Segment from Hamilton

Hamilton Was Revolutionary

The hosts wrap up by discussing how Hamilton was unlike the other Founding Fathers.

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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, or send us an email at 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.