Monday, July 4, 2016

Alexander Hamilton

New York, NY  Visited October 2103

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

This is the arresting beginning of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remarkable hip hop musical drama ‘Hamilton’.  The play attempts to capture the life of perhaps the most controversial founding father in American history.  And what a life it was.  Here is Hamilton’s early story as told by the company of “Hamilton - An American Musical” in the the opening song, filmed on stage as a special to the 2016 Grammy's.

"Alexander Hamilton"

Rather than tell Alexander Hamilton’s compelling story in chronological fashion I’m going to sketch it out from some of the prominent themes that resonate throughout ‘Hamilton – An American Musical’

Washington On Your Side

This poor orphan sent to the New York colony by kind benefactors wandered his way into the American Revolution.  He made reputation for himself in the early days of the war as an artillery officer.  A number of commanders saw in the brilliant, energetic twenty year-old the makings of an ideal staff officer, and in 1777 Alexander Hamilton joined George Washington's  staff.  This would begin a lifelong relationship that would define trajectory of the young man’s life.  Under General Washington both chaffed under the strains of administration while also honing his political and administrative gifts.  

Washington gave him the chance to be a war hero at the Battle of Yorktown.  As president, Washington placed him over the new treasury department where Hamilton’s grand and farsighted vision established the economic system that allowed the United States to become the greatest economy in history.  George Washington’s adept handling of the mercurial and polarizing aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s personality allowed both men to forge an enduring friendship and profoundly shape the practical outworking of the new United States.   

Best of Wives and Best of Women

In 1780 Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, whom he would at the end of his life memorably call, ‘the best of wives and the best of women’.  The woman whom he affectionately called ‘Eliza’ gave the orphaned Alexander a home and an extended family he had never known.  Eliza proved to be the steadying influence in Alexander’s hectic, controversial life.  She was the committed mother of their eight children, the manager of his constantly disrupted personal affairs, the steady companion in his defeats, the north star in his lost times.  Perhaps most compellingly, Eliza Hamilton was a woman of deep Christian faith who used her influential position for the good of others and the advance of the Gospel.  It was this deep faith that allowed her to survive the loss of her oldest son in a duel and decades of slanderous accusations against her husband.  But it is the remarkable grace that she extended in the years following the personal crisis and public humiliation of Alexander’s cruel infidelity, the courageous forgiveness that humbled her arrogant husband, that stands as perhaps her greatest spiritual legacy. That she lived the remaining fifty years of her life after the tragic death of Alexander active for good in the world and committed to the best ideals they shared is a testimony to a truly exceptional woman. 

Like You’re Running Out of Time

Perhaps the dominant aspect of Alexander Hamilton’s character was an inner drive that compelled him forward throughout his life. At times it produced astounding feats of human achievement – like creating an unprecedented national economic system to support a constitutional government of the likes that the world had never seen.  It led him to write volumes of papers, pamphlets and speeches, bringing brilliant and compelling arguments to bear on almost any topic that got his attention.  He has been called by one historian, ‘the nation’s first blogger’.  At times, however, the drive was fueled by a relentless campaign to protect and burnish his personal reputation, leading him to actions that were misguided at best and ultimately tragic for himself and others. Hamilton’s unconscionable adultery and the inexplicable attempt to defend his honor at the expense of his marriage in the Reynolds Pamphlet shows the deep character flaws that ran concurrent with his unquestioned talents.  It was obsessive drive to defend and promote his reputation that led Alexander Hamilton to the morning of July 11, 1804 and his fateful duel with Aaron Burr on the cliffs of Weehauken overlooking the Hudson River.  Hamilton’s deep-seated inability to let slights pass, to step back and consider his actions where his honor was challenged was his lifelong and ultimately life-defining flaw.  

Bitter ideological rivals - Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson and Hamilton Rap Battle

Perhaps no one captured these two sides of Alexander Hamilton’s ambition better than Benjamin Franklin.

“He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”

Forgiveness.  Can you Imagine?

Alexander Hamilton was a man of towering intellect, unwavering patriotism, and deeply entrenched personal pride.  But what was the state of his soul?  The philosophical grounding of the American Revolution was fueled as much by Enlightenment humanism as anything else.  Yet our founding Fathers wrestled with the question of where God fit in it all.  Some, like Thomas Jefferson, seemed to revel in the man-centered rationalism that was sweeping through Europe at the time.  Others, like George Washington, seemed to straddle both worlds, consciously honoring the God of Christianity without clear statements of trust in Jesus Christ.  Where was Alexander Hamilton in all this?  We know that in his youth he ascribed to the Reformed tradition of protestant Christian belief.  It seems that his public life and published words seemed to offer little evidence of what would be considered an evangelical belief in the Gospel.  But we also know that in his later years he was returning to the faith of his youth.  The tragedies in his life and his hard experience in the world had pressed on his heart in his last few years.  He witnessed the robust evangelicalism of his wife and longed to see what happened to her happen to himself.

If it is true that the best place to look for the state of one’s soul before God is in the final conscious moments before death, then we have a pretty good idea of where Alexander Hamilton placed his trust.  In the hours after the duel with Aaron Burr that left him mortally wounded, Hamilton wanted more than anything to receive the Lord’s Supper.  Unable to obtain it from his Episcopal priest he asked for his Presbyterian minister-friend John Mason to give him communion. Mason wisely engaged the dying but coherent man as to the reason he fixed on this one desire.  As biographer Ron Chernow lays it out from eyewitness accounts, Mason sought to ascertain the state of Alexander Hamilton’s faith. Here’s some of that account.

“Aside from his strongly protective feelings toward his family, Hamilton was preoccupied with spiritual matters in a way that eliminates all doubt about the sincerity of his late-flowering religious interests...  Mason tried to console Hamilton by saying that all men had sinned and were equal in the Lord’s sight. “I perceive it to be so,” Hamilton said. “I am a sinner. I look to His mercy.” Hamilton also stressed his hatred of dueling: “I used every expedient to avoid the interview, but I have found for some time past that my life must be exposed to that man. I went to the field determined not to take his life.” As Mason told how Christ’s blood would wash away his sins, Hamilton grasped his hand, rolled his eyes heavenward, and exclaimed with fervor, “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.””
In drawing on his own late blooming faith Alexander Hamilton was able to also bring spiritual care to his wife in his dying moments.  To comfort her, Hamilton kept intoning the one refrain he knew would soothe her troubled spirit above all others: “Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian”


Alexander Hamilton did not live to repudiate dueling.  He died as a casualty of the ritual on July 11, 1804.  He was 49 years old; the only prominent founding father not to make it into his elderly years.  He is buried in the churchyard of Trinity Church, in the heart of the Wall Street district that owes its existence to the far-sighted economic ideas of the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States.  

For years Trinity Church was a tourism curiosity due to its fictional role in the movie National Treasure.  But with the Miranda’s musical, Trinity Church has a whole new status as a pilgrimage destination.  I visited Hamilton’s grave on a trip to a conference in New York. 

Trinity Church - Unfortunately when I visited the Hamilton grave area
was under renovation

Alexander Hamilton with Eliza's crypt in
the foreground

Note that the tombstone indicates Alexander Hamilton died when he was 47,
most modern historians place it at 49, due to recent research
into his early life.

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