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Hamilton: The Man Versus the Musical

by Nancy Spannaus

Sept. 25, 2022—With many theatres re-opened, Lin-Manuel’s “Hamilton: An American Musical” is back, playing or scheduled around the nation, and even being translated into German. It is also available on the Disneyplus movie station. So, now is a good time to focus on a crucial question: What does the musical get right, and where does it go wrong?

Hamilton: The Man Versus the Musical
AHA’s Marti Londal at the Hamilton event.

That was the subject of a highly informative presentation at the Rust Public Library in Leesburg, Virginia on Sept. 14. Marti Londal, the D.C.-area representative of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness (AHA) Society, provided the audience with a rundown of some big myths the show includes, as well as its positive features and what it simply omitted. The AHA Society loved the show for its contribution to reviving Hamilton’s importance, but some things just have to be corrected, she said.

The report that follows is by no means comprehensive, but will provide only some highlights. While this talk was not recorded, Londal’s first presentation on the subject at the Museum of the American Revolution at Yorktown on August 6 was. It is expected to be posted on the website of the AHA Society in the near future.

Four Big Myths

The first big myth was the Musical’s assertion that young Alexander came from “a forgotten spot in the Caribbean.” That’s contrary to history. In fact, as a major sugar cane producer for its colonial masters, the island of Nevis, where Hamilton was born, was dubbed the “Queen of the Caribees” at the time. Along with the other islands which the young Hamilton inhabited – St. Eustatius and St. Croix – it was a cosmopolitan hub frequented by merchants from a wide variety of European nations.

So, Londal said, Hamilton’s origins were neither from “one spot” nor “forgotten.” They in fact created conditions which contributed to his in-depth understanding of economic practices at the time, an understanding which was essential to his later role in building the U.S. economy.[1]

Hamilton: The Man Versus the Musical
The harbor of Christiansted in St. Croix, where Hamilton got his experience with merchant shipping.

The second was the Musical’s reference to Martha Washington calling her male cat “Hamilton,” allegedly due to his constantly being on the sexual prowl. This slander of Hamilton has been around since the late 18th century, Londal reported, but has been thoroughly refuted by Hamilton scholar Michael E. Newton.[2]

The third myth, which was obviously consonant with the second – and clearly the kind of story calculated to “spice things up” for modern audiences – was the Musical’s portrayal of Alexander having had an affair with his wife’s sister Angelica. Here Londal made use of some fascinating firsthand documentation. Most striking to me was her reading of a letter written by Alexander to Angelica (who was in Europe) which is commonly interpreted as a love letter. Yet, despite what might appear to us today as evidence of a sexual relationship, this very letter included a post-script by Hamilton’s wife Eliza!  Clearly, there was no secret affair going on here.

We can never be absolutely certain of what did or didn’t happen, Londal admitted; we will never know. But besides the evidence of this letter, consider the fact that Angelica, who eloped with her husband John Church in 1777, spent almost all of the years 1783 to 1796 in France, and maintained a very similar “romantic” correspondence with numerous other important Revolutionary figures (such as Thomas Jefferson). Of course, Hamilton did have an eventually well-publicized extra-marital affair, but it is highly unlikely there was one with Angelica Church.

The fourth myth Londal demolished was one I had never heard of: that Hamilton had asked Aaron Burr to contribute to writing the Federalist Papers. We know Hamilton asked Gouverneur Morris to help (he declined), and that he considered William Duer, but decided Duer was not a good enough writer, she said. Is it conceivable he would have asked Burr?

Burr shoots Hamilton at Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11,1804.

Not a chance, in my view, and Londal’s report sustained that. Of particular interest was her quoting a letter from Burr to his wife Theodosia in 1791, where he asked her to “read the … little book on the Constitution of the United States. This … will save me the trouble of reading it.” Then there’s the record of the lack of trust between Burr and Hamilton’s closest collaborator George Washington. Washington fired Burr as an aide-de-camp after 10 days on the job, and later refused to even let him read diplomatic correspondence because of his “equal talents for intrigue.” Londal said it was inconceivable that Hamilton would have made such an offer to someone Washington so disdained. We all know how Hamilton’s equally negative view of Burr played out later.

Other Highlights

Myth aside, however, Londal went on to say, the Musical does do a good job of conveying many of Hamilton’s crucial contributions to winning the Revolutionary War and creating our Constitutional republic. Hamilton’s bravery from the first days of the war, his pivotal role as an aide to Washington, and then at the Yorktown battle are well presented.

So too are his contributions to establishing the national government, including his writing the call to the Constitutional Convention, attending that body, and fighting tooth and nail for its ratification, including through the writing of the Federalist Papers, which continue to be among the frequently quoted authorities on the Constitution. Given that all the essays are signed “Publius,” it took considerable linguistic analysis to decipher who wrote which essays; the conclusion is that Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85.

Alexander Hamilton’s statute in the Capitol Rotunda recognizes his crucial role in creating our government.

And the Musical takes due note of Hamilton’s role as Secretary of the Treasury and founder of the Coast Guard.

Londal concluded this part of her talk with a discussion of Hamilton’s enemies and his death by the duel with Burr.

The Omissions

Her final subject was the Musical’s omissions – many of them, of course, understandable within the constraints of the show’s format, but important for viewers to be aware of. These included his founding of the Mint, the Customs Service, and the federal system of Lighthouses. Also in the realm of economics[3] was his promotion of manufacturing through the founding of the Society for Useful Manufactures, which established the City of Paterson, New Jersey, and later his role in establishing Jersey City, a city which, Londal said, has recently been dubbed “Wall Street West.”

Two other major areas of Hamilton’s achievements which the Musical didn’t cover were his late military career, and his contributions to the law. At Washington’s death in 1799, Hamilton actually became a Major General, the highest-ranking military officer in the United States. As such, although Londal didn’t mention it, he didn’t lead the U.S. into battle, but he did play a significant role in shaping the institution of the Army, including the establishment of measures that would lead into the founding of the West Point Military Academy.

A bust of Alexander Hamilton sculpted by Giuseppe Ceracchi in 1793. Hamilton’s family considered it the best likeness.

Hamilton’s contributions to the law were highly influential for subsequent American history, Londal recounted. He was the lead attorney in the first transcribed murder trial in the United States, that of Levi Weeks. He fought against discriminatory laws and made a major contribution with his arguments for “truth as a defense” against libel prosecutions in the Croswell case. His argumentation lived on through the Supreme Court chief judgeship of John Marshall, especially, and is still cited today.

Look for More

Hopefully, there will soon be new opportunities to hear Londal’s presentation on Hamilton: The Man vs. the Musical. Watch for them. You will definitely find them worthwhile.

[1] [1] For a summary, see https://americansystemnow.com/hamiltons-merchant-experience-presented-at-u-s-treasury/

[2] See Michael Newton’s website for full documentation on the Tomcat story.

[3] For a thorough discussion of Hamilton’s economic contributions, see this author’s Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, available at https://www.iuniverse.com/en/bookstore/bookdetails/788568-hamilton-versus-wall-street