Nominated for a record-setting 16 Tony Awards, “Hamilton” the musical swept the ceremony winning 11, including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score and a handful of best actor/actresses.
The show is based on the Ron Chernow biography on founding father Alexander Hamilton, which Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical, had picked up on a whim while on vacation. Critics have praised “Hamilton” for its diverse musical styling, multi-racial cast and presentation of our country’s founding and pivotal leaders as representative of all Americans and less elite white men.
While Miranda certainly took dramatic license in his play, the musical does contain a lot of historical accuracy. Much of “Hamilton” centers on the relationship between the former treasury secretary and Aaron Burr. And, it is fact that their relationship was a contentious one with a tragic ending leading to Hamilton’s death and the ruin of Burr’s political career.
Whether you have or haven’t seen the Broadway hit, you can certainly follow along to the music through the Library’s own collections. The institution’s digital collections contain a wide variety of material associated with Alexander Hamilton, including manuscripts, letters, broadsides, government documents and images that are available throughout the Library’s website.
Notably are The Federalist Papers, which Hamilton wrote with James Madison and John Jay under the pen name “Publius.” The Federalist Papers are considered one of the most important sources for interpreting and understanding the original intent of the Constitution. This web-friendly presentation of the original text is available on Congress.gov.
Author Joanne Freeman spoke at the Library several years ago on her book about Hamilton in which she detailed Hamilton’s and Burr’s fateful association and gave deeper insight into early national politics.
“Hamilton was aggressive, arrogant, brash, intensely irritating, astonishingly talented, dangerously impulsive and often self-destructive, and all of this is evident in his writings,” Freeman said. The Library is home to the papers of Alexander Hamilton.
“He was always quick to rush into a situation and state his view, which in his mind of course was always the right view, the end, period,” she added. “He rushed forward to criticize the Articles of Confederation after the war, and he was at the forefront of the effort to create new a constitution. He rushed into controversy as Washington’s secretary of the treasury by proposing dramatic, centralized, national programs and policies. And of course he never hesitated to rush forward in opposition to Aaron Burr, a man who he considered ‘dangerous to the republic, an ambitious opportunist with no political morals to hold him back.’”
All these events are covered in the musical, including Hamilton’s most controversial policy – the creation of the Bank of the United States. Rap battles among cabinet members ensue.
Circling back to Hamilton and Burr, the musical looks at pivotal moments in their relationship, including the presidential election of 1800, where Hamilton threw support behind Thomas Jefferson, who ended up winning the delegates by a landslide and thusly defeating Burr. It’s at this point in the musical that Burr challenges Hamilton to the fatal duel. However, it wasn’t actually until 1804, after being cast aside as vice president to Jefferson and losing the election for New York governor – “aided along by Hamilton’s active opposition,” said Freeman – that Burr challenged Hamilton.
The two met at dawn July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey, to settle their differences. Burr’s shot met its target, fatally wounding Hamilton who died the next day.
According to Freeman, Hamilton didn’t really want to duel. In fact, historians have noted that Burr was quick to draw, while Hamilton intended to aim away from Burr. In the musical, Miranda, who plays Hamilton, points his gun to the sky as Burr takes his shot.
In a final statement written the night before the duel, Hamilton said, “All of the considerations which constitute what men of the world denominate honor, impressed on me, as I thought, a peculiar necessity not to decline the call. The ability to be in future useful, in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.”
Lawyer and historian William Nelson, (1847-1914), who was also the corresponding secretary of The New Jersey Historical Society, had this to say to say about the two in his address before the Washington association of New Jersey in 1897:
“Oh, bitter satire upon the ‘code of honor!’ By all its rules Burr was vindicated, and Hamilton condemned. But the overwhelming wave of public sentiment swept aside this sophistry, and lifted Hamilton’s memory everywhere on high, as the purest of patriots, the greatest and most upright of statesmen, the most beloved of men. And Burr became an outcast a Cain, shunned–save by a few of his closest friends–even by the great party for whose sake he had imbrued his hands in blood. … This is not the time, nor this the place, for a eulogy upon Alexander Hamilton–the poor unknown West Indian boy, who by force of extraordinary native genius, and actuated by the loftiest devotion to his adopted country, raised himself to a position of the highest influence, and has left his impress upon our very form of government, and the management of its most important departments.”
Related Blog Resources
The rules of dueling from In Custodia Legis
Hamilton actually proposed idea of Coast Guard from the Library of Congress Blog
The World Turned Upside Down from In the Muse