The Moral Heart of “Hamilton”

Philippa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda in 'Hamilton' (photo by Joan Marcus)
Philippa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda in ‘Hamilton’ (photo by Joan Marcus)

After more than a year on Broadway, a hip-hop musical about Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton shows no signs of slowing down—it enjoys popular clout and critical acclaim on an unprecedented scale. But it is not only by its artistry that Hamilton that has won a place in history. There is also the fact that it paints a morally serious portrait of leadership.

Hamilton tells of America’s pursuit of greatness and reminds us how much we need goodness. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical locates politics downstream of marriage and family. Alexander Hamilton’s legacy depends, in the end, on the grace of his wife Eliza. She is the answer to the last question of a three-part motif: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

The musical reverences George Washington as general, president, and man of God. Actor Chris Jackson, who originated the role, inhabited this threefold authority naturally, gathering the cast in a backstage prayer circle before each show. On stage Washington recites Micah 4:4, historically his favorite scriptural passage, incorporated into the farewell address: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree / And no one shall make them afraid.” With these words, Miranda emphasizes how Biblically-saturated America’s founding was, and hints at the moral concerns of the show.

Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s narrator and Hamilton’s killer, complains that Hamilton has been “seated at the right hand of the father,” elevated to Washington’s side. The Trinitarian image is ironic: Though Washington is a godly man and father-figure, Hamilton isn’t quite a spotless lamb. Inaugurating the role, Miranda played his protagonist as an irrepressible motor-mouth, committed to his ideals, hungry for fame, and susceptible to his passions. Hamilton’s involvement in America’s first political sex scandal is treated as a profound moral failing.

Hamilton woos his wife Eliza (originally played by Philippa Soo) in Act One, in a bright rhythm-and-blues/rap duet called “Helpless.” It’s a lady-and-the-tramp story, as the orphan immigrant Hamilton courts a daughter of the wealthy Schuyler family. He promises to protect and care for her: “Long as I’m alive, Eliza, swear to God you’ll never feel so helpless!” But he breaks this promise. Hamilton commits adultery with a married woman named Maria Reynolds, is blackmailed and extorted by her husband, and finally publishes an account of the whole thing to clear himself of the charge of mishandling government funds. The music of adultery darkly mirrors the music of marriage—again a rhythm-and-blues/rap duet, but more foreboding. Even as Hamilton succumbs to Reynolds’s charms, he reflects bitterly on how hollow the whole affair is: “This is the last time / I said that last time / It became a pastime.” Sin can take everything from you without even giving what it promised.

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SOURCE: First Things
Alexi Sargeant

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