supplying and manufacturing, but he had to find money to finance the national bank, and that meant taxes and tariffs. Some argued that imposing taxes and tariffs would create the exact situation the United States declared independence and war to avoid. Hamilton countered his policies would be reviewed and ratified by Congress, which he advocated to make bicameral, so taxation would not be without representation. Delegates speaking for the people would set or reject policy.
Whatever Hamilton did, Jefferson decried by every means from harping to Washington to feeding a propaganda mill that Washington, Hamilton, and John Adams were looking to make America a monarchy with Washington as king.
By having Washington’s ear, and being backed judicially by John Marshall’s Supreme Court, Hamilton was able to establish a system that has served well for 232 years. His canny has been proven right by wanton attempts to change that system by Jefferson and Madison or, most disastrously by Andrew Jackson. Time has justified Hamilton. His outline for financing a great and diverse nation, and the code of law he advanced with Madison and John Jay, are linchpins of the American way.
In American terms, Alexander Hamilton is one of the most important people who ever lived and worked to form our Union.
Don’t get me wrong. Thomas Jefferson is equally instrumental in forming a lasting, well-founded America. He just needed to wait until his time to do things that were right for his era but were often successful because Washington and Hamilton laid the groundwork and instituted a pragmatic, adaptable plan while Jefferson leaned more to sloppy anarchy. (Think what a mess the Louisiana Purchase would have been without Washington’s plans, years after his death, being there to guide such new events.)
Because of Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Hamilton,” people from throughout the United States, and around the world, appreciate and have duly high regard for a man who vision, imagination, knowledge, and sensibility made us so much who we are.
So thank you, thank you, Lin -Manuel Miranda, for restoring an American original and an American hero to a place and reputation that fits his contribution to American life, even today.
Thank you, Kimmel Center and Shubert Organization for bringing “Hamilton” to the Forrest. I was a Hamilton fan before it was fashionable. I look forward to seeing Miranda’s show and being part of the latest fashion that lauds Alexander Hamilton for being what he certainly is — great!
“Hamilton” runs from August 27 to Sunday, November 17, at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $499 (premium orchestra — Rows A-M –and mezzanine — Rows A and B)) to $129, with $199 and $169 prices points available. They can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or by visiting www.kimmelcenter.org or www.telecharge.com