Segment from Hamilton

The Hottest Ticket In Town

Before Alexander Hamilton became a Founding Father hero on stage, audiences clamoured to see a show about Thomas Jefferson. We talk to historian Stephen Knott about the 1943 show, “The Patriots.”

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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.


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.