Alexander Hamilton was a great American. How do I know? Hip-hop, baby! I haven’t felt this cool in 40 years.
Well, I’ve also done some reading since last year when I first got turned on to his life and accomplishments.
It began for me last summer, when my daughter Maya and I took a weekend road trip into northern New Mexico, to spend some time together before her return to college in Maryland. As we drove through the Jemez Mountains in search of cheap adventure, she talked me into listening to the soundtrack to “Hamilton,” the hit musical about one of the greatest and most underrated founders of our nation, Alexander Hamilton.
With the first song I was hooked. The entire production is a masterpiece, a soulful interpretation of this nation’s revolutionary founding. It’s of the hip-hop and rap genre, with a storyline both ancient and modern, and as colorful as America is today and has always been.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the critics, who have nothing but praise for it. Or, do as I did and buy the CD, listen to it obsessively for a while and then believe, brothers and sisters, in the power of its message!
That’s why Maya started calling me a “Hamilton evangelist”—I went overboard in my enthusiasm. I came back down to earth, however, after reading the book that inspired the musical.
Up until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epic musical, I had not given much attention to Hamilton’s role in the American Revolution. I had read about Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson and other founders, but not much about Hamilton himself. I was remiss in my selective studies of those tumultuous times.
Hamilton’s story begins in the West Indies, a place of extreme brutality during the 1700s, especially for the slaves. Hamilton was a poor, bastard child who was orphaned at age 10. While in his late teens, he immigrated to New York City, just as 13 British colonies were declaring themselves free and independent states. After a brief time at King’s College (now Columbia University), he joined the revolution and was soon noticed for his tactical brilliance and his bravery by Gen. George Washington, who made Hamilton his aide-de-camp, his “right-hand man” as the musical describes it.
A few years later, President Washington would make him his most trusted adviser and name him secretary of the treasury. From there, Hamilton would become the leader of the Federalists, the political faction that stitched together a cohesive national government despite formidable states-rights opposition.
His imprint is on more than the ten-dollar bill; he essentially created America’s system of currency, credit and debt. And the Coast Guard, he created that too. And political sex scandals—he was not only the center of our nation’s first high-profile sex scandal, he exposed the whole sordid affair himself, in writing. Restraint was not a part of Alexander Hamilton’s character.
Like others of his revolutionary day and time, by today’s standards he was a walking contradiction. He opposed slavery but supported child labor practices. He built a national financial system but died deeply in personal debt. He gave lasting interpretation to the U.S. Constitution through his Federalist Papers, but he opposed efforts to include the Bill of Rights amendments.
Hamilton is perhaps the most influential immigrant in all of American history, but in his later years he pushed anti-immigration measures. That’s particularly ironic, since the grit and determination that came from his immigrant experience is what made him so successful as an American patriot.
That, and his “top-notch brain,” as Miranda describes it in the musical. Hamilton was undoubtedly a genius, a formidable force in everything he became involved in. It’s obvious in the prolific nature and the brilliance of his writings.
Anyone who seeks a flawless hero is bound to be disappointed. I was reminded of that as I transitioned from Miranda’s uplifting and artistic sketch of the man to author Ron Chernow’s thick and detailed biography of Hamilton. Consistent throughout both, however, is the recognition that this was an incredible man during incredible times.
As for the ending, well, the only way to write a better script would be to allow Hamilton to live. He wasn’t even 50 years old when his own sense of honor led him to a duel with this nation’s third vice president, Aaron Burr, who killed him with a single bullet. It’s epic, tragic and, unfortunately, historically accurate.
Hamilton is a uniquely American story—a larger-than-life tale of an immigrant who helped write America into its history. It’s a story for the ages, with lessons for a hip-hop generation finding its own American identity. I strongly recommend it for young and old alike.
Tom McDonald is editor and founder of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.