Alexander Hamilton is living large these days! Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical about the Founding Father won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and scored a record-breaking 16 Tony award nominations. In addition, Hamilton’s surge in popularity helped keep his face on the front of the $10 bill.
Peter, Ed and Brian take apart the Hamilton phenomenon by considering who Alexander Hamilton was, his legacy (and how it was remade) and why a white migrant from the British West Indies appeals to so many Americans in 2016.
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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.
The hit Broadway musical Hamilton has taken the country and Tony Awards by storm. The play has even influenced the federal government, as CBS reported last April.
MALE SPEAKER: Plans to put a woman on the $10 bill ran into– a Broadway musical. Alexander Hamilton stays on the sawbuck. Abolitionist Harriet–
ED: Today on BackStory, we’re exploring the impact of America’s first Treasury Secretary. From his controversial plan to restore economic ties with America’s archenemy Great Britain–
MALE SPEAKER: You know, they just finished a war with this country, and now we’re going to be best friends and trading partners with them again.
ED: –to his apparent and eventually fatal fondness for duels.
FEMALE SPEAKER: He was actually involved in 10, which is a lot. I mean, he made it up into the double digits.
ED: “The Hamilton Phenomenon,” coming up on BackStory.
MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the Shere Khan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.
ED: Welcome to the show. I’m Ed Ayers here with Brian Balogh.
BRIAN: Hey there, Ed.
ED: And filling in for Peter Onuf, we have incoming UVA Law School Dean, Risa Goluboff.
RISA: It’s great to be here, Ed.
ED: OK Brian, Risa. Given today’s topic, I thought we’d start with a little trip to Broadway. My treat!
BRIAN: I thought the lights were brighter already.
ED: And we’re going to see–
STEPHEN KNOTT: –the hottest play, both on Broadway and in the halls of power.
ED: That’s historian Stephen Knott. And I’ve invited him along to fill us in a little more about this production. As you can probably guess, it’s about a certain Founding Father.
RISA: I have a feeling I know what we’re going to see.
ED: Now, you’ve probably heard some of the details. Now, much of the play takes place during the first administration of George Washington, and the new republic is facing a crisis. As Knott points out–
STEPHEN KNOTT: The hero of this play is going to return the United States to its proper course. He’s going to save the nation.
ED: Now the only problem is we might have trouble getting tickets, mostly because they went on sale in 1943.
BRIAN: Whoa! [LAUGHS]
ED: Yeah. So you may have guessed by now that we’re not actually going to see Hamilton.
RISA: Aw, now I’m bummed. I thought we were going.
BRIAN: Yeah, well, who are we going to see?
STEPHEN KNOTT: The play, The Patriots, was the hottest ticket in town in early 1943. This was the play written by an Army staff sergeant by the name of Sidney Kingsley. It won all sorts of awards. So many awards that it came to the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt who insisted that it be performed in Washington DC. It really was the Hamilton of its time.
ED: Knott says that The Patriots and Hamilton cover a lot of the same ground, including Jefferson and Hamilton’s fights over pretty much everything. Both plays feature showdowns over such issues as Hamilton’s plans for a national bank, and whether or not the US should support French revolutionaries.
BRIAN: Yeah, but I’ll bet rap wasn’t the music that they were using, Ed.
ED: You know, you know your music history, Brian, but there’s another crucial difference that you’d spot at the matinee of The Patriots.
STEPHEN KNOTT: The hero of this play is Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is this voice of reason, he’s a champion of the people, he’s a man who’s going to return us to our founding principles.
MALE SPEAKER: No member of this Congress is more eager than I to finish the business at hand and go home. But I’ll stay here all summer if necessary, to fight for this one sentence.
MALE SPEAKER: Read it again.
MALE SPEAKER: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.
ED: Now that’s some good writing, but like any self-respecting hero, Jefferson has a nemesis.
STEPHEN KNOTT: The play shows a cigar-chomping Alexander Hamilton sitting around, dressed to the nines. And Hamilton is really seen as a betrayer of everything that is noble and that was fought for during the glorious cause of the American Revolution.
MALE SPEAKER: Jefferson. The man’s a lunatic. He’s been encouraging our people to all sorts of wild illusions– Bill of Rights, freedom, liberty– or license, anarchy. That man will stop at nothing to achieve chaos. But I tell you this. There will be no more of him here, I promise you that. I will see to it!
RISA: Wow, that’s pretty different from the Hamilton we get from the new musical, Ed.
ED: Yeah, they speak in an English accent for some reason.
RISA: That language is a little florid.
ED: And doesn’t even have a beat.
RISA: Yeah, that’s definitely a big difference. But also, I mean, it makes sense that Hamilton’s a villain in that play. This is right after the Depression, right? This is Franklin Roosevelt’s White House. And Hamilton reflects the elite. Hamilton is everything that went wrong with a country in 1929.
ED: Yeah, Risa, Stephen Knott made that point too. FDR championed Jefferson, and so he loved that play, The Patriots.
STEPHEN KNOTT: It fit well with the times. Jefferson was kind of the perfect symbol for FDR, and it’s because of the perception that he was the champion of the common man who had taken on Alexander Hamilton, who was seen as the nation’s founding plutocrat, who was seen as sort of a champion of Wall Street and the 1%.
ED: Now, FDR’s embrace of Jefferson was really nothing new. Knott says that throughout American history, every generation has a favorite Founding Father. Usually it’s Washington. Sometimes Jefferson or Hamilton, but never both.
STEPHEN KNOTT: It seems to be an iron law that as Hamilton rises, Jefferson falls, and vice-versa. Throughout most of American history, I would say that Jefferson has had the better run of things. Hamilton does experience something of a resurgence during the Civil War, and immediately after the Civil War.
ED: Knott says Hamilton was popular with the Lincoln Republicans. Here was a Founding Father who had stood up for preserving the Union.
STEPHEN KNOTT: And also because Hamilton was one of the founding members of a society in New York State to abolish slavery, whereas Jefferson’s record is one of the largest slave-owners in Virginia, tarnishes for a time his standing in the American mind.
ED: Today, Hamilton is clearly having a moment. That’s thanks in no small part to the Pulitzer Prize-winning, chart-topping, toe-tapping Broadway musical, which recast the founder as a self-made man.
AARON BURR: (SINGING) And the world’s gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?
ALEXANDER HAMILTON: (SINGING) Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton. And there’s a million things I haven’t done. But just you wait. Just you wait.
ED: Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda envisions a Hamilton who’s a brash, quick-witted immigrant striver. He’s young, scrappy, and hungry, just like his chosen country.
STEPHEN KNOTT: Alexander Hamilton had come from this obscure speck of an island in the Caribbean, and managed to sort of work his way to the top. So it’s the ultimate American success story, I would argue. The personification of the American dream.
BRIAN: Of course, each of these opposing versions of Alexander Hamilton says as much about the era in which they were constructed as they do about the real-life Hamilton. From the evil backer of Wall Street during the New Deal, to multicultural voice in 21st century America. All of these Hamiltons draw from real aspects of his life, but they represent slivers of a very complicated individual.
RISA: So today on the show we’ll be exploring Alexander Hamilton’s life and legacies. We’ll look at how being a low-born immigrant from the West Indies shaped his politics and reputation. We’ll also explore how his infamous death helped foster myths about the culture of dueling. And we’ll check in with America’s classrooms about how the musical’s compelling raps are inspiring new enthusiasm for history.
We’re going to turn now to what is perhaps Hamilton’s most enduring legacy– monetary policy. In Hamilton’s first term as Treasury Secretary, the new nation faced a serious problem. By 1790 the United States was broke. After an expensive Revolutionary War, the federal government owed millions of dollars to foreign and domestic creditors. Many of the states were also deeply in debt. This put the new government in a precarious position.
BRIAN MURPHY: The concern, and it’s a very real one throughout the 1790s, is that different states have an even commitments to the long-term durability and their own membership in the federal union.
RISA: This is historian Brian Murphy.
BRIAN MURPHY: And it’s a potential source of instability.
RISA: As Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton stepped forward with a plan. In Hamilton the musical, discussions about how to pay off these debts take the form of a rap battle.
GEORGE WASHINGTON: Ladies and gentlemen, you could have been anywhere in the world tonight, but you’re here with us in New York City. Are you ready for a cabinet meeting, huh?
RISA: Actual cabinet meetings were less dope, but no less combative. While the real Hamilton didn’t freestyle, he was a prolific and persuasive writer. And he used his pen to promote his plan.
BRIAN MURPHY: Hamilton is good at producing reports. Even at the stage of early America where the size of the federal government is very small, Hamilton has this understanding that reports and official paper flows matter.
RISA: So he was the original bureaucrat.
BRIAN MURPHY: Yeah, in some ways he is.
RISA: Hamilton drafted a three-pronged plan to shore up the nation’s finances. He presented it in a series of reports to Washington’s cabinet. The first report was 40,000 words long– a fact noted by the Broadway musical’s Thomas Jefferson.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: (RAPPING) This financial plan is an outrageous demand, and it’s too many damn pages for any man to understand.
BRIAN MURPHY: It’s very long. I assign it to students, and I give them like a week to read it. I get nothing but complaints and bellyaching about how long the thing is, and I tell them that they have longer to read it than Hamilton ostensibly had to write it.
RISA: Hamilton argued that the federal government should assume all of the states’ debts. This was a great deal for New York– Hamilton’s home state– which came out of the war with huge debts. It wasn’t so great for Virginia, which was more or less solvent. As Jefferson puts it in the musical–
THOMAS JEFFERSON: (RAPPING) But Hamilton forgets, his plan would have the government assume states’ debts. Now place your bets as to who that benefits– the very seat of government where Hamilton sits.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON: Not true!
THOMAS JEFFERSON: (RAPPING) Oh, if the shoe fits, wear it. If New York’s in debt, why should Virginia bear it?
RISA: Would you call this the first American bailout?
BRIAN MURPHY: The more businessy way to describe this would be “debt restructuring.” But sure, for the purpose of this, we can call it– as long as we’re not passing, you know, bad judgment on New Yorkers– sure, let’s call it a bailout.
RISA: Hamilton wanted the federal government to take that debt, bundle it, and sell it as bonds to European countries. To him, it was a win-win situation.
BRIAN MURPHY: Hamilton believes that if foreign nations end up being creditor countries the United States, that they’ll be more invested in the long-term survival of the United States.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON: (RAPPING) If we assume the debts, the Union gets a new line of credit, a financial diuretic. How do you not get it? If we’re aggressive and competitive, the Union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative.
RISA: Now, Thomas Jefferson saw things a little differently. He pointed out that America’s most obvious creditor would be America’s archenemy.
BRIAN MURPHY: What Hamilton wants, and what the goal here is, is to re-establish trade with Britain. Some are going to be OK with that and think that’s great. But if you’re opposed to it, one of the big reasons you’re going to be opposed to it is because, you know, they just finished a war with this country. And now we’re going to be best friends and trading partners with them again, and put them in a position where if they have American debt, they’re going to have leverage over American foreign affairs. And so once again, we become this client state of this sprawling monarchical empire.
ED: But Hamilton didn’t stop there. The second prong of his financial plan was even more controversial– the establishment of a national bank.
BRIAN MURPHY: Hamilton comes to the cabinet with a history of having been involved in banking in an official way since 1784.
ED: Back then, Hamilton’s father-in-law had commissioned him to start the Bank of New York. This experience meant that Hamilton understood the financial and political clout of banks in a way that the other Founding Fathers simply did not. And he wanted that kind of power to fortify the federal government. All he had to do was to look at the nearest available model. And you guessed what it was– the British Empire.
BRIAN MURPHY: You know, the Bank of England is the thing that enables the British government to fight the war for as long as it did, and to fight wars throughout the 18th century, and to have a navy, and to have an army, and to have an empire, and do all the big state things that the British Empire does. And Hamilton would like to see a lot more of that in the United States.
ED: Naturally, this also didn’t sit well with Jefferson. He saw it as yet another example of Hamilton cozying up with the enemy.
BRIAN MURPHY: I’m a UVA guy, so I feel like I can say this. I don’t think that Jefferson entirely understands what a bank does. But I don’t think Jefferson understands banks in the way that Hamilton does, and it leaves him somewhat unprepared to mount an effective opposition to what Hamilton is laying out.
ED: Hamilton understood how banks could be useful for ordinary citizens who didn’t want to carry around pockets full of gold coins. He also argued that banks could help merchants write contracts, and IOUs, and establish new businesses. These businesses would stimulate the American economy.
BRIAN MURPHY: The fancy term for this is “intermediation.” But that’s ultimately why banks are benefiting even people who don’t have an account with a bank, or haven’t participated in banking directly. Once they’re living in a more banked economy, there’s more potential for growth in that economy.
ED: The final prong of Hamilton’s financial plan was tariffs, to protect America’s infant industries from cheaper foreign imports. Of course, Jefferson wasn’t a fan of this plan, either.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: (RAPPING) Look. When Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky. Imagine what’s going to happen when you try to tax our whiskey.
ED: But Hamilton had Jefferson’s number.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON: (RAPPING) A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor, your debts are paid, ’cause we don’t pay for labor. “We plant seeds in the South, we create.” Yeah, keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting.
ED: Despite their differences, Jefferson never offered an alternative to Hamilton’s financial plan.
BRIAN MURPHY: At one point, Jefferson writes a letter to Washington, like a memo, saying, I’m really worried about monarchy in the United States. It’s almost like Jefferson is still searching for a language of opposition. And then the first thing he reaches for is monarchy, to suggest that there’s something inherently un-American about the idea of having a bank and having a national credit system like Hamilton has proposed. As a policy matter, that’s not quite an answer.
ED: Murphy says this gave Hamilton the upper hand when it came time to hammer out a compromise with Jefferson and Madison.
AARON BURR: (RAPPING) Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room–
ENSEMBLE: Diametrically opposed, foes.
ED: They held an intimate dinner party and made a trade.
ENSEMBLE: Previously closed, bros.
AARON BURR: (RAPPING) The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power, a system we can shape however we want. The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital. And here’s the piece de resistance.
ED: The story goes that Hamilton won the congressional votes for his financial plan by agreeing to Jefferson’s demand to put the country’s permanent capital in the South. Murphy says the stakes of that compromise weren’t as high as we might think. Hamilton’s plan was already well on its way to being passed without that dinner party.
BRIAN MURPHY: We would really like the founding generation to have been sounding an alarm about this, and done a lot of hand-wringing. And yeah, like some of them were, but there’s such a clamor and need for credit that people in that period were willing to set aside their ideological objections to banks, because the practical need that it would answer outweighed the theoretical risk that they posed.
ED: That practical need, as much as Hamilton’s political skills, helped him overcome opposition to his financial plan.
RISA: Which is not to say that the pushback disappeared, or that we should overlook Hamilton’s personal ambition in all of this. Just listen to the Broadway versions of Jefferson, Madison, and Burr.
JAMES MADISON: (RAPPING) So he’s doubled the size of the government. Wasn’t the trouble with much of our previous government size?
AARON BURR: Look in his eyes.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: See how he lies.
JAMES MADISON: Follow the scent of his enterprise.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Centralizing national credit and making American credit competitive.
JAMES MADISON: If we don’t stop it, we aid and abet it.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: I have to resign.
RISA: In the long run, Hamilton’s financial plan has shaped the American economy, especially as the country moved away from Jefferson’s agrarian vision toward an economy based more on manufacturing and trade. It’s why Hamilton is considered the father of the modern financial system.
BRIAN MURPHY: I think the vision lasted. I think the scale is something that Hamilton couldn’t, I don’t think anybody could have ever contemplated. But a lot of the core ideas that Hamilton expressed in that Report on Public Credit are very much, very much alive today.
ED: Murphy says that whether you view that legacy as positive or negative, whether you think Hamilton was a hero or a villain, depends on your own financial situation. It also depends on how much you trust the scope and power of the financial sector.
BRIAN MURPHY: The idea that you’re going to create these institutions that have political influence, and that exercise an outsized role to play in elections and in politics, I think that’s exactly what Hamilton and his crew had in mind. And I think that to the extent that people issued a warning about that back in the 1790s, you know, they were right. They were completely right about what was at stake in that way.
RISA: Brian Murphy helped us tell that story. He’s a historian at Baruch College at the City University of New York, and author of Building the Empire State– Political Economy in Early America.
ED: Earlier we heard from Stephen Knott, professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College, and author of Alexander Hamilton and the persistence of Myth.
ED: We’re going to turn now to the topic at the centerpiece of this musical– Hamilton’s humble immigrant origins.
AARON BURR: (RAPPING) How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
ED: These are the first lyrics of the first song of Hamilton, and they provide the broad outlines of his background– that he was born out of wedlock in the British West Indies, and that he was the only founder hailing from outside the 13 colonies.
RISA: Hamilton arrived in New York City as a teenager. He attended King’s College– now known as Columbia University– and went on to become a talented and prominent lawyer. His political rise began when he joined the Continental Army, where he quickly came to the attention of General George Washington. Washington made Hamilton his personal aide, and served as a mentor and political patron to his young protege after the war.
ED: This origin story set Hamilton apart from the other Founding Fathers, such as Jefferson or Washington, and even from his rival Aaron Burr, all of whom were born to wealth and privilege. Historian Rogers Smith says that many of these founders took note of the difference.
ROGERS SMITH: Because Hamilton rose to prominence very quickly, and acquired enemies along the way, both his class and his illegitimacy background were known and held against him by his critics almost from the start.
ED: Smith says that John Adams once called the ambitious young Hamilton a bastard son of a Scots peddler. Hamilton’s other opponent saw his immigrant roots as proof of his loyalty to the British. But Smith told me that Hamilton himself neither embraced nor tried to hide his background.
ROGERS SMITH: He preferred to focus on his new identity as an American, and his commitment to first, the revolutionary cause, and then the cause of building up the new republic.
ED: Do you think that there was something from being not from the North American colonies that informed his own perspective on things?
ROGERS SMITH: Absolutely. I’d stress two factors. One was that most of those who were born in the British American colonies, particularly the Virginians like Thomas Jefferson, actually thought of their colony of Virginia as their homeland, and they had only a weak sense of American national identity. Hamilton, in contrast, thought of himself first and foremost as an American, and was determined to help build up the new American national government as an expression of that identity. And it did give him a strong sense of the importance for the nation-building project of making the US a great economic power on a global scale, and particularly in relation to Europe and to Britain.
ED: So growing up in commerce, Hamilton really understood the power and necessity of commerce in a way that the Virginians, who read so many of the documents, did not.
ROGERS SMITH: Yes. Commerce, trade, and economic development were central priorities for him. And I do think that the fact that he came from a trading partner in the British Empire was an important source of that view.
ED: So your first point on that is very interesting, Rogers. It says that he’s more American because he’s not deeply rooted in any particular part of America. That he could see the entire enterprise in a way that virtually nobody else could. That’s why he’s such an advocate for the national vision?
ROGERS SMITH: Absolutely. And that was only reinforced by the fact that he became Washington’s top aide in the Revolutionary Army, so he was working for the national cause from early on as a young man. And then, of course, he went on to serve in the first Washington administration. So all his experiences combined to give him a kind of national view that almost no other founder had to the same extent.
ED: So in some ways he was more nationalist than his great mentor, George Washington.
ROGERS SMITH: Yes, although Washington was, along with John Marshall, certainly the most nationally-minded of the Virginia leadership. Even so, when Washington, who did not enjoy the presidency, went back home to Virginia, in his mind he was returning to his country as much as moving away from its center of government.
ED: And Jefferson would talk much the same way later on. And Madison and Monroe, going back home to Virginia, the great–
ROGERS SMITH: Even more so.
ED: Yeah. So, growing up in a society that was even more saturated in slavery than British North America, what Influence do you think that had on Hamilton?
ROGERS SMITH: We don’t have accounts that suggest that the young Hamilton, like the young Abraham Lincoln, was repulsed by spectacles of slavery. But it is certainly true that he had a strong conviction early on that a slave economy was economically unprofitable, as well as fundamentally immoral. Now, Hamilton was not a great anti-slavery crusader, and the play somewhat exaggerates the extent to which he spoke out against slavery. But it is unquestionably true that he thought building a strong national economy meant moving away from a slave-based economy. And all his proposals were designed to help make that possible.
ED: So, when Hamilton gained political power, did he have anything in particular to say or do about immigrants who followed him to the new United States?
ROGERS SMITH: Hamilton– prophetically– wanted manufacturing to grow in America, to give it a strong economic foundation. And he thought that if immigrants came and worked in manufacturing, they could be more productive and contribute more to the national economy than farmers did.
He was rather scornful of farming as an enterprise in which people planted in the spring and they harvested in the fall, but the rest of the time they didn’t contribute very much. Immigrant labor, he thought, in manufacturing could work all day and all night. And for him, that was an enticing prospect. He also thought you could put women and children to work in the factories, as well.
ED: Well, up to that point, I was feeling pretty good about this Alexander Hamilton guy. And it sounds to me, Rogers, as if the portrayal that you’ve given us actually accords with the play pretty well. That it captures a lot of the energy and this sort of sense of identification with a larger project, at the same time, a kind of embrace of having a marginal kind of background. Am I putting words in your mouth, or is that right?
ROGERS SMITH: No, I think that by and large he definitely was an immigrant success story. In many ways Hamilton is a prototype, not only for a self-made man, but for an immigrant who seizes on his American identity as the basis for social acceptance.
ED: Rogers Smith is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Civic Ideals– Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in US History.
ENSEMBLE: The Battle of Yorktown. 1781.
MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE: Monsieur Hamilton.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON: Monsieur Lafayette.
MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE: In command where you belong.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON: How you say, no sweat. We’re finally–
RISA: If you have children in your house, like I do in mine, you’ve probably heard the Hamilton soundtrack. I know my kids, like most across the country, have been listening to the 2 and 1/2-hour, 46-song album over and over and over again. Needless to say, this enthusiasm for the Founding Fathers has been great for history teachers. So we asked both teachers and students across the country to share how the Hamilton craze has influenced their classes. Here are some of those voices.
GROUP: Hey, BackStory!
COLIN RICHARDSON: Hey, BackStory. This is Colin Richardson. I teach AP US History at Green Hope High School in Cary, North Carolina. Hamilton the musical has created huge enthusiasm in students for that time period, and I’ve seen the bleeding over into a general enthusiasm for history. There are lots of real-life lessons that we discuss in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work as well, like the depth of the creative process, how it took him two years to write the first two songs, and lots of interdisciplinary thinking.
LOIS MACMILLAN: Well, I’m Lois MacMillan from Grants Pass, Oregon, and I teach at South Middle School. I teach eighth-grade American History. Kids are coming in the classroom with the songs. So they’re already acquainted with the founders. And they’re singing it, and then a lot of the songs are based on primary documents, so it’s just really a great way to catapult into history.
ENSEMBLE: Knox, Knox, Henry Knox. Knox, Knox, Henry Knox.
SARAH STURLEY: Hi. My name is Sarah Sturley. I go to South Middle School, and I did a rap about Henry Knox in Miss MacMillan’s class.
ANNA MACEY: Hey there. I’m Anna Macey, and I worked with Sarah Sturley at South Middle School to also make the Henry Knox rap.
ENSEMBLE: Five ships, hot day, Rebels ran away, taking cannons and submission, calling British sedition. Knox, Knox, Henry Knox.
FEMALE SPEAKER: You had to find a whole bunch of different points of view of him to actually understand what happened, because it’s not always direct and straightforward.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Seeing the different points of view actually really did help us see that history isn’t just so one-sided. You can see that there are so many different things that go into it, and there’s a real thick backstory that you can’t really see.
FEMALE SPEAKER: BackStory? Heh, heh-heh, heh.
GEORGE WASHINGTON: The issue on the table– France is on the verge of war with England. Now, do we provide aid and troops to our French allies, or do we stay out of it?
ERIN FARLEY: My name is Erin Farley. I teach eighth grade American History at New Albany Middle School in New Albany, Ohio. About five years ago I started showing the Hamilton rap that Lin did at the White House. We now are using the rap battle lyrics when talking about the cabinet meetings, and the dynamics to talk about the National Bank and the Neutrality Proclamation.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: (RAPPING) –lend a hand and stand with them if they fought against oppressors, and revolution is messy, but now is the time to stand.
ERIN FARLEY: Ultimately, this play makes history awesome. It makes these people real. They’re not just old white men in history books. They’re real people with hopes, and dreams, and flaws, and warts, and quirks, just like my eighth-graders.
MUBARIKA SYED: Hi, BackStory. I’m Mubarika Syed, and I go to McNair Academic in Jersey City. I think the diversity in Hamilton is very important because often we see our own media saturated with images of powerful white men. And it often becomes the case that there’s more of a token minority. Interestingly enough, in Hamilton this is flipped, and there is instead a token white man being the king. When we see that all these powerful people are people like us, people who aren’t just these stereotypes of white men, we realize that we can also follow in their footsteps.
JUSTIN EMRICH: Hello, BackStory, this is Justin Emrich. I am an eighth-grade American History teacher at Olentangy Berkshire Middle School in Galena, Ohio. What Hamilton has done for my class, is it’s made them want more of history, it’s made them bigger fans of history. It’s made them want to know more about the story. It’s made them want to be little historians. And if that’s what a musical can do, I mean, my goodness– what a great thing this musical has done for history education across the country.
ED: Those were teachers– Lois MacMillan, Colin Richardson, Erin Farley, and Justin Emrich. We also heard from students Anna Macey, Sarah Sturley, and Mubarika Syed. To see more videos of student raps inspired by the music of Hamilton, visit our website at backstoryradio.org
BRIAN: In the years following Hamilton’s resignation as Secretary of Treasury in 1796, Hamilton remained very much a public figure. George Washington appointed him Major General of the Army for a period. He was also an outspoken critic of Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and John Adams. On top of that, he faced a personal scandal, publicly admitting to an extramarital affair in order to dispel accusations of financial misconduct.
RISA: But 1804 marked one of the best known aspects of Hamilton’s life– its violent end. Vice President Aaron Burr fatally shot Hamilton in a duel. This deadly dispute has come to represent the archetypal American duel. It’s appeared in everything from a 1990s commercial for milk, to an episode of the comedy show Drunk History. Naturally, dueling is a big part of the musical Hamilton. There’s one song in particular, “Ten Duel Commandments,” that can help us better understand the bizarre ritual.
ENSEMBLE: Number three.
CHARLES LEE: Have your seconds meet face to face.
AARON BURR: Negotiate a peace–
ALEXANDER HAMILTON: Or negotiate a time and place.
AARON BURR: This is commonplace, ‘specially ‘tween recruits.
ENSEMBLE: Most disputes die and no one shoots.
ED: What? Did I hear that right? No one even shoots?
BRIAN: That’s right, Ed. I reached out to Yale historian Joanne Freeman to help me understand that line. She’s written about both Hamilton and the history of duels. Freeman says Hamilton and Burr’s deadly showdown is a poor guide to understanding duels.
JOANNE FREEMAN: It’s extremely logical to assume that if you have two men facing each other on a field with guns pointed at each other, this is something that’s about killing. But in fact, the point of a duel was to prove that you were willing to die for your honor. And you could conceivably prove that through ritualistic negotiations before you got on the dueling ground. And there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of honor disputes that were settled that way. But if something couldn’t get settled that way, then you would end up going to the dueling ground. But again, nobody getting shot, or the shin wound, they were very popular.
I mean, the optimal outcome for an actual duel on a dueling ground is for both guys to shoot, for it to at least seem that they’re shooting towards each other. Maybe they’re not accurate shots. Maybe they’re deliberately thinking, well, a shin wound–
BRIAN: And does that happen? I mean, what percentage of the duels end with both people saying, oh, good shot, fellow. Sorry you missed me.
JOANNE FREEMAN: As far as duels between politicians go, the majority of them.
JOANNE FREEMAN: And they shake hands and they leave. And that’s for a good reason, because if you’re the person who kills someone, you’re really vulnerable to being charged as being a bloodthirsty murderer, or– Ask Aaron Burr, right? You open yourself up–
BRIAN: Right. It doesn’t work out so well for the person who lives.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. Most of the time, they say, you know, shots will be exchanged. And then the person who’s offended will be asked, is honor satisfied? Normally, after exchanging shots once, you pretty much are ready to say “honor satisfied.” And you shake hands, and you go away, and everyone’s honor is satisfied, and everyone’s happy.
BRIAN: I would have been ready far before we got to the dueling ground, Joanne, so you don’t need to convince me. I guess that Hamilton is kind of an example of that, even though he ends up dying in a duel. Is it true that he was involved in multiple challenges? Or that dance leading up to the duel that you just talked about?
JOANNE FREEMAN: He was actually involved in 10 of those honor disputes.
BRIAN: Double digits!
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah, he made it up into the double digits before 1804, before the final Burr duel– which is a lot. I mean, many people were involved in some sort of negotiated honor dispute that we might not know about. And actually, one of Hamilton’s disputes was with James Monroe, for example. But as far as 10, I can’t say that’s a record, but boy, that’s high up there. That’s a lot.
BRIAN: So Joanne, why did Hamilton and Burr duel? What were they fighting about?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Hamilton just really didn’t like Burr, and declared it in the 1790s, his quote, religious duty to defeat Burr’s career. So he just did not like him, did not trust him, and was out to get him. But in 1804, what actually caused the duel was Burr, who sort of flamed out as vice president under Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson didn’t like him. He was not invited back for term number two. And Burr ran for governor of New York. Burr did not win. Hamilton probably didn’t cause that, but something ended up in a newspaper that repeated something Hamilton had said about Burr at a dinner party, and that’s what Burr seized upon.
BRIAN: It sounds like there were some words that just instantly led to duels. Can you share some of those words with us? I understand dueling may still be around. I want to know these.
JOANNE FREEMAN: OK, well then, here is what you need to know. There actually were pretty much five automatic, you better not say this about someone because you’re going to end up probably fighting a duel, or at least almost fighting a duel. Two of them are logical, and those would be “liar” and “coward.” So those are pretty serious. And particularly “coward,” because it suggests you’re not willing to fight. So if you’re called a coward, which Hamilton is–
BRIAN: The only way you can refute that is fighting, right?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Precisely. So you’re really stuck with that one. But the other three words are great, because they’re really of that moment. So the other three words are “rascal,” which just does not quite have the oomph of “liar” and “coward.” “Scoundrel” is another one. And my personal favorite– “puppy.”
BRIAN: Could you tell me what that even means in this context?
JOANNE FREEMAN: I think the assumption there is, it’s belittling a man, like he’s a little plaything.
BRIAN: Not grown up.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Right. You know, it’s sort of his masculinity, and his– are getting swatted at. So Hamilton at one point is called an “insolent puppy.”
BRIAN: There’s something I’ve never understood, and you’re the perfect person to ask. Dueling was actually illegal in a number of states, right?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah, it’s really in a sense the ultimate irony that the lawmakers are the guys breaking the laws constantly.
BRIAN: Well, come on. I can think of other examples of that, Joanne.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Yeah, but they’re so much more blatant.
BRIAN: Yes, I agree.
JOANNE FREEMAN: It is true that dueling, I think in most, if not all states was illegal. And the fact of the matter is, most of the time there were no legal charges brought. Most of the time, everyone says, wow, that’s unfortunate, and it ends. So, yes, it’s illegal, and yes, the lawmakers are doing this all the time. But it was sort of assumed, you know, if you were a gentleman and a leader, you kind of have that right. People who were lower in society who dueled were arrested. You can’t claim, well, of course this is something a gentleman does, because people would say, well, you’re not quite a gentleman, are you? That’s what people say in the late 1790s in New York– the jails are full of duelists. Well, those are not elite politicians in jails.
BRIAN: So the law is against it, so why do these politicians keep doing it?
JOANNE FREEMAN: Well, pretty much their authority– their political authority, their moral authority, their personal authority– relies on their reputation in a way that we probably don’t fully understand today. For a leader, if you didn’t to do that– like for example, if Burr had not stepped forward to defend himself in 1804, his supporters already were suggesting, well maybe we shouldn’t really be behind this guy. Maybe this guy really isn’t a leader. So there’s a practical component and it’s totally bound up with a personal component.
BRIAN: Joanne, you have spent decades living in this world, but if you put on your 21st century hat for a moment, what do you, Joanne Freeman, actually make of this kind of behavior?
JOANNE FREEMAN: On the one hand, I think, wow, this is, on a certain level, ridiculous and extreme, and it sure says a lot about the masculinity and the manhood. You know, that’s what these guys are really trying to do, is prove that they’re men. And on a certain level that just looks a little silly.
But on the other hand, given that as a historian, I like to understand the feelings behind why people do things– what motivates them on a personal level– that I empathize. As much as I think their behavior is ridiculous, I can– hopefully this is true of anyone I’m writing about– empathize with their need to do this ridiculous, potentially deadly thing.
Because if they’re– and this is part of what got me interested in dueling in the first place. If these people are making a decision to do this totally irrational, potentially deadly thing, boy, there must be a really strong impulse and urge and reason to do it.
BRIAN: Right. And it seems to me that you also recognize just how important honor is, and how different that makes the world they lived in from the world we lived in.
JOANNE FREEMAN: Exactly. I mean, one of the big realizations I had when I was first working in graduate school, and then beyond, was noticing the importance of honor– personal honor, reputation– noticing that there were all of these rules and rituals associated with it, and then realizing that the politics of the period was shaped in part by that, so that there were things that people would or wouldn’t say in Congress that were related to the idea of honor. It was like there’s a thread that was helping to shape politics in this period that had just been invisible before, and it’s there and it’s having an influence in ways that it’s easy to overlook, but I think in ways that are important.
ED: Joanne Freeman is a historian at Yale University, and author of Affairs of Honor– National Politics in The New Republic.
ED: So when you put all the pieces together, it seems to me kind of amazing that Alexander Hamilton is in the pantheon, the Founders at all. He’s poor, he’s from an immigrant background, he’s from an illegitimate background, he comes up with a wacky monetary policy for the time. How in the world does he get to fit into this group of august gentlemen?
RISA: Don’t forget, he was never even president of the United States. I think that the differences are precisely why we’re so fascinated by him. And not only the ones you mentioned, but he’s so much younger than the other Founding Fathers. He’s 20 years younger than Washington. I mean, he’s of a different generation. And I think his being younger actually means he grew up in the limelight.
He grew up in this moment where he was a public figure, whereas the others I think maybe got to grow up a little bit more privately, and then become statesmen, right? They become the Founders and these monumental people. And that that means he’s got more foibles, and he’s much more human to us than someone like Washington was. He has affairs– a lot of them had affairs, but they were known in his lifetime. And he wrote pamphlets about them. It’s like going on Instagram, right? He’s right out there in the open about it. And I think you can’t overestimate how important it is for our imaginations about him that he died young, and you know, he left a beautiful corpse.
ED: Yeah, I see your point.
BRIAN: And Risa, I think you’ve put your finger on why we have had so many Hamiltons over the course of history. I mean, we have Hamilton the duelist, but the revisions of Hamilton start almost before that beautiful corpse is cold. His wife goes on a decades-long career to make it clear that it was Hamilton who wrote Washington’s farewell address, one of the most famous speeches that Washington ever gave. And no sooner does she win that battle– establishing Hamilton as a Federalist– than the Federalists are, well, they’re out of fashion.
We have the Jeffersonians, we have the Jacksonian Democrats, and Hamilton is kind of closeted as this weird, pseudo-monarchist who wants to impose this odd financial regime on the United States. And I think the revisions go on, right, Ed?
ED: Yeah, Brian, it never really stopped. Every time the ideological pendulum has swung in the 20th century, Alexander Hamilton swung along with it.
BRIAN: Yeah, I noticed you said 20th century. How do we explain the 21st century swing of the pendulum? You would think that after the financial crash of 2008, that anyone who advocated for bankers would be on the outs.
ED: Yeah, you’d think Alexander Hamilton would be too big to fail, wouldn’t you? Yeah, if they had come to me for backing for this Broadway show, I would have said the times just aren’t really right, after the financial crash. But it’s also the case, Brian, I think, that there are some other improbable recruitments going on about Alexander Hamilton. Before the Hamilton play, in fact, different groups who had seen themselves marginalized in different ways sort of recruited Alexander Hamilton as one of their own.
Because of some intimate letters between him and another young man when he had first come to the United States, people in the gay community looked on Alexander Hamilton and said he’s one of us, read these words, it certainly sounds like same-sex love to me. Then you’ve found people who are from the Caribbean are saying, you know, the chances are that if you grew up in this background in the Caribbean, there may very well be some African ancestry.
And then, as embodied most clearly by Hamilton the play is Hamilton’s immigrant status. I think a lot of people had forgotten that. They think of him as always having been in the United States and always on the $10 bill. But Hamilton the play recovered that lost history, and made Hamilton’s striving, his hunger, his kind of chip-on-the-shoulder attitude a hallmark of what it means to be a new American.
RISA: I think that’s actually a huge part of why the show is such a phenomenon– pulling himself up by his bootstraps, the immigrant story is a big part of why Hamilton speaks to all of us today. Not just specific groups, but we all feel like we can identify with him in a way that it’s really hard to identify with a lot of the other Founders.
GEORGE WASHINGTON: (SINGING) Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control–
ENSEMBLE: (SINGING) –who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
ED: That’s going to do it for us today. But keep the conversation going online. Tell us what you thought of the show, and ask us questions about our upcoming episodes. We’re working on programs about the origins and evolution of the Republican Party, and on the history of women in politics.
You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org, or send us an email at email@example.com. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, at BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
ENSEMBLE: (SINGING) –who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
RISA: BackStory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Melissa Gismondi helps with research. Special thanks this week to Joe Torsitano, Marty Sether, and the folks at Radio Foundation in New York City.
ED: And Risa, thanks to you for joining us today.
BRIAN: Yeah, you were great, Risa. Thanks very much.
RISA: It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you both.
ED: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the Shere Khan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel– history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA, and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
ENSEMBLE: (SINGING) –who tells your story.
MALE SPEAKER: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.