He was a small man with a gigantic intellect. Nothing about his background might have indicated the greatness that he would achieve. He was born out of wedlock on an island in the West Indies at a time when illegitimacy was considered a curse. By the age of thirteen he was an orphan who so impressed a local benefactor that he was sent to New York to further his education. He eventually graduated from King’s College and became an up and coming lawyer. Without any wealth or influence he used his genius to be one of the driving forces behind the American Revolution and the development of the Constitution of the United States of America. He earned the undying respect and trust of George Washington and became his personal aide during the war and the first Secretary of Commerce in the early years of the nation. Certain tragic flaws led to scandal, blackmail and ultimately his death in a duel. He has been the often forgotten Founding Father known best as the face on the ten dollar bill and the man shot and killed by Aaron Burr. In truth he is the person most responsible for creating the economic foundations of the country and in many ways he is perhaps the most quintessential representative of the American citizen. His name is Alexander Hamilton.
A few years back I became fascinated by Alexander Hamilton after reading a biography by Ron Chernow that my husband had given to me for Christmas. I identified with the sheer humanity of his story. He was someone who overcame tremendous deficits through sheer will and talent. He was a man who was unafraid to fight for what he believed to be right and just and yet he was also guilty of harboring resentments and falling prey to dishonest flattery. He was supremely confident in some situations and unsure of himself in others. He was a man filled with contradictions who often allowed his unbridled ego to determine his fate. He reminded me of so many highly gifted individuals who in spite of their multiplicity of talent too often become embroiled in personal battles that destroy them. Ultimately each and everyone of us struggle with inner demons.
It seems that while I was learning about Alexander Hamilton and celebrating his complexity there was someone else coming to the same conclusions as mine. In a stroke of genius Lin-Manuel Miranda created a brilliant musical to introduce the world to this fascinating character. Mixing history with modern day rap Miranda has created a stunning chronicle of the life and times of our nation’s earliest beginnings through the story of one of its most interesting founders. Hamilton represents the nitty gritty of America from his humble birth to his tragic downfall and Miranda has captured the sheer irony of Hamilton’s life in music that brings our forefathers into the modern world with all of their glory and baggage. The play has garnered well earned critical acclaim, honors and nightly packed houses. Best of all it has brought renewed interest in Hamilton and his costars in the unfolding of America’s story.
My dream is to one day see this musical on Broadway but that will have to wait until the tickets become more affordable for an average Josephine like me. Still I would love nothing more than to travel to all of the places that served as a backdrop to Hamilton’s life and then attend a showing of the play as the grand finale to my journey back through time. I think that it would prove to be the perfect vacation. My all time favorite trips have been educational in nature and this one would be beyond incredible. Judging from the ticket calendars for Hamilton that I have studied it will be several years before I will be able to fulfill my fantasy but in the meantime it will be a fun excursion to plan.
There are many aspects of Alexander Hamilton that remind me of my own grandfather. For all intents and purposes he too was an orphan. His mother died when was only three days old and his father gave him away to a woman that he lovingly called his grandmother. No documentation confirms who his relatives actually were. It is as though he simply sprang spontaneously from the earth. When he was only thirteen the woman who had raised him died leaving him on his own. He chose an uncle to oversee his small income and even stayed for a time with his father but it was not long before he was traveling across America alone and in search of work. He used his wits and determination to survive.
Grandpa was a brilliant man who in many ways was self taught. He loved this country and exercised his right to a voice in government by regularly voting well into his one hundredth eighth year of life. Like Alexander Hamilton he refused to allow his humble birth to dictate the direction of his life. He used all available opportunities to keep himself and his family afloat even in the most difficult times. He witnessed more than one economic depression, five different wars, and every presidential race from 1878 until his death in the mid nineteen eighties. Through it all he was an optimist who believed that each passing year of his life was just a bit better than his last.
My grandfather saw our human progress as a sign that the government was working just as it had been intended. He kept the faith in America’s democracy until the very day that he died. One of his last big reads was a biography of Thomas Jefferson which he was able to discuss at length just after he turned one hundred eight. He believed that his longevity and his gifts of freedom were great treasures. He left this world with not a penny to his name but he would have insisted that he was rich. He loved his country as much as he had his family. He had weathered a lifetime of tragedy and yet he was a happy man who thought himself blessed simply for living in a place that seemed to be ever improving. His take on history was that the United States of America was slowly but surely moving forward and that we all benefit from its continual search for justice and freedom.
Right now we are in a kind of valley of fear and criticism with regard to our country. We act as though these are somehow the worst of times and yet our history demonstrates that we have been in similar circumstances before. We find the divisiveness between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to be deplorable and we are shocked that they won’t even shake hands. We forget that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were such political rivals and enemies that they ended up on a field in New Jersey to settle their differences with pistols. Hamilton was mortally wounded and Burr who had been the Vice President of the United States was charged with murder and thought to be a villain for all time. Somehow our country moved beyond such a shocking turn of events just as it always seems to do.
My grandfather was able to use the breadth of his experience to see that we may falter and even lose our momentum but we always find our way back. He realized that great men like Alexander Hamilton understood the nature of humans even when they ignored their own flaws. Together individuals from different backgrounds and alternative points of view developed a government that was capable of sustaining itself and correcting its mistakes. Over two hundred years later it’s still here and not even the bombast and prevarication will tear it down as long as we the people cherish it and continue to work to make things right just as Hamilton did so long ago. He lived and died just as we all do but what a story he left behind.