Lessons from Hamilton: the Man, the Musical, and the Founding Fathers

Some weeks ago, I had the opportunity to enjoy “Hamilton: An American Musical” in New York City. I read the musical’s inspiration, Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton,” when it was released in 2004, and was fascinated by the story of this “forgotten” Founding Father. The genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes, he is also from Puerto Rico, which makes me very proud) rekindled that fascination. But this time, the storytelling was all in poetic rap music.

The musical’s basic message, and the core of Hamilton’s story, is how a poor orphan immigrant from the West Indies becomes the alter ego of George Washington and one of the most powerful individuals during and after the American Revolution. His genius, ambition, and energy are still influencing our lives today. He created the central bank and the concept of issuing national debt. He presided over the formation of the first professional American Army and wrote most of the Federalist Papers, which are still the arbiters of interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Hamilton was also deeply flawed. He was driven by ambition, a need for recognition, and had an exaggerated sense of self-worth and honor. He was intolerant of opposing ideas and opinions, and impetuous. Eventually, these flaws prematurely ended his life.

Any student of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers soon realizes that Hamilton was not the only flawed character in the group. Jefferson was a self-centered, devious slave owner who struggled with giving freedom to those he loved. At times, Franklin seemed more interested in partying than diplomacy, though he probably would have argued that the two activities were one and the same! Adams had a sharp tongue and a somewhat firebrand spirit. Even the iconic Washington was very much a reluctant leader.

Nevertheless, that band of imperfect men managed to come together and rise to the occasion to create a system of government that has endured two centuries of progress and has overcome extraordinary challenges. Despite the acrimonious debate that occurred, our founders shared the ultimate objective of weaving together 13 colonies into a unified country, a goal that took precedence over their differences and led them to overcome flaws that could be fatal to most of us.

Let me end with a few suggestions:

  1. Read about Hamilton!
  2. Go and see the musical or at least listen to the music, but you have to follow suggestion No. 1 first! Enjoy what is truly a work about a genius by a genius.
  3. Read about our Founding Fathers. They truly were an unexpected and, at times, an unpredictable set of individuals that together achieved greatness.

Mostly, we should all remember that none of us knows when we might be called to rise up and work for the greater good by engaging in debate and compromise. To any that might hear that call, I hope you remember what you have read and learned.

-Rafael L. Bras

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