Thursday, June 23, 2016

Hamilton the History, Part 1

Transcript of the first episode of the Hamilton the History video series.


Hey everybody! I’m Charlie, and in case it’s not clear, I’m a huge fan of Hamilton: An American Musical.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, you’re a national treasure.

That said, obviously, the musical had to take some liberties with Alexander Hamilton’s life. Lin had to take a fascinating, complex life and compact it into an entertaining two and a half hour musical.

If you want to learn a lot more about the life of Alexander Hamilton, you could read the biography that inspired the musical. However, not everyone has that kind of time, and some people simply aren’t that fond of reading. So, if you don’t want to read the book but still want to know more about Alexander Hamilton, this series is for you.

But still, go buy the book. We need to support historians so they can keep doing good work.

Anyway, in this series I’ll be going through each track of Hamilton and exploring what the musical got right, what it decided to change, and whatever other tangential bits I think you might find interesting.

So, let’s start with the opening number: The first words of the play describe Alexander as a bastard, an orphan, and the son of a whore and a scotsman.

It’s important to note right away that the opening lines and, in fact, most of the narration of the musical is delivered by Aaron Burr. Burr, of course, has a vested interest in coloring Alexander in an unfavorable light.

Alexander and his brother, James Jr, were born to Rachel Faucette and James Hamilton out of wedlock, making him indeed a bastard.

He was born on Nevis, by the way. Not exactly a "forgotten spot in the Caribbean."

Anyway, his illegitimacy was not for lack of trying on Rachel and James’ part.

The problem was that Rachel was still married to another man, much to her dismay. At the age of sixteen, Rachel was married off to the much older Johann Michael Lavien. She bore him a son, Peter, but soon the marriage deteriorated, and Rachel abandoned her husband and son a few years later. Lavien was not one to let this sort of slight go, though. He publicly shamed Rachel, had her arrested, and just generally made her life miserable until she fled the island completely.

Divorce was difficult at the time, so Rachel would never be truly free from Lavien, not even after her death. In fact, though, she spent far more years with James than she did with Lavien. So, you could say that Alexander’s illegitimacy was simply a technicality.

As for being an orphan, well, that’s technically true as well.

At about the age of ten, James Hamilton abandoned his family for reasons unknown. Alexander himself suggests that James simply couldn’t afford to care for his family anymore, so he left in shame. He kept in touch with his children, though. In fact, Alexander invited James to his wedding to Elizabeth Schuyler years later. He didn’t come, though. Probably couldn’t afford to.

Two years after James left, Rachel and Alexander contracted some sort of fever. The fever killed Rachel, and very nearly killed Alexander as well. And so, by disease and abandonment, both of Alexander’s parents were gone, leaving him and his brother orphaned.

Finally, regarding his parentage, James was indeed a scotsman. His father, Alexander’s namesake, was a Scottish laird, which is a sort of low-ranking, land-owning Scottish nobility. James was a black sheep in his family, born in Scotland and traveling to the West Indies to unsuccessfully seek his fortune.

Rachel, however, was not a prostitute. Rather, that was the reputation she earned through being a strong-willed woman in the 18th century. Her husband, of course, accused her of adultery, which was the biggest factor in gaining that reputation.

It doesn’t help, though, that even Alexander’s parentage is under suspicion. Alexander did not resemble James Hamilton very much. He was, in short, very different from his father and brother both in looks and temperament. However, he did resemble the merchant Thomas Stevens, an acquaintance of Rachel’s. In fact, Alexander’s resemblance to Tomas’s son Edward was striking to anyone who saw them. In fact, Thomas adopted Alexander after the apparent suicide of Peter Lyton, Alexander’s cousin and caretaker after Rachel’s death. In short, Thomas was uncommonly generous with Alexander and resembled him. As far as proof goes, it’s fragile, and the truth is lost to history.

After Rachel’s death, her husband Lavien got one final act of revenge by claiming rights to her property, leaving Alexander and James with nothing. At the mercy of their community, though, their community pulled through. Alexander found work at Beekman and Cruger as a clerk, which gave him plenty of first-hand experience with business, trade, and maritime law. All of which became important later in life, by the way.

Being a clerk on the island of St. Croix also brought him close to the slave trade though, really, there was no avoiding it growing up in the Caribbean. The islands were filled with sugar plantations, and slavery there was especially brutal.

Through everything, Alexander learned to read and write, and was mostly self-taught. In fact, once he found an outlet in the Royal Danish American Gazette, he basically never stopped writing. In fact, it was the gazette that published Alexander’s essay that recounted the hurricane that nearly leveled St. Croix in 1772.

The essay he submitted to the Gazette was indicative of Alexander’s later style. It’s verbose, florid, and dramatic, and the imagery won over the Gazette’s readers, including the island’s governor.

Here’s a short excerpt from the essay:
He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage—even him have I always loved and served. His precepts have I observed. His commandments have I obeyed—and his perfections have I adored. He will snatch me from ruin. He will exalt me to the fellowship of Angels and Seraphs, and to the fullness of never ending joys.

But alas! how different, how deplorable, how gloomy the prospect! Death comes rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke. On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: Calamity on his left threatening famine disease and distress of all kinds. And Oh! thou wretch, look still a little further; see the gulph of eternal misery open. There mayest thou shortly plunge—the just reward of thy vileness. Alas! whither canst thou fly? Where hide thyself? Thou canst not call upon thy God; thy life has been a continual warfare with him.

Hark—ruin and confusion on every side. ’Tis thy turn next; but one short moment, even now, Oh Lord help. Jesus be merciful!

This account made Alexander famous on the island, and a fund was taken up by the local businesses to send Alex to get an education in North America.

The boat he boarded was bound for Boston, not New York, but I’ll get to that later. In fact, most of the play is very New York centric, though much of it, especially in the first half, actually took place elsewhere.

Next time we’ll delve into the character of Aaron Burr, as I discuss the historical events that inspired the song Aaron Burr, Sir.

Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time.

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