I recently, finally listened to the entire soundtrack to Hamilton, the play based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. The story is a study of the lives of two people, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. As you may know from your history lessons, Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. However, the story of how they got there begins in New York in the 1770s, according to the play.
When Hamilton first approaches Burr, Hamilton just talks and talks and talks, wanting the American Revolution to get on so Hamilton could prove his worth. You see, Hamilton was born into a very dire situation in the British West Indies (present day St. Kitts and Nevis). When his mentors saw potential in him, they scraped up money to send him to New York, which was a British colony at the time. Nevertheless, Hamilton considered himself an immigrant.
On their first meeting in the musical, Hamilton talks a big game. He wants to serve in the coming war and help America become independent. To this, Burr advices Hamilton to “Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” He warns Hamilton that only fools talk so much, and that they often wind up dead. Talk about foreshadowing.
In New York, Hamilton also meets the Marquis De Lafayette, John Laurens and Hercules Mulligan. Together with Burr, these four would go on to be instrumental in winning the Revolutionary War. After the war, Hamilton and Burr go on their parallel paths in law and politics. Hamilton, as you might know, becomes the first Secretary of the Treasury. Burr, after a career in law, becomes a US Senator. The two would have a contentious relationship.
In the end, Burr loses the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson, partly because Hamilton endorses Jefferson. As a result, Burr talks badly about Hamilton, and Hamilton replies in kind. It all came to a head in July of 1804. Although Burr was the Vice President of the United States, he still participated in the duel in which he shot Hamilton dead. (The runner-up in presidential elections became VP back then, and can you imagine Hillary Clinton as VP to Trump?!)
The musical leads you to believe that the duel was precisely because Hamilton didn’t just smile and stay quiet. He spoke truth to power wherever he could, and he paid the consequences. Hamilton is also portrayed as a bit of a hothead, something his son unfortunately inherited. You see, his son died in a duel not too long before Hamilton did (in 1801). George Eacker, a lawyer, had criticized Alexander Hamilton. In response, Philip Hamilton challenged Eacker to a duel, and losing. (Eacker would die in 1804 from Tuberculosis.)
At the end of the play, Eliza tells the story of how she tried to continue Alexander’s work. She lived to be 97 years old, a feat in those times. In that time, she put together Alexander’s biography, organized the multitude of papers he wrote, and advocated for the abolition of slavery. But it was in her re-telling of his habit of writing that we get yet another warning that words can put their author in peril.
As you can imagine, this all kind of hit close to home for me. I write a lot. (And I do mean a lot.) The blog is but a small sample of what I have floating out there in the big bad world. From time to time, these words have gotten me into trouble. From the time that antivaxxers came after my work (twice) at the health department, to angering my bosses because I couldn’t keep quiet over some situation… Or talking back to people who should have known better but didn’t.
On the other hand, I don’t think I’m enough of a hothead to go getting myself into duels. As far as violence goes, I couldn’t hurt a fly. So maybe I’m safe in that regard? Yet there is no telling what some people are willing to do to force their views and opinions on the rest of us in this well-armed society we live in. But, like Hamilton did, as long as I know what I’m doing is for the good of the world, everything else is just background noise… Right?
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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