Hamilton, according to its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is the "story of America then, told by America now." America now is a time and place of anxiety-inducing uncertainty and deeply felt political divisions that threaten to erupt into unrest at any moment. America then wasn't much different, and Hamilton, with its decidedly unstuffy approach to turning the stuff of textbooks into living history, makes that refreshingly clear. But the multi-award-winning musical phenomenon moves fast, which doesn't give audiences much time to decipher lyrics and catch up. These are some of the key moments in the musical that are also key moments in the country's founding.
Though Hamilton technically covers the entire life of the country's first Secretary of the Treasury (and then some), most of the on-stage action takes place between Alexander Hamilton's emergence on the political and military scene in 1775 and his infamous death in 1804. An early song ("Farmer Refuted") borrows from Hamilton's second published work of the same name, in which he argued for more meaningful independence from British rule, even if that meant war. The farmer in question was Samuel Seabury, who wrote under the pen name A.W. Farmer and believed that the colonies could remain peaceably loyal to England while maintaining their own separate governance. Such was the ideological battle that led up to the American Revolution; it's important to remember that then, as now, opinion wasn't uniform.
The first act illustrates consequential moments in actual battles of the latter half of the Revolutionary War. Two years into the fighting, the British had General George Washington and his Continental Army on the defensive, waiting out a hard winter at Valley Forge. England's General Sir William Howe had captured Philadelphia (the strategy and series of battles was called The Philadelphia Campaign) which he thought would force the Continental Army to give up its cause.
Throughout much of the conflict, things looked bleak for the Colonies. A sorely-needed victory at Saratoga helped turn the tide, and inspired more colonists to join the Continental Army. But it wasn't until the French joined the Colonies' forces, at the behest of Benjamin Franklin, that the war became winnable. This culminated in the Battle of Yorktown -- the musical's first act climax -- in which Washington, Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette defeated an unsuspecting General Cornwallis. He surrendered, and Yorktown was the last significant battle, but the war went on for nearly two more years until America officially secured its freedom with the Treaty of Paris.
Independence meant America was no longer King George III's problem, so unresolved issues like slavery, taxation and debt -- and whether to intercede on France's behalf in its own revolution -- were left to the men who'd come out of the war as America's leaders. But before those topics could be debated (and Hamilton debates them via a trilogy of rapped "Cabinet Battles"), America had to establish itself as an official nation, which proved difficult.
In 1787, many of the men we now consider founding fathers met to discuss the merits of various systems of representative government at the Constitutional Convention. It's easy to look back on the drafting of the Constitution as if it was the product of divine intervention, but the colonists that emigrated to the Americas didn't necessarily intend to establish a utopia for all, just a country in which they could call the shots and wield the power.
Some attendees (including Hamilton) favored something that resembled Britain's own system, and supported lifelong terms for democratically elected officials and a strong central government. Others favored something that functioned more like a second draft of the Articles of Confederation, which loosely bound the states together and left much unsaid. The compromise solution was America's government as it's currently organized, with three separate branches and a bicameral legislature.
Now, those founding fathers had to get the okay from the citizenry. Hamilton (along with James Madison and John Jay) proved that his pen was indeed mightier than his sword with his authorship of the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays meant to convince the public to support ratification of the new Constitution. Hamilton used the platform to tell Americans that good government doesn't happen by accident. That liberty and prosperity are the result of hard work, sound decision making, give and take, and perseverance.
We all know how the story ends, or so we think. Washington becomes President, then (crucially) cedes his office. Hamilton's killed by Aaron Burr in a petty duel. But between those two well-known events on the American timeline, Hamilton also essentially invented American economic policy, started the Coast Guard, continued to lobby for Federalist policies and struck deals that shaped the political landscape as we know it today. It's enough to fill several volumes, but it's all there in Hamilton if you listen closely.
Directed by Thomas Kail, Hamilton stars Lin Manuel-Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom, Jr., Christopher Jackson, Jonathan Groff, Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Anthony Ramos, Okieriete Onaodowan and more. The recorded performance is currently streaming on Disney+.
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