by Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
November 11, 2016
Many of us have listened to—and some of us have memorized—songs from the Broadway musical hit, Hamilton. Whether a friend introduced you to it, you read about it in the news, or you were one of the lucky ones to see it performed live, chances are you are well aware of this musical sensation. Without a doubt, Hamilton has brought Alexander Hamilton (and the fascinating women in his circle) into popular culture, ultimately reshaping his legacy. That is not something a Broadway play has accomplished before—or certainly not on this scale.
The first time I heard a song from Hamilton was in the car with a dear friend of mine. She had discovered it months before and had been raving about it since. Naturally, I obliged and listened to the opening title, “Alexander Hamilton.” Within the first few minutes, I was a fan. It was pure lyrical genius. While I’ve never been keen on rap, the words flowed so perfectly that I couldn’t help but ask for more. Hamilton is a perfect blend of history, humor, drama, and music. It translates history into art. The mastermind behind the phenomenon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, worked on it for over six years after serendipitously reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography while on a holiday trip. Talk about the odds being in favor of history enthusiasts!
A history enthusiast myself, I wondered how historically accurate the musical is, and how much in the historical record it dramatizes for the sake of entertainment. As a research specialist at the Washington Papers, I was particularly interested in how the musical portrays the relationship between Washington and Hamilton. It seemed to me that Miranda had accurately captured the mutual respect, trust, and loyalty of the two, while being cautious about depicting their friendship more informally.
Their relationship might be described as “complementary.” Whereas Hamilton’s and Washington’s personalities were opposed, “as a team,” writes Chernow, “they were unbeatable and far more than the sum of their parts.”1 Hamilton lacked the judgment and composure for which Washington was renowned, but he contributed philosophical depth and a quick intellect that nobody else in Washington’s circle offered. Not only did Hamilton share with the General his intricate understanding of complex military strategy, but he was also able to project himself in Washington’s mind, to see the world from the general’s perspective and respond accordingly. Soon after being appointed aide de camp, Hamilton was entirely trusted with signing orders issued from Washington.
In one of the key songs introducing Washington and Hamilton together, “Right Hand Man,” Washington offers Hamilton a position on his staff as an aide-de-camp. Initially, Hamilton refuses, asking instead for a field command. In the song, Washington’s rebuttal is that of a wise man: “Head full of fantasies of dyin’ like a martyr? Dying is easy young man, living is harder.”2 This is probably my favorite line from the song, for it justly portrays a levelheaded and experienced Washington trying to convince a young, brash Hamilton that he would best serve with his mind—alive.
It would be unfair to assert that the rapport between the two men was merely one of mutual respect. Indeed, their early interactions mainly concerned political matters. In the first decade of their relationship, they were fighting a war. Washington relied on Hamilton’s brilliant mind. Though he served as Washington’s right-hand man, Hamilton was unfulfilled by the position. His resignation sparked Washington to give Hamilton his first field command, an infantry battalion during the battle of Yorktown, the pivotal battle leading to the British surrender.
Years later, when Hamilton was involved in a publicly scandalous affair with Maria Reynolds, Washington demonstrated his loyalty and friendship to Hamilton. In a 1797 letter, Washington expressed his “best wishes” to “Mrs. Hamilton and the family, that you would be persuaded with every sentiment of the highest regard, I remain your sincere friend and affectionate Hble servant.”3 Marks of affection between the two are rarely found in their letters except for what was customary at the time, and this language is typical of a polite closing. But if Washington supported Hamilton through the infamous scandal, it is safe to assume that they shared a special bond.
Some have argued that Washington considered Hamilton as a kind of “surrogate son,” which oversimplifies a complex relationship. While the musical does not limit itself to a father-son dynamic, it does suggest elements of one. In the song “Meet Me Inside,” Washington scolds Hamilton for his impulsive and brash behavior. He calls him “son,” to which Hamilton responds, “I’m not your son.” This terse exchange echoes the language of a dispute between family members. Nothing in their letters is so informal as this, but this kind of exchange brings the two to life and allows us more easily to identify with them and to wonder about their relationship.
One of Washington’s finest moments was his Farewell Address, to which an entire song in the musical is dedicated (“One Last Time”). Hamilton, in fact, helped to write that famous document. He managed to capture the mind and spirit of George Washington one last time. After Washington’s retirement, both men maintained a frequent correspondence until the General’s death in 1799. One of the last letters Washington ever wrote was to Hamilton.
Their relationship spanned more than two decades. For a man who was never short on words, it is a defeated, solemn, and unusually concise Hamilton who writes to Charles Pinckney Cotesworth shortly after Washington’s death: “My Imagination is gloomy my heart sad.”4
1. Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).
2. Christopher Jackson, Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording), 2015.
3. George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 21 Aug. 1797.
4. Alexander Hamilton to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, 22 Dec. 1799.