How Hamilton has made me think.
I try to avoid things that are overhyped; or at least I think I try to. I have long had an interest into the period of American history around the War of Independence and the founding of the republic. So when everybody started going wild about a hip-hop musical telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, I wasn’t too fussed. That was until, ten months into a global pandemic, living through a succession of social restrictions and having literally ‘completed’ Netflix, I found myself on Disney Plus and saw that they were streaming the recording of Hamilton. Worth a shot, I thought.
One of the reasons I try to avoid hyped-up stuff is because it is often disappointing. Hamilton doesn’t follow that pattern. I sat quite happily glued to the screen throughout. I have now downloaded the album and find myself randomly singing my new favourite songs. I’ve even bought the book of the musical and am enjoying the various footnotes about the lyrics. It is not only a fantastic musical but very accurate history.
I had been worried that the musical would play too fast and loose with the events. Far from it, it goes to sometimes extraordinary lengths to ensure the audience understand what was really going on. Having read and watched so much about that period of American history, I found myself swept along, entertained and further educated at the same time.
A bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman
I knew something of Alexander Hamilton’s story before watching the musical. Usually though, Hamilton had been one of the supporting characters in a book about Washington or Adams or Jefferson. As such, I’d probably failed to appreciate how significant a role he played in the war, the founding of the republic and the first few decades.
The first time I came across Alexander Hamilton was when he appeared in the HBO miniseries, John Adams, which doesn’t paint him in a very positive light. In hindsight this portrayal, based on a popular biography of Adams, is unsurprising as there was little love lost between the two men and the biography, by David McCullough, set out to offer a more positive re-evaluation of Adams’ status as a founding father.
Perhaps overly influenced by that McCullough biography and the accompanying miniseries, my subsequent reading about that era has been coloured towards and against certain people. This is exactly what Lin Manuel Miranda describes in his book about the musical: ‘history is entirely created by the person who tells the story’. I am taking note to be less blinkered in the future. There is also some truth to the behaviour of the reader in identifying something of themselves in certain characters; again this is a theme which Miranda discusses in terms of seeing in Hamilton traits which he shared.
What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot
As well as seeing something of ourselves in characters, we can also try to transpose ourselves into the events, into the story. We can imagine ‘what would it be like to live through that moment in time and space?’. Certainly when I read about that era of American history, I always feel some excitement at the prospect of being alive and hopefully involved in such a moment (or a movement).
Typically being incredibly well-read, the founding fathers knew how significant their endeavours and how without precedent their actions were. Barack Obama, amongst others, often refers to the ‘American project’ and in doing so seems to draw a line through history right back to those decades straddling 1776. I remember studying about Indian independence and the creation of the Indian constitution and saw the parallels: how electrifying it must be to be involved in creating and shaping a country anew.
There is of course a longstanding debate as to whether it is seismic events that make great men or women, or whether great men or women take history by the bootlaces and make their own weather. As with almost all things in life, it is not one or the other, but some shade of grey in between. What always amazes me about that period of history though, as America was founded, was the sheer number of incredible people who all seemed to be in the right place at the right time: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and so many more. And not to forget the remarkable women, such as Abigail Adams. With such a melting pot of talent, there is perhaps little surprise that such world-changing events happened. Yes, events sparked the revolution and offered opportunities, but those figures made and manipulated those moments to achieve independence and create the republic.
Whenever I read or think about all of these people and events, I am nearly always left reflecting on my own character and ambitions (surely one of the reasons to read anything biographical). Hamilton, not unlike Winston Churchill, seemed to have a lifelong drive and determination to put himself in the history books. I wonder in their cases whether their personality alone would have secured them their historic status, or whether events helped them.
Regardless of that debate though, and avoiding any frankly ridiculous comparisons between myself and these historical figures, I think the key thing which I take is the desire to have ‘my shot’ and to do my best to take it. Success can be judged in retrospect, it can’t be guaranteed, but giving it your best go is within your grasp.
Giving it a go though requires hard work. Watching the scene where Hamilton turns down a family break because he was too busy at the Treasury, I thought about the decisions I take and the sacrifices I do (or do not) make, especially when it comes to trying to juggle teaching, politics and some semblance of a personal life. It is difficult to balance those things if you want something and I am reminded of former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron’s comment that if you want to achieve something unreasonable (he was speaking about getting elected as a Lib Dem MP, no mean feat), you have to make unreasonable demands of yourself. So it is a question of how badly you want something and how serious you are about getting it.
That also makes me think about what it is I am actually working towards and what it is I really want. It is here that the character of Aaron Burr looms like a spectre. The first song which got me, like an ear worm, was The Room Where It Happens. But behind the catchy melody and clever lyrics of the song, which Miranda admits is one of the best he’s ever written, it made me think: am I more like a Hamilton or a Burr? Is it about making some seminal contribution, or just being in the room where it happens?
Of course, it’s not that simple, you have to be in the room where it happens to make the contribution. Plenty of figures throughout history didn’t know in advance what their contribution would be (such as Lyndon Johnson), events determined that, but they were in the right place to do something about it.
Bizarrely watching, reading and reflecting about Hamilton took me back to Simon Sinek’s mantra of ‘finding your why’. I guess this demonstrates what a great piece of art can do. It can reach right into your mind and soul and really make you think about yourself. In my case, I have always been motivated to want to make some impact, to make a difference. I’m not entirely sure what that difference might be, but I need to be in a position where I can make one. I do need to get in the room where it happens. So that is what I’m going to try and do. I’ll keep working hard, proving myself and waiting for my opportunity. Just you wait.