“Hamilton” and the False Choice
I finally saw “Hamilton.” (It was the film-play version on Disney+ and not the in-person play.) What follows is not a proper review, but an effort to engage one of the themes it presents. I may write subsequent posts on some of its other themes. In this post, I propose that the play offers us a false choice. It wants us to choose Alexander Hamilton over his nemesis, Aaron Burr. In my reading, I find the two characters morally equivalent. (Please note I am referring to the characters and not the real-life persons.)
The play wants us to like Alexander Hamilton
The play wants us to like Alexander Hamilton. He is a flawed, but sympathetic man, an “immigrant” who rose from humble origins to become one of the important “founders.”
His flaws are real, but venial. He cheats on his wife and flirts (maybe does more?) with his wife’s sister. His ambition makes him too aggressive. He is confrontational when he should listen. But he does real good for the country, and he eventually reconciles with his wife.
It helps that Hamilton’s opponents are cartoonishly bad. Madison and Jefferson (especially Jefferson) are superficial, effete dandies. They are slave owners and come from slave states. The play would have us believe they object to Hamilton’s economic plans primarily because they dislike and look down on him. To be sure, Jefferson raises the point that some states benefit more than others from Hamilton’s assumption plan. But we learn that his Virginia is a slave state, so that does not matter.
Hamilton’s chief nemesis, Aaron Burr, is a self-serving opportunist. He believes in nothing and bides his time until he can win fame and power. He waffles and never commits, even when it comes to such momentous concerns as revolution.
The false choice: Burr or Hamilton
Burr is the counterpoint to Hamilton throughout the play. We see the life Hamilton chooses and the life Burr chooses, and the play expects us to admire Hamilton over Burr.
Hamilton is bold. Burr is cautious. Hamilton comes from an underprivileged background. Burr doesn’t (so far as the play tells us). Hamilton is present at some of the most decisive moments of his day. Burr wants to be “in the room where it happens,” but never quite gets there.
The reason he doesn’t is because he lacks character.
In my view, however, the two are morally equivalent. There is little reason to prefer Hamilton over Burr, even though the play wants us to.
Let me explain. Each is self-serving. Each seeks his own cause — himself. While each chooses different routes, each seeks his own advantage. Hamilton, for example, supports the Revolution, but the main evidence that he does so for any reason beyond self-promotion is some song lyrics where he says (I quote from memory) “these colonies must be free.” Burr’s problem is that he is less successful, not that he’s anymore fixated on his own interests than Hamilton is. He has the same goal but chooses poorly.
So, if you want to promote yourself, take a stand, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. We see that when Hamilton endorses Jefferson over Burr in the 1800 presidential election. Hamilton’s “stand” is not actually principled. He claims that his reason for endorsing Jefferson is that Jefferson at least believes in something while Burr does not. Never mind that up to that point, as far as the play tells us, the main things Jefferson believes in are slavery and honoring an alliance with France by supporting a revolution to overthrow the French government that made the alliance.
Even Hamilton’s decision to confess his infidelities is self-serving. He does so in order that his opponents don’t do so first. And he does so publicly, so as to maximally embarrass his wife. I personally believe it’s better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than not to do the right thing at all. But doing the right thing for the wrong reason is no argument for the person who does it. During the famous duel, Burr, the bad man, shoots Hamilton, the flawed, but good man. The exchange itself seems to portray Hamilton as more virtuous. He aims his gun in the air so as to deliberately miss shooting Burr, while Burr shoots straight at Hamilton.
But let us remember. They are both prideful and impetuous enough to agree to the duel in the first place. Hamilton wears his spectacles, which gives Burr some indication that his opponent wishes to see clearly in order to shoot him straight on.
Further, the play gives a strong indication that Hamilton’s refusal to shoot Burr is a last-minute choice. He wears spectacles to the duel, the better (Burr worries) to aim. Right before the shots, time pauses. That is the occasion for a song. In that song, Hamilton -– still undecided, apparently, about whether he will aim his gun to the air — contemplates what he will do. My reading is that Hamilton’s ultimate decision is impulsive. If the ten-count had ended a second earlier or a second later, he might have decided differently.
Maybe I am being unfair to the play. Maybe where I see Hamilton as the (play’s) hero and Burr as the (play’s) villain, the play might want me to see the two as more complicated and less flat than I portray them here. Maybe all I have discovered is that an audience (in this case, me) sees a drama’s protagonist as the hero even when the drama wants something else.
That said, I offer the above argument as my reading of “Hamilton.” Yours may differ.