The dark side of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton played a major part in making the United States that we know today and, largely thanks to Lin Manuel-Miranda's eponymous musical, the founding father is remembered as a scrappy revolutionary immigrant, a hero of the American dream. But is the musical a realistic portrayal of Alexander Hamilton? Tom Cutterham argues that the real Alexander Hamilton was an elitist anti-democrat, who used violence to crush dissent...

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806. (Photo by IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo)

Two middle-aged men in decline, embittered by political defeat, driven by passionate rivalry and trapped by an ideology of personal honour, stand to face each other with their pistols drawn. It is the summer of 1804, on the west bank of the Hudson river across from New York City. By the next day, one of these men will be dead. More than 200 years later, he will also be the hero of a wildly popular musical, an icon with a dedicated fan-base. One duellist was an advocate of women’s rights, voted for slavery’s immediate abolition, and helped create the Democratic party. The other was Alexander Hamilton – and this is his story.

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Hamilton, it must be admitted, is having a bit of a moment. As the star of the eponymous West End musical, which transferred from an award-winning Broadway run last winter, he has been transformed into a pop-culture sensation, and (if my students at the University of Birmingham are any guide) an inspiration for new interest in late 18th-century America. That makes it all the more important, then, to shine a spotlight on the side of Hamilton the musical tends to avoid.

The eve of revolution

An intensely motivated man, Hamilton rose from difficult beginnings – raised by his unmarried mother on the Caribbean island of Nevis, until she died when he was 13 – to become secretary of the treasury in George Washington’s first cabinet, one of the founding fathers of the new United States. A migrant within the British empire who came to New York on the eve of revolution, he became an advocate for forging a new, British-style state in North America: one that would hold its own among the European powers. In leading the new republic down the path of empire, Hamilton played a major part in making the United States that we know today.

Hamilton’s life as both a revolutionary and a leader of the newly independent nation was defined by three relationships. The first and most important was his relationship with the army. When armed conflict finally broke out in the colonies in 1775, Hamilton joined a militia unit and began military training. By the time the British invaded New York City the following year, he was the captain of an artillery unit commissioned by the provincial congress. In 1777, he joined General Washington’s staff and served there until – after numerous denied requests – he was given the chance to lead men into battle at the siege of Yorktown in October 1781.

That victory was the last major action of the war, but it was far from the end of Hamilton’s engagement with military matters. As it did for many young men of the revolution, service in the Continental Army propelled Hamilton far higher, in terms of respectability, status and power, than he could have dreamed before the war began. When the fighting ended, such men suffered a renewed anxiety about their place in society. For Hamilton, now serving as a congressman in Philadelphia, the army was a top priority. In 1783, it very nearly led him into supporting a military coup.

One of the darkest moments of Hamilton’s early political career is known to historians as the Newburgh Conspiracy. Officers feared the army would be disbanded before they were paid, and once that was done they would lose all influence on politics. The solution, some believed, was to take matters into their own hands. Hamilton urged General Washington to “guide the torrent, and bring order, perhaps even good, out of confusion”. What he did not say was stop the torrent. But just the threat of military takeover was enough to give Hamilton and his allies in Congress the leverage to approve lump sum payments for the officers. That same year, those officers set up a brotherhood, the Society of the Cincinnati, in a bid to maintain the status and power they had gained in the army.

The genteel patriot

Hamilton and his fellow officers in the Society of the Cincinnati preserved the bonds of friendship they had built during the war. But Hamilton had developed another set of relationships that did much to shape his beliefs and actions. Although his childhood was hard, Hamilton fell early into the upper echelons of New York society. It was only with the help of wealthy friends like the prominent politicians William Livingston and John Jay that he could attend King’s College, become an artillery captain, and ultimately find his place on Washington’s staff. When he married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of a powerful New York landowner, Hamilton cemented his position in America’s republican elite.

It didn’t take long for Hamilton to learn to think like a gentleman – one who believed himself superior to ordinary people. Even in November 1775, at the very beginning of the revolution, he was writing to Jay about “the unthinking populace,” who needed careful management by their betters. “When the minds of these are loosened from their attachment to ancient establishments and courses, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into anarchy,” Hamilton opined.

Over the course of the revolution, and especially with the war over, this anti-democratic prejudice only grew stronger. Like many other genteel patriots, Hamilton believed that most Americans were unruly and dangerous, and prone to “licentiousness” if given too much power. In New York, he argued for restrictions on the democratic legislature, and at the constitutional convention in 1787 he shocked even some fellow gentlemen with his plans for a powerful executive and senate serving for life. “Nothing but a permanent body,” one delegate recorded him saying, “can check the imprudence of democracy.”

If the army and the new nation’s genteel elite were two sides of the triangle that framed Hamilton’s world view, the third was his deep interest in financial matters. He had learned the techniques of accountancy as a boy in the Caribbean, and continued an intensive programme of self-education throughout the revolution. When Washington made him treasury secretary in 1789, Hamilton could claim to be one of the nation’s leading economic minds. He had already helped set up two banks. His third, the Bank of the United States, would be his master stroke. By consolidating the national debt, Hamilton helped place the future of the country in the hands of wealthy creditors – men, like his father-in-law, who could be trusted to look after its true interests.

Along with the French Revolution, which he thought a travesty, Hamilton’s financial programme drew the battle-lines of American politics in the 1790s. Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state, came to believe his colleague was a threat to the republic itself, a would-be Julius Caesar whose policies would lead the country towards tyranny.

Jefferson was far from Hamilton’s only opponent. It was the men and women of rural communities in the Appalachian west who posed the greatest threat to his new fiscal regime, when they rejected his regressive tax on whiskey and began to organise local resistance movements. In 1794, after three years of conflict and failed collections, the government sent an army to crush the “insurgents” in the west. Hamilton rode with them, to make sure the flame of revolution was properly extinguished.

A federal army marching on its own citizens, to enforce a new tax which would go to pay the interest on debts owed to an elite class of investors – that moment summed up Hamilton’s America, as viewed through the eyes of most ordinary people. It was in response to policies like these that they began to form ‘Democratic Societies’, dissident networks which became the grass roots of Jefferson’s opposition movement. Hamilton envisaged a thriving commercial and industrial nation, but one where power was centralised in the hands of men like himself.

By the late 1790s, with Washington in retirement and John Adams in the White House, Hamilton was out of political office too. But he still wielded substantial influence, including among Adams’ own cabinet. As the United States veered close to war with France (after refusing to repay debts to the French), Hamilton worked behind the scenes to engineer a rapid expansion of the federal army. Promoted to the rank of major general, Hamilton pushed his allies in the cabinet to raise new taxes for military spending – which resulted in a renewed outbreak of insurrection in the west. Hamilton’s thirst for military power helped to sow divisions in the Adams government that ultimately led to both men’s political eclipse.

Subtle intriguer

Even before these events, Abigail Adams had warned her husband that Hamilton was a dangerous man, “as ambitious as Julius Caesar, [and] a subtle intriguer”. Nor was it just his political scheming that upset people. In 1791, he had an affair with a younger woman while Elizabeth was away with the children. Then the woman’s husband started chasing him for money. The affair became a spectacular national scandal six years later, when Hamilton was forced to make it public in order to clear himself of a corruption charge. It left an indelible stain on his reputation. So when he became de facto head of the army a year later, Abigail told John: “He has so damned himself to everlasting infamy, that he ought not to be head of anything.”

In the election of 1800, Hamilton and Adams’ Federalist Party was turfed out of office. Even in New York, where Hamilton and his family had always had their power base, the rising tide of egalitarian opposition was overwhelming. Ordinary farmers and workers were sick of wealthy gentlemen controlling the republic in their own interests. Yet to Hamilton’s disgust, they voted a member of that elite, Thomas Jefferson, into the White House. Even more galling was the success of his great political rival Aaron Burr, who became Jefferson’s vice president. Burr had already bested Hamilton in legislative wrangling over his Manhattan Company Bank. At the election, Burr helped bring about the Federalists’ disintegration in New York. Hamilton found himself, finally, in the political wilderness.

Four years later, Burr and Hamilton met at the well-known duelling-ground in Weehawken, New Jersey – the same spot where Hamilton’s son Philip had been killed in 1801, trying to defend his father’s honour. Burr had recently lost an election for governor of New York, and was soon to lose his office as vice president. Both men were nearing 50, full of the bitterness of thwarted ambition. Burr challenged Hamilton over insults relayed second-hand in an Albany newspaper (Hamilton had reportedly claimed that Burr “could not be trusted with the reins of govern- ment”.) Neither man would back down. Both were trapped by a notion of honour that was already becoming old-fashioned as a new, more democratic public culture spread across America. Of the two bullets fred that day, it was Burr’s that hit home.

The dramatic tragedy of Hamilton’s death shaped, inevitably, how he came to be remembered. Extravagantly mourned by New York’s social elite, he left behind the romantic image of a man who died for his beliefs – or at least, for his passionate self-belief. While Burr went on to entangle himself in a treasonous adventure (raising a private army on the Mississippi, possibly with the intention of invading Spanish territory), Hamilton rested in Trinity churchyard, accounted a man of honour, in spite of his indiscretions.

Hamilton, the musical, turns Hamilton, the man, into a hero of the American dream: a scrappy upstart immigrant who succeeded out of sheer determination. He is not without the tragic flaw, the hubris, that makes a compelling character. Yet Hamilton diverts attention from the real man’s undemocratic instincts, not to mention the long-term and global impact of the policies he championed.

Looking back from the perspective of our modern age – where states depend upon the power of their fnancial establishments, and capital in turn demands freedom from democratic constraint – Hamilton’s actions and ideas appear not only pragmatic, but prescient. He looks like a realist, his opponents like utopians. But that approach would miss Hamilton’s role in making the world the way it is. We can only imagine how history might have unfolded if he hadn’t got his way during the formative years of the United States. As things stand, for good or ill, we still live in a Hamiltonian world.


Dancing like it’s 1799: the secrets of Hamilton’s success on the stage

So what exactly is Hamilton: An American Musical?

Hamilton is set in the United States’ founding era, between 1776 and 1804, and follows the life of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. Starting out as a song performed at Barack Obama’s White House in 2009, the musical first took to the stage in early 2015, moved to Broadway that August, and opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London last year.

Who came up with the idea?

A New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent called Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was previously famous for his Tony-winning show In the Heights. He won a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ for his work in 2015, and a Pulitzer Prize for Hamilton in 2016.

Hasn’t the American Revolution been on stage before?

Yes. The musical 1776, which focuses on John Adams and the political struggle around the Declaration of Independence, premiered on Broadway in 1969 and was revived in 1997. It won five Tony awards (for excellence in Broadway theatre), including best musical, and was made into a film in 1972. Not everyone loved it though. Vincent Canby of The New York Times said: “The lyrics sound as if they’d been written by someone high on root beer.”

What’s so special about Hamilton, the musical?

The key to Miranda’s creation is his decision to cast performers of African and mixed-race heritage in the roles of white historical figures, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as Hamilton himself. Flipping the racial script on 18th-century history, Hamilton also incorporates the hip-hop elements that Lin-Manuel Miranda used for In the Heights.

Do hip-hop and history mix?

By recasting the American Revolution in a thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan aesthetic, Hamilton launches the story out of the history books and turns it into something fresher and more exciting for contemporary audiences. Along with the details of founding-era history, Miranda’s lyrics also give their fair share of nods to the history and culture of hip-hop itself. Combining these two moments is precisely what’s so thrilling and thought-provoking about Hamilton.

Is Hamilton historically accurate?

Miranda’s lyrics are full of direct quotations from the documentary evidence, and while there’s plenty about Hamilton’s life not included in the musical, the public events it does portray stick closely to what we know. However, historians like Lyra Monteiro and Nancy Isenberg have criticised the way the musical portrays the founding of the United States. Set at a moment full of deep political resonances, Hamilton could hardly avoid being controversial.

Tom Cutterham is a lecturer in US history at the University of Birmingham.

Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow profiled the American founding father on our weekly podcast. To listen, click here.

The BBC World Service programme Witness investigates Alexander Hamilton’s life and legacy. To listen, click here.

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This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine