Topic: Elisa Shields

History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor and Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
June 27, 2017

New York City’s Times Square starkly contrasts the small, quiet town of Charlottesville, Va., where The Washington Papers is based. Throngs of tourists pack the streets, performers vie for attention, and video advertisements overwhelm the eyes. In the midst of this sensory overload, an escape to a side street is a relief. Choose the correct street, and the Richard Rodgers Theater, the home of Hamilton the musical, will quickly appear on your left. Before you know it, you may find yourself humming a tune about Thomas Jefferson or quietly reciting George Washington’s Farewell Address in a rhythmic fashion. A far-fetched scenario just a few years ago, Hamilton has catapulted revolutionary history into the stratosphere. In the words of one teenage fan, “This is, like, crazy cool.”1 And after recently attending a performance of the show, these documentary editors wholeheartedly agree.

Is Hamilton an academic, perfectly accurate historical interpretation? Of course not. But what it does do is use catchy tunes—and primary sources—to make history accessible and entertaining to a new generation of Americans. Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address is one such example. In “One Last Time,” Washington informs Hamilton that he will not be running for a third term as president because the nation is ready to move on. The president asks Hamilton to revise a draft of his address to the people in order to “teach them how to say goodbye” and to express his hopes for the new nation. In an impressive display of history reimagined, the resulting lyrics seldom deviate from the actual address. The following lyrics are drawn from the musical, with additional text from the historical address in brackets:

Assistant editor Lynn Price (left) and research specialist Elisa Shields (right) waiting in anticipation for the show.

Consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest . . . I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize [, without alloy,] the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.2

Hamilton ushers spectators through a veritable maze of laughter, sadness, excitement, and political intrigue. Hamilton creator Lin-Manual Miranda originally portrayed the character of Alexander Hamilton in the musical. Before Miranda (who is of Puerto Rican descent) brought Hamilton the historical figure to Broadway, most Americans likely did not know that the first secretary of the treasury was born in the West Indies. He was, in other words, an immigrant. It is doubtful that Americans considered the Federalist Papers, co-written by Hamilton, a captivating read. And in the story of the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel, Aaron Burr was not liable to receive a sympathetic assessment. Today, however, both Hamilton and Burr are starting to receive the attention and recognition they deserve—the former for being the mastermind behind the nation’s financial, legal, and political systems, and the latter for being a more nuanced and multifaceted figure than most history books acknowledge (not to mention an essential player in Hamilton’s short but intense life). While Hamilton is the namesake and star of the show, Burr remains its central figure. Not only does he narrate almost every song (the Hamilton song “Dear Theodosia” best exemplifies the more humanistic view of Burr), but the events often spiral around him.3 Leaving the theater with a new appreciation for the maligned figure known principally for killing Alexander Hamilton was only one of many delightful effects of an exceptional and inimitable Broadway experience.

In the development phase of his hit musical, Miranda extensively researched historical figures for context. This process included visiting the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, a journey that many of the show’s fans now repeat. If you were unaware that it was in the neighborhood, you would never guess that Hamilton’s estate, The Grange (his “sweet project” as he liked to call it), humbly stands a few blocks away from the campus of the City College of New York in Harlem.3 Other than a Hamilton Terrace street sign, there are no indications of the site’s presence as you stroll along West 141st Street. And yet, there it is: a charming yellow house, cozily surrounded by trees and what used to be bare land. Inside, the charm continues as visitors are encouraged to visit the house’s first floor, which consists of four rooms, most of which are incredibly luminous and welcoming. It is intriguing to visualize the house being moved—twice!—in the last 200 years in response to a growing city. Even as Hamilton’s old neighborhood becomes unrecognizable to his era, this piece of history remains.

It is difficult to dispute Hamilton‘s Schuyler sisters when they chant that New York is “the greatest city in the world.”4 One can only imagine how it must have felt for a young Alexander Hamilton, fresh off a ship from Nevis and arriving in a place of such excitement and opportunities. Perhaps some things don’t change over time. We arrived and left New York City with a “head full of fantasies” (and Hamilton songs on repeat).5

All photos courtesy of the authors.

 

Notes

1. Erica Milvy, “Hamilton’s teenage superfans: ‘This is, like, crazy cool’,” The Guardian, June 22, 2016, accessed June 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/22/hamilton-teenage-superfans-this-is-like-crazy-cool.

2. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” accessed June 14, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp; Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)—Act II Booklet, 14-15, accessed June 14, 2017, https://warnermusicgroup.app.box.com/s/98o13fgs1vrb2wxqe1zel2ugw7ppryv9/1/4712017338/38329308850/1.

3 Leslie Odom, Jr., and Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Dear Theodosia,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

3. “From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, [19] November 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-22-02-0154. Also available in print: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 22, July 1798 – March 1799.

4. Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, “Schuyler Sisters,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

5. Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., “Right Hand Man,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

A Tale of Two: The General and The Little Lion

by Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
November 11, 2016

Washington Papers staff members Lynn Price (lower left) and Elisa Shields (lower right) met Christopher Jackson (top), who plays George Washington in the Broadway musical Hamilton, during a National Endowment for the Humanities event.

Washington Papers staff members Lynn Price (lower left) and Elisa Shields (lower right) met Christopher Jackson (top), who plays George Washington in the Broadway musical Hamilton, during a National Endowment for the Humanities event.

Many of us have listened to—and some of us have memorized—songs from the Broadway musical hit, Hamilton. Whether a friend introduced you to it, you read about it in the news, or you were one of the lucky ones to see it performed live, chances are you are well aware of this musical sensation. Without a doubt, Hamilton has brought Alexander Hamilton (and the fascinating women in his circle) into popular culture, ultimately reshaping his legacy. That is not something a Broadway play has accomplished before—or certainly not on this scale.

The first time I heard a song from Hamilton was in the car with a dear friend of mine. She had discovered it months before and had been raving about it since. Naturally, I obliged and listened to the opening title, “Alexander Hamilton.” Within the first few minutes, I was a fan. It was pure lyrical genius. While I’ve never been keen on rap, the words flowed so perfectly that I couldn’t help but ask for more. Hamilton is a perfect blend of history, humor, drama, and music. It translates history into art. The mastermind behind the phenomenon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, worked on it for over six years after serendipitously reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography while on a holiday trip. Talk about the odds being in favor of history enthusiasts!

Continue reading

George Washington as a “Votary to Love”1

By Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
July 8, 2016

Through history, people can share common experiences that connect them beyond the context of their time. First love is one of those experiences. Regardless of whether the memory of our first love remains obstructed by the pain of heartbreak, has left a bitter taste in our mouth, or is forevermore hidden in our secret garden, it has tainted us each in some way. George Washington, too, experienced that unique kind of love with Sarah Cary Fairfax (“Sally”) shortly before his lifelong communion with Martha Dandridge Custis began in 1759.

Continue reading