“Hamilton” and the False Choice

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gabriel conroy

Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer.

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12 Responses

  1. Avatar Barry Fernelius
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    says:

    Let me throw out an alternate view. The last scene tells us that the hero (heroine) of Hamilton is Elizabeth Schuyler, who lives another fifty years. She’s the one who made sure that Hamilton’s legacy didn’t die. She’s the one who determined how his story would be told. (And if there’s any bias, it’s also hers.)Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Barry Fernelius
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      says:

      I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes sense.Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to gabriel conroy
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        says:

        I will say that I have a lot of problems with how the play treats and portrays women. And view Barry offers (which as I said, makes a lot of sense) reinforces my misgivings about that aspect of the play. But maybe that’s a topic I’ll mull over for another blog post.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Barry Fernelius
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      says:

      That is brilliant!Report

    • Avatar Swami in reply to Barry Fernelius
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      says:

      But Hamilton’s legacy was not primarily his personal story, but the Federalist Papers, which is widely recognized as one of the most important works of political theory ever, and probably the most important one written in the Americas. The intellectual framework established in the Federalist Papers profoundly influenced the establishment of the US Constitution, which is the longest lasting constitution on the globe, and arguably a model for the hundreds of others written afterward.

      And this gets me to the issue Gabriel brings up of who is the hero vs the villain. I agree here with you that Elizabeth gets to tell this tale, but really Hamilton’s fame and importance to the world is not determined by any degree of self sacrifice, but based upon his contributions to the whole.

      Implicit in Gabriel’s critique seems to be some assumption that great benefit to the collective needs to come about via self sacrifice. The moral philosopher Adam Smith dispelled that myth even before the constitution was written, and decades of game theorists have since validated Adam’s theories. In modern terms, large stable cooperative entities tend to thrive on mutual benefit, not self sacrifice or altruism. Win/win, not lose/win,

      In other words, Hamilton’s fame is based upon convictions and beliefs which, though a product of his time, were by no means the only or dominant beliefs of his time, and which in hindsight proved to be extremely beneficial to billions of people for two plus centuries.

      Note, it has been over ten years since I read the Federalist Papers, though I am pulling it out again, so I don’t remember which parts were written by which author. I do seem to recall my favorite sections were Madison.Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Swami
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        says:

        Implicit in Gabriel’s critique seems to be some assumption that great benefit to the collective needs to come about via self sacrifice.

        It wasn’t my intention to imply that, but I can see how my OP seems to. In the world the play creates, I believe we (the audience) are supposed to choose between Hamilton and Burr, and the “right” choice (the play tells us) is Hamilton. Or….Burr is the foil to demonstrate that Hamilton at least believed in something. In the play’s universe: it’s his personal contribution that we have to focus on. The play mentions the Federalist and his (in my opinion almost equally important) funded debt plan, but the mention is done in passing, at least that’s how I see it.

        I’m focusing on the play and the character instead of real-life and the real Hamilton. I agree that his personal story isn’t the real Hamilton’s main legacy or why I (or anyone) should care about him.

        Whether self-sacrifice should play no role in how we assess a person’s legacy, I’ll have to mull on that a bit.Report

  2. Avatar North
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    says:

    I’m not exactly opposed to your interpretation and, in truth, I see plenty to be sympathetic about regarding Hamilton’s Burr. I don’t agree with what you’re reading as the underlying theme that Hamilton is successful because he has character and Burr lacks it. My own read is that the play presents Hamilton as successful over Burr primarily because Hamilton is idealistic and takes chances whereas Burr is temperate and risk averse. The room where it happens song, for instance, is pretty much the first time we see Burr express a strong desire for anything and the play presents it as a shocking experience for Burr (and equally presents Hamilton’s roll in denying Burr access to his new desire as having an intense impact on Burr). Really this particular theme, I would boil down to the entirely anodyne “fortune favors the bold” trope or the economic truism that risk is often commensurate with reward.

    That said the overall Hamilton play/show is really quite shockingly good. The music is enormously catchy and clever- the lines crackle with cute historical jokes and witticisms. King George’s three brief appearances are, all by themselves, worth the time spent watching the entire production. I’d be quite interested in your further takes on it.Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to North
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      says:

      I guess I don’t really see Hamilton’s idealism. It seems like he’s taking the idealism of the age. It may be, though, that I’m reading my own biases against the so-called justifications of the American Revolution. I guess I have to admit that the play wants us to see him as idealistic.

      You’re right about the show’s tunes being catchy. And I like the King George appearances. Again, though, I’m more likely to agree with him than with the colonists. But that’s what I take with me, and the play should probably be evaluated on its context and not my priors.Report

  3. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    The best episode of Drunk History I’ve ever seen has Lin-Manuel Miranda telling the story of Hamilton and Burr. (It stars Alia Shawkat (Maebe from Arrested Development) as Alexander Hamilton and Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Rec as Burr. It’s terrific.) It’s available online, but I suspect piracy, so I won’t link. You know where Google is.

    Anyway, Miranda’s take is that challenging Hamilton was the one thing Burr ever did that was impulsive instead of calculated, and it cost him any future chance at political success. After that came his questionable adventures out west, his arrest for treason, and a life always on the brink of ruin.Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Mike Schilling
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      says:

      I haven’t seen that clip, but I guess I can see where Miranda is coming from.

      (I don’t know what it is about Miranda, but I’m not a fan of his acting at all. That probably falls under the category of, “there’s no accounting for taste.” My spouse, who saw the actual play, said that someone other than Miranda played Hamilton, at least in the Big City production and that the actor she saw was better.)Report

  4. Avatar Kristin Devine
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    says:

    Great piece! I haven’t seen Hamilton yet but plan to if I ever have a couple hours free. I’ll keep this take in mind.Report

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