Today was Alexander Hamilton’s 252nd birthday; he was born January 11, 1755 on the little Caribbean island of Nevis. This founding father, who didn’t have much of a father and arrived in New York at age 17 by himself, became George Washington’s right-hand man during the American Revolution, engineered the American economy, wrote 51 of the Federalist Papers, set up hundreds of legal precedents in his new country, established the Coast Guard, the Treasury Department, the National Bank and wrote Washington’s Farewell Address. And there’s a lot more accomplishments this five foot seven immigrant produced in his 49 years before Aaron Burr killed him in a duel. That duel posed a challenge to Hamilton’s legacy because 1) he died before he could do more good stuff like end slavery 2) when he died the Jeffersonians were in power and weren’t going to honor him—in fact, the Jeffersonians didn’t want to honor George Washington and it took till 1848 for the Washington Monument’s foundation to be laid—that’s almost 50 years after Washington died.
I believe the spirit of Alexander Hamilton channeled its way into Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mind and forced him to create a Broadway musical about him 250 years after his birth. Miranda decided to bring Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton on his honeymoon. It’s very plausible—Hamilton was a very persuasive man—of course he would be a persuasive ghost. Hamilton, An American Musical has earned 11 Tonys, including Best Musical, and tickets are still hard to come by, even though Hamilton is now playing in Chicago and will be opening up soon in San Francisco.
In Act I of the musical, audiences experience Alexander’s rise from boy immigrant to Washington’s confidante, as he marries into one of the most prominent families in America, the Schuylers. Hamilton’s wife is Eliza, but he also has an emotional affair with her whip-smart sister, Angelica. Hamilton also befriends Aaron Burr, his favorite frenemy. Then in Act II, Hamilton is now the Treasury Secretary and he quarrels with Thomas Jefferson over how much the government is supposed do for its people. While Hamilton is trying to get his debt plan passed before Congress, he has an affair that also involves extortion, which Jefferson, Burr and James Madison use to undermine him. Except—Hamilton beats them at their own game when he writes a 96-page confession about his affair, vindicating his financial legacy, but almost destroying his family. Then his oldest son, Philip, is killed in a duel. Then he breaks the tie between Jefferson and Burr so Jefferson can be President since he doesn’t trust Burr because Burr is a people-pleaser. Then he and Burr fight in a duel in 1804. Ham dies, leaving Eliza to carry on his legacy till the day she dies—50 years later! You can’t make this up!
Without further preamble, here are 4 Lessons from Hamilton the man and Hamilton the musical:
What Is Your Legacy? What do you want people to remember about you when you’re gone? Who is going to preserve your legacy? Write it down! Hamilton’s legacy is preserved for all time because he wrote volumes and volumes of essays, arguments and letters. Eliza died before his two-volume biography was written, but she helped make it happen by providing the motivation and the access to his writings. She also interviewed all of the soldiers who served with him in the Revolution to get their eyewitness accounts of her husband.
Build a Team. Hamilton wasn’t so good at building a team—he liked to fly solo, but when he paired up with Washington, Gouverneur Morris on the Constitution, Madison and John Jay on the Federalist Papers he was unstoppable! His professional life fell apart bit by bit after Washington’s retirement and couldn’t quite overcome the dapper Jeffersonian duo of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that thrived on lively conversation. On the other hand, Lin-Manuel Miranda did a fantastic job of building his creative and musical team starting with musical arranger Alex Lacamoire, then Thomas Kail, the director. Then Miranda brought along his actor buddies to fill in the crucial roles of Jefferson and Washington.
Take One for the Team. Sometimes you have to give up something because it’s for the greater good. In the musical, Angelica Schuyler experiences love at first sight with Hamilton, but her younger sister is ALSO in love with Ham. Angelica figures that as the first born she has to marry a rich man, which Ham is not, AND she would deeply hurt her sister if she married him. Angelica knows she can’t live with herself if she hurts her dear sister, so she introduces the pair and they enjoy a solid marriage until Ham effs it up with his affair. In real life, Angelica was already married to John Church, so she couldn’t marry Ham, but they did have a platonic affair, although most scholars speculate that they didn’t act on it.
In another example of taking one for the team, Ham accepts Aaron Burr’s challenge for the fatal duel because he wanted to stop Burr from gaining powerful political office. He’d known Burr for almost thirty years and knew he was someone who only wanted to be “in the room where it happens”—close to power and that he didn’t have any firm beliefs of his own. Burr had already poisoned NY’s water supply, switched parties to run against Ham’s father-in-law. Ham had blocked him from being President and governor of New York. As a result, Ham died and forever ruined Burr’s reputation.
What are you sacrificing now for the greater good?
Are You Taking Your One Shot? Hamilton refuses to “throw away his shot.” He seizes the moment and acts even though there’s always uncertainty and most people don’t see his point of view. Every day Hamilton did something scary and out of his comfort zone—sometimes he fell on his face (like when he said the U.S. President should serve for life like a king), but many other times his plans grew legs and blossomed (the U.S. Constitution). He was a man of conviction and held strong core values—he certainly stood up for what he believed in.
In 2009 Lin-Manuel Miranda was invited to the White House to showcase his poetry during the White House Poetry Jam. Here’s the clip. Everyone figured Miranda would perform a number from his Tony-winning musical In The Heights. No. Instead, he raps the first song from Hamilton, called “Alexander Hamilton” in front of the POTUS and FLOTUS, introducing Hamilton as a hip-hop Treasury Secretary. Talk about a huge risk, but Miranda pulled it off, the video went viral and then the Obamas kept asking him when he’d make a musical. This opportunity bred another shot—the Lincoln Center where he performed 10 of the show’s songs, which eventually led Miranda and his team to Broadway.
It’s amazing to know that so much of how we conduct our financial business everyday Americans is due to Hamilton’s foresight. The man was a genius, on top of being the most handsome fellow on our currency.
Cary writer Doug Gzym, Hamilton die-hard and supporter of this blog, summarized my four lessons so succinctly. He said, “The people around you—your team—are ultimately responsible for how you are remembered (legacy) and you’ll be known for what you do (your shot) as well as what you did for others (taking one for the team) These four lessons show how the whole is greater than the individual.” Thank you, Doug! So, what are you doing to contribute to yourself and the team?