Hamilton is in the House

by Thomas Vinciguerra ’85CC, ’86JRN, ’90GSAS Published Winter 2015-16
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Illustrations By R. Kikuo Johnson

IT'S NOT EVERY DAY that a musical about the American Revolution and the early years of the republic becomes a smash hit on Broadway. (Sure, there was 1776, but that was in 1969.) Nor is it every day that such a period piece casts African-Americans and Latinos as America’s Founding Fathers. And it is decidedly not every day that said production presents George Washington conducting cabinet meetings with a handheld mic; Thomas Jefferson offering blown kisses and razzle-dazzle waves of the hand; and the maverick star of the show rapping, “You know I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry”; or thirty-four songs that throb with the pulse of R&B, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and, above all, hip-hop.

Now, in 2015, that day has arrived: Alexander Hamilton is busting rhymes, and Hamilton is busting musical-theater conventions. These are interesting times indeed for this Founding Father.

Hamilton, which opened off-Broadway in February at the Public Theater and moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre this past summer, plays like a thrilling mixtape of US history and popular culture. At its heart is the improbable, often overlooked story of a man who rose from virtually nothing to American immortality. “I wrote my way out of hell,” sings Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s star and the author of its book, music, and lyrics. “I wrote my way to revolution / I was louder than the crack in the bell.”

But the current Hamilton renaissance really began a decade ago, led by Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton in 2004. That same year — the bicentennial of Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr — the New-York Historical Society mounted the exhibition “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America,” two versions of which traveled to forty libraries. In 2007, the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street permanently installed its Alexander Hamilton Room, where it has offered exhibitions like 2011’s “Alexander Hamilton: Lineage and Legacy.”

Add to that the sprucing up of Hamilton’s personal properties: in 2008 the Grange, Hamilton’s long-neglected Harlem home, was relocated to St. Nicholas Park in Upper Manhattan and renovated for $14.5 million; and last year saw the rededication, at Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church, of Hamilton’s restored gravesite. Even the Florida-based Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society reports that whereas only a “handful” of people used to attend its annual observations of Hamilton’s birthday, more than a hundred showed up in January 2015.

Then there was the backlash against Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew’s announcement last spring that Hamilton would share his space on the ten-dollar bill with a woman yet to be named. Opponents included former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (“I was appalled”) and Hamilton’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Doug Hamilton, who calls his forebear “somebody the younger generation should look up to.”

And now we have Hamilton: An American Musical. So what’s with the big revival?

“It’s like the stock market,” says Richard Brookhiser, author of Alexander Hamilton, American and the curator of the New-York Historical Society exhibit. “The Founding Fathers are all blue chips. But some fluctuate more than others.”

 “I think we’re past the idea that because the Founding Fathers were flawed you can’t say anything good about them,” suggests Willard Sterne Randall, who teaches history at Champlain College in Vermont and is the author of Alexander Hamilton: A Life. “My God, this man created our entire modern economy. If nothing else, he should be honored for that. I’ve never had him off the pedestal and out of the pantheon.”

Robert McCaughey, a professor of history at Barnard and the author of Stand, Columbia, agrees, saying that the moral outrage at Hamilton’s being “an adulterer, or at least a womanizer” has softened. “That’s become a more tolerable attribute for a public figure,” McCaughey says. “He’s coming out from under a cloud.”

In his relatively short life, Hamilton amassed a record that still boggles: author of the majority of the Federalist Papers, New York’s sole signer of the Constitution, first US Secretary of the Treasury, architect of our financial system (including the First Bank of the United States and the US Mint), visionary of an industrial America, father of the Coast Guard, inspector general of the US Army, founder of the Federalist Party, and, of course, the man who gave us the New York Post.

He has also loomed large in Columbia’s psyche. Hamilton never graduated from King’s College, having withdrawn to fight the Revolution and become George Washington’s aide-de-camp. But ten years after first entering the school in 1774, he became a regent and, subsequently, a trustee of its rechristened successor, Columbia College. Before there was a Hamilton Hall on Morningside Heights, there was one on the 49th Street campus. Naturally, when the Columbia College Alumni Association first presented its highest honor in 1947, it was named the Alexander Hamilton Medal.

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