Hamilton: An American Musical About Self-Study, Obsessive Reading, Taxation Policy, and Hustling for What You Want In Life
I am a huge fan of the work of biographer Ron Chernow (many of you know him for writing Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., which is the best biography on the oil giant that has ever been published). Back in 2004, he wrote a biography of Alexander Hamilton. If you don’t have a copy, you should buy one and read it. My edition is marked-up, highlighted, cross-referenced, and scribbled upon. Through 800 or so pages, he lays out the story of one of America’s founding fathers.
That biography has been turned into a musical and it is fantastic.
Okay, hold on. Let me back up for a moment and start at the beginning.
For reasons that are obvious if you know anything about my past, those history or political scholars among you should not be surprised to learn that one of the most influential models in my life was that of Alexander Hamilton. He was an important hero for me in my upstart days when we had nothing; a source of inspiration and faith, knowing that this kid managed to rise from an orphan on an island with no money or connections to one of the most powerful men in the history of Western Civilization, almost entirely self-taught by reading every book he could find. He’d spend hours and hours, day after day, absorbing knowledge to make up for the lack of privilege and wealth, achieving what others inherited not by luck but through his own merit. He reflected, then organized his thought in writing over a cup of coffee (which I’m doing at this moment). He planned, plotted, maneuvered, and acquired. He lived, driven by something inside of him to escape the conditions in which he found himself.
Although long having passed from this life, the fact that he was real, and proof positive that one could adroitly rise through intelligent, targeted action while remaining true to his own intellect and ethics, was a Godsend for me. It kept stoked a competitiveness in those early years when we were achieving financial independence; “if he could do it, I can do it” always burning, quiet and hot, in the deepest recesses of my heart; “what excuse do I have? He was an orphan. Get back to work.”
It also reminded me to be charitable as you never know the outsize effect your kindness can have on the world. Hamilton escaped the island on which he was born due to a fund raised by the community, seeing his brilliance and wanting to send him off to get an education. The textbooks may not have recorded the names of those folks who sacrificed to make it possible, but they were no less important.
Alexander also served as a warning. This was a man who, by most accounts, should have been the President of the United States but alienated too many people because he didn’t know how to stop himself from overreaching, driven by his desire to overcome. Ron Chernow put it beautifully in his excellent biography, “Again and again in his career, Hamilton committed the same political error: he never knew when to stop, and the resulting excesses led him into irremediable indiscretions”. Sometimes, it’s okay to show grace. It’s better to turn a former enemy into a friend and ally. Not everyone has to be crushed into the ground. He could not restrain himself. It got him shot.
He also demonstrated that a single weak moment can undo a lifetime of reputation building if you aren’t careful. He allowed himself to be seduced by a woman who, with her husband’s cooperation, feigned her love for him for the sole purpose of entrapping him, securing proof of his adultery, and extracting blackmail. That was what caused his alienation from polite society for awhile. It wasn’t the rumors that he was really black and passing due to light skin (something that very well could have been true and would have been a political death sentence at a time when blacks were strung up, beat, and enslaved). It wasn’t his no-holds-barred war against fellow founder Thomas Jefferson, who disdained the self-made man. Rather, it came in a sweet, smiling, attractive disguise; a Trojan horse he openly allowed in his home and office and to which he surrendered without a fight, trading his good name for a bit of perfume and momentary enjoyment. Sometimes, the worst dangers are things that look innocent, wrapped in ribbon. (It’s interesting to note that Franklin, meanwhile, simply wrote a book on how to select a mistress and famously carried on with them. Nobody cared because 1.) he was beloved, and 2.) he owned it. People hate hypocrisy, not necessarily indiscretion. They want authenticity; to know you are who you say you are and you live as they expect you to live.)
Hamilton was one of my codes; an idea bigger than the man himself that unlocked an entire series of emotions and motivations.
Anyway, back to the point. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony Award winning writer and performer, took Chernow’s biography and turned it into a musical, writing the music and lyrics as well as staring in the title role. It debuted off Broadway but the quality was so good, it sold out as word spread about the show. A few months ago, it leveled-up to Broadway itself.
It makes me so incredibly happy we live in a world where a story about self-education, drive, and, yes, even tax policy can do well. I believe there exists a market for smart, intelligent content and seeing it in the wild puts a huge smile on my face. I want to fly to New York with Aaron sometime and see this if we can get away from the office with everything going on at the moment. We’re supposed to go visit a friend later this year so maybe we can swing by a performance.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean, by Providence impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther
By workin’ a lot harder
By bein’ a lot smarter
By bein’ a self-starter
By fourteen they had placed him in charge of the trade and charter
And every day while slaves were being slaughtered
And carted away across the waves
He struggled and kept his guard up
Inside he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg steal borrow or barter
Then a hurricane came and
Devastation reigned and
Our man saw his future drip drippin’ down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple
Connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain
A testament to his pain
When the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man!”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
Getcha education, don’t forget from whence you came
And the world is gonna know your name!
What’s your name, man?
When he was 10, his father split
Full of it, debt-ridden
Two years later, see Alex and his mother, bed-ridden
Half-dead, sittin’ in their own sick
The scent thick
And Alex got better but his mother went quick
Moved in with a cousin. The cousin committed suicide
Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride
Somethin’ new inside, a voice
Saying Alex, you gotta fend for yourself
He started retreatin’
Every treatise on the shelf
There would’ve been nothin’ left to do
For someone less astute
He would’ve been dead and destitute
Without a cent of restitution
Clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and other things he can’t afford
Scannin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future, see him now
As he stands on the bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man
Jonathan Groff does a great job as King George III in his psychotic breakup song with the colonies.
Hamilton: An American Musical couldn’t come at a better time. In the year 2020, the United States Treasury (which he founded!) announced they are removing him from the $10 bill. It’s possible an entire generation of people won’t ever see his face or hear his name unless they happen to pay attention in high school civics class. And maybe not even then, given all the recent news about social studies being cut in favor of science and math … which, of course, begs the question: What good is an intelligent society if they don’t know their rights, don’t understand the government is accountable to them, and don’t fundamentally understand that a lot of important battles were won, at the cost of great bloodshed, by our ancestors so we can enjoy the things we currently enjoy? That they can be taken away if we aren’t careful?
There’s also a wonderful lesson here; one that I reiterate infrequently but that is still important: Talent without effort won’t get you anywhere. Nobody will give you something because you want it. Nobody will hand you the keys to the kingdom because you’re better than the next guy. You have to put in the work. It may not guarantee success but success can’t come without it. How many endless hours do you think Lin-Manuel Miranda sat composing, perfecting, and performing this thing, transforming Chernow’s biography into a work of art? I know too many people who wait around for someone to show up and give them a break rather than doing it themselves.
Consistency is important, too. Knowing when to stick with something, and when to give up, is a skill. It can take years and years for payoffs, be they in investments or the arts, to come to fruition. Consider that it’s been six years since the composer / performer performed an early version of the piece at the White House. There was a lot of time between that moment and now.
Update: Lin-Manuel Mirando just won one of the 24 genius grants given by the MacArthur Foundation for his musical. As a recipient, he’ll receive a $625,000 payout over five years. While a hefty dividend for his work, it could be nothing compared to the real gem. Presuming he retains most of the intellectual property in the Dolly Parton model, I think he has a shot at becoming extraordinarily, excessively rich over the next 40-50 years thanks to this copyright. He has so much compounding left should he prove to be actuarially normal, and this wonderful economic engine made up of a core asset to fund it, there is almost no excuse for him to end up with a net worth of less than $100 million by the end of his lifetime.