A (Perennial) Conflict of Visions

posted in: Political Economy | 0

Thomas Sowell published A Conflict of Visions thirty-five years ago, the first volume in a trilogy on the nature of political  struggle. It was received with a yawn, by the establishment, at least. Sowell seemed to speak for no one but himself (and the Hoover Institution that employed him), so he could be safely ignored. In 1987, the forward progress of the Civil Rights movement had been halted. Reagan’s two elections signified an end to New Deal/Great Society government, but Newt Gingrich Republicans had yet to take control of Congress. The liberal order, decades in ascendance, was wounded but not yet felled. Certainly not in the academy, where Sowell had tried to make his mark before seeking refuge within the friendlier halls of Hoover.

I read Sowell’s book, in part, as an apologia for his apostasy. Here was a black man in America unwilling to travel the path of Civil Rights orthodoxy–and he paid for it with a kind of excommunication. He had a different vision of the way the world worked, and what freedom and equality looked like. It was a vision, he showed in his book, that was part of a long and respected tradition, just as the more liberal vision of his detractors was. The strength of the book resides in its unwillingness to assert the truth of one vision over the other. For that reason, if for no other, A Conflict of Visions, is a book for our time of “political polarization.” The most strident voices today speak as if the current situation is “unprecedented” and the threat of opposition victory is “existential”–as if the present crisis weren’t always the most important to be faced, at least by those living through it.


Still, as I settled into the book, I was concerned the book might be foisting up a false dichotomy, an oversimplification of the world into two opposing views into which all disagreements fall. Sowell calls them the constrained and the unconstrained visions and anticipates this concern by addressing it directly early in the book. “Virtually no one believes that man is 100 percent unconstrained and virtually no one believes that man is 100 percent constrained.” [39] He revisits the concern during the body of the work and again in the concluding chapter: “In much the same way, believers in an unconstrained vision do not deny that man has any limitations. They simply do not treat these limitations as decisive in theories of social phenomena….” [214] Sowell seems primarily an idealist–he is dealing in ideas, after all–but his inclinations are balanced by a consistent realism. He uses a dichotomy of two visions to understand the world, yet is mindful to avoid either/or thinking.

But what does Sowell mean by constrained and unconstrained visions? First, visions. A vision is neither a theory nor an ideology, he says. It precedes both, precedes conscious argument. He says it is first and foremost a “sense of causation” and “more like a hunch or a ‘gut feeling’ than it is like an exercise in logic or factual verification.” [16] The constrained vision finds causation in human nature, incentives, and social processes. The unconstrained vision locates it in reason, knowledge, and human perfectability. It is essentially a dichotomy of conservative vs. liberal: a “nasty, brutish, and short” view of the world vs. a “noble savage” view. But Sowell takes pains throughout the text to show that such oversimplification is misplaced. The world is not so neat. A vision is a model, after all, which, by definition, “must leave many important phenomena unexplained….” [15]

Nevertheless, knowing Sowell shares a constrained vision with the likes of Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, and Friedrich Hayek, I couldn’t help asking myself throughout, Is he stacking the deck? Is he putting the unconstrained vision of the likes of William Godwin, G. B. Shaw, and Ronald Dworkin in the least attractive light? Some of the citations from the unconstrained’s–Godwin, in particular–seemed starry-eyed and woefully misguided to a steel-eyed realist like myself. Was that intentional? Actually, the razor cut both ways. Sowell quotes Smith saying, “The peace and order of society is of more importance than even the relief of the miserable.” [35] Besides sounding cold-hearted, it is no more self-evident or provable than the unconstrained quotation that accompanies it: “[Revolutionary chaos and violence] is the price we pay for freedom.”


And yet, the book confirmed my self-conception as conservative, small c-, while giving me a new way of understanding my thinking. Instead of the word that comes with baggage and requires qualification of the lower case, Sowell’s c- term is tied to a long tradition and has more explanatory power. I have developed a constrained vision (though he says a vision is pre-rational, so has my predisposition always been there?) because of my understanding of human nature as fixed (evolving, perhaps, put at the glacial pace of evolution). For years, in political discussions (often in my own head) I have asked my interlocutor, But where are the incentives? Though I don’t use Smith’s term in my discourse, I fundamentally believe that humans act in their self-interest. I believe their actions have as many, if not more, unintended as intended consequences. The intention to do good does not equate with doing unalloyed good. According to the Sowell’s index, unintended consequences appears on seven pages. Incentives is found on seventeen. Human nature appears or is discussed on thirty-two. I surely hold a constrained vision of the world.


Yet there were times, while reading the book, when I felt myself not fully within the camp. Though I feel affinity for the constrained vision’s epistemic humility–another phrase I have thought or uttered consistently in recent years, though it is not used by Sowell–I found I resisted the conclusions that their assumption implied. I can follow Hayek when he objects to what we might today call social justice warriors: “The particulars of a spontaneous order cannot be just or unjust [when] the results are not intended or foreseen in their totality by anybody.” [196] Radicals today, as ever, argue as if there were a conspiracy of “them” for a very specific result. This makes no more sense to me than it did to Hayek, yet from that premise I cannot conclude that we can or should not try for certain democratically agreed on results, using democratically agreed upon policies. Government exists for just such purposes. (I am brought to mind of Alexander Hamilton, a paragon of constrained thinking in Sowell’s book who was also the Founding Father’s greatest advocate for a strong executive government.) “A mastery of social details” is not, as Hayek would have it, “inherently ‘beyond our ken.'” At least, we cannot give up trying, with appropriate humility and a pragmatist’s reliance on trial and error.

My mind was brought to Maynard Keynes, too, who wrote, somewhat cheekily, to Friedrich Hayek after the publication and popular reception of the Austrian economist’s The Road to Serfdom.

You agree that the line has to be drawn somewhere, and that the logical extreme is not possible.  But you give us no guidance whatever as to where to draw it. …you are, on your own argument, done for, since you are trying to persuade us that so soon one moves an inch in the planned direction you are necessarily launched on the slippery slope….”

We must be mindful of the limits of our knowledge and the boundlessness of unintended consequences, but we must not use that outlook–that vision–as a dogmatism to tie our hands. We should be tackling issues of childcare and preschool, healthcare and climate change, just not all at once in spitball, see-what-sticks fashion. Build Back Better is a travesty to those of the constrained vision.


In its epistemological skepticism, the constrained vision also puts little faith in the ability of individual knowledge to save humanity, as it were. Wisdom and truth come from “the experience of the many, rather than the articulation of the few.” [152] “Solutions” to old problems create new ones. (See: Steve Jobs and the iPhone.)  They imply trade-offs.  I have said as much many times in recent years. Yet the deep systemic knowledge as described by Sowell, sometimes called tradition, has never been completely reliable. There is a reason new generations react against it, creating a new syntheses, a new “traditions.” I guess that is Sowell’s point about society-wide knowledge. Science, too, is a social process. Albert Einstein is not as important as the enterprise he was a part of. And yet, who’s to deny that Einstein (and other great scientific minds) aren’t crucial in advancing our society, for good and bad. Godwin may be naïve in his faith in the power of reason: “Truth, and above all political truth, is not hard of acquisition,” requiring merely “independent and impartial discussion.” Yet Edmund Burke  protests too insistently when he contends, “We  know that we have made no discoveries, and we think  that no discoveries are to be made in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the idea of liberty….” [72, 78]

Sowell rarely uses the term, but I kept thinking of the struggle over the value of elites in today’s political climate. Today’s Trumpians would surely endorse Hobbes’s sentiments, if with updated terminology and orthography: “A plain husband-man is more Prudent in the affaires of his own house, than a Privy Counselor in the affaires of other men.” [66] The truth of the statement is undeniable on its face, though not so much when used rhetorically. The Privy Counselor (read: senator, representative, assemblyman, council member) has it as her task to attempt to know the affairs of as many of her constituents/constituent groups as she can. We want her to succeed in this task, while recognizing that it will always remain substantially outside her grasp. (And, yes, that some politicians will be influenced by venal motives to begin with.) I, too, doubt that highly educated/cultivated/civilized citizens–self-described or otherwise–are sufficient to make heaven on earth, as it were. But I do think they are necessary. The highly skilled and knowledgeable in all domains–elites–are desperately needed. They need to be respected, if not worshipped on pedestals. They need also need to respect the limits of their expertise. (The case of Hamilton is again apropos. He was, according to Sowell, “suspicious of skilled articulation, which could be ‘mere painting and exaggeration.'” Yet, it took one to know one: he was the Founding Father’s greatest and most prolific rhetorician.) [65]

In fact, Sowell grants that not all visions–or holders of visions–fall neatly into one side or the other of his dichotomy, as he has defined it. Marxism takes a highly constrained view of the world until, following the dictatorship of the proletariat, it adopts a highly unconstrained one. John Stuart Mill’s thinking was even more flexibly hybrid. Thomas Malthus’s views were so constrained he was anathema to men such as Goodwin and Condorcet. Yet, in the 1980s, when Sowell was writing, environmentalists found much to utilize in their arguments from within their unconstrained vision. American supporters of Soviet communism, abandoned its vision at once when the Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany was exposed. New Deal liberalism, a product of the unconstrained vision, was sometimes defended in later years with more constrained-vision justification: The welfare state is “here to stay.” [117] Nor are advocates of the constrained vision blindly in favor of the status quo. Smith, Burke, and Hamilton were all outspoken opponents of slavery views and supportive of colonial independence.


The elephant in the room, as it were, is the behavioral economic revolution which has occurred mostly in the years since the publication of A Conflict of Visions. Often, as I read, I would sense Sowell nosing up to the idea of confirmation bias, without naming it, since the concept/term didn’t yet exist: “Evidence for or against one’s own vision can be weighed differently, and being convinced is ultimately a subjective process.” [206] Sowell’s overall exposition is extremely logical and language dependent (as in the unconstrained vision!). His dependence on citations from economists and social thinkers relies on the “articulation of the few” (as in the unconstrained vision!). There are no psycho-social experimental studies, as from a Daniel Kahneman or a Richard Thaler. Yet A Conflict of Visions is entirely about pre-rational thinking, for it is Sowell’s very definition of visions. He may not have won a Nobel prize, but he does provide a great service by tying all of us into a larger dialogue that has been going on for at least two centuries.

And this is the crux of Sowell’s book. It exhorts us to respect the motives and sincerity of our political opponents. Liberals and conservatives can both have strong moral senses, even if they disagree about causation for how to achieve moral ends, or even what those ends should be. It reminds us, too, that we can be guilty of ignoring inconvenient facts, of constructing intellectual Rube Goldberg devices in an effort to maintain our convictions. On the other hand, Sowell makes clear that no vision can fit the facts completely. Contradictions will always arise. “Efforts to adjust and modify visions to accommodate discordant evidence are not inherently self-deception.” [214] A descent into nihilism (or critical theory!) does not follow. Nor does a lazy middle-of-the-road-ism: “It is no less arbitrary and dogmatic to declare a priori that ‘the truth lies somewhere in between.’ It may. It may not. On some highly specific issue, it might lie entirely on one side–and on another issue, with the other side.” [215]


No, Sowell is very clear that facts matter. He is also clear that facts by themselves do not take sides. The fight over their meaning will endure in perpetuity. And this is Sowell’s most important insight. We should accept that fact and accommodate ourselves to it.

It is…necessary to understand that a very fundamental conflict between two visions has persisted as a dominant ideological phenomenon for centuries, and shows no signs of disappearing. The inevitable compromises of practical day-to-day politics are more in the nature of truces than of peace treaties. Like other truces, they break down from time to time in various parts of the world amid bitter recriminations or even bloodshed. [117-118]

We must live with each other and our different visions, by all means struggle over their meaning and their implementation. With that understanding, by keeping them in creative suspension, we can minimize both the bitterness and thebloodshed.

Forgotten Radical

posted in: Race and Gender | 0
“He was buried in Hyde Park, his impact largely forgotten in the city and region that he loved enough to want to change.” [352]

Thus ends Kerry Greenidge’s 2020 biography of the–yes–much neglected William Monroe Trotter. He was born in 1872 on his grandparents’ farm outside Chillicothe, Ohio. His father, James, was born into slavery of a Charlottesville, Virginia-born mother named Letitia, and a Mississippi planter named Richard Trotter. As the master’s children, James and his mulatto siblings enjoyed privileges denied other slaves, including formal education. Using the extra freedom she had grown used to, Letitia escaped north with her three children to Ohio in 1849.

In Cincinnati, James attended the abolitionist-founded Gilmore’s School, where he studied Latin, Greek, and algebra, among other things. After teaching several years, he served in the Civil War, earning the rank of lieutenant, a title he went by for the rest of his life. James Trotter’s example showed Monroe he need not be intimidated by powerful white men. [12]  The father’s words guided the son’s activism throughout his life: “Only the colored people themselves can deliver us from the wilderness.” [33]

James’s money aided him, too. The lieutenant gained a post office job in Reconstruction and, settling in suburban Boston, put his family in the middle class. He didn’t pay for his son’s Harvard education, but he did leave him a substantial sum at his death, while Monroe was still a still a student. There was no trodden path for the Negro Ivy Leaguer follow after graduation in 1895. There were, rather, many obstacles deliberately placed in his way. Not even the banks with purportedly progressive leadership would hire him. He went into real estate with his inheritance as seed money and made a modest fortune that would carry him–mostly–through his storied, if forgotten, career as the Guardian of Boston.

Here is a timeline of his accomplishments:


1901: Founds of the Guardian, Boston’s colored weekly, the self-proclaimed “greatest race paper in the country”

  • The paper serves as tribune for the colored “genteel poor” of Boston and New England for three decades
  • Subscriptions never numbered much more than two thousand; the paper never paid for itself
  • Quality declined: an erstwhile Trotter supporter mocked it as “the worst-run colored paper in America,” yet it remained a sentimental favorite throughout its run

1902: Organizes Guardian-sponsored rally at Faneuil Hall in support of the 14th Amendment

  • Emerges as a militant voice for colored Boston in opposition to the deferential appeasement of Booker Washington and the Tuskegee Machine.

1903: Helps found National Suffrage League which begins to galvanize New Negro political activity.

  • Later merges with National Equal Rights League which Trotter leads for next three decades.
  • There were other organizations he helped form and/or lead, but it is an alphabet soup, hard to keep track of

1905: Organizes, with W.E.B. DuBois, the Niagara Movement to push the Roosevelt administration to adopt civil rights policies:

  1. Enforcement of 15th Amendment and investigation of southern state constitutions
  2. Support for desegregated interstate travel
  3. Federal support for southern black education

(Trotter’s concern for petty rivalries “immature vindictiveness” [128] torpedoed any progress that the convention might have made.)

1907: Organizes “Remember Brownsville” campaign for colored Boston

  • Members of the all-black Twenty-fifth Infantry defended themselves against white mob violence in south Texas and were dishonorably discharged for doing so

1910: Eschews involvement in the newly-formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

  • The NAACP is heavy on white leadership and does not advocate the “centrality of black people to civil rights activism” [Greenidge, 180]

1912: Helps Woodrow Wilson win presidency with black votes

  • Believes blacks will gain political power by voting “race first” rather than give blind support to Republicans
  • Meets with Wilson, gains a pledge of support for Negro civil rights, convinces significant numbers of black electorate to vote for the Democrat

1913: Leads vocal protest when Wilson immediately reneges on pledge; allows segregation of federal jobs and dismissal of large numbers of civil service employees

  • Earns notoriety among whites and distinction among blacks for standing up to the president in White House meeting
  • Wilson: “You are the only American citizen that has ever come into this office who has talked to me with a tone and a background of passion that was evident.” (Read: “uppity Negro”)

1915: Leads successful protest against the release of KKK-glorifying film, The Birth of a Nation

  • Greenidge: “Trotter’s very public and extremely popular Birth of a Nation protest was less concerned with changing white minds than it was with igniting black consciousness.” [212]

1917: Agitates for rights of Black soldiers after US declaration of war

  • Supported Wilson’s War for Democracy as long as it “vouchsaf[ed] freedom and equality of rights to all citizens of the United States regardless of the incidence of race or color over which they have no control.” [241]

1919: Travels to Paris Peace Conference to voice Liberty League’s demands for post-war colonial settlement

and Black civil rights

  • The federal government denied passports to all non-conciliatory Negroes
  • Trotter dressed as a cook for the ship’s crew and sneaked off in disguise to get to Paris (perhaps Trotter’s most celebrated action in his storied career)

1919: Co-founds the African Blood Brotherhood with Cyril Briggs

  • Membership is small yet its promotion of black armed self-defense is significant
  • Played a role in preparations made by Black Tulsans of Greenwood in their self-defense

1921: Trotter makes forceful yet politic statement To President Harding in wake of Tulsa Massacre compared to NAACP’s more guarded one

  • James Weldon Johnson: “…an utterance from [the President] at this time on the violence and reign of terror at Tulsa, Oklahoma, would have an inestimable effect.”
  • Trotter: “…the citizens of Massachusetts look to you in giving aid to the afflicted, and they will stand behind you in any endeavor to punish the guilty and to make such inhuman and barbaric crimes forever impossible in this land of freedom and justice.”

For the next decade, William Monroe Trotter continued his struggle in behalf of Black Americans and their civil rights, against the growth of the Ku Klux Klan, for the passage of an anti-lynching bill in Congress, and to desegregate institutions in Boston and beyond. The intractability of the issue (the possibility of Negro equal rights seemed as elusive as ever), his aging body and mind (a younger generation of activists made him feel increasingly out of touch), the deepening of the Depression (sinking personal finances and those of the Boston colored community made the demise the Guardian, his life’s work, unavoidable): the weight of these facts led Trotter to take the ultimate act of self-destruction: he jumped from the roof of his three-story apartment building.

It was a shocking end to a man who had galvanized so many in the Black community, in Boston, New England, the United States, and beyond. William Monroe Trotter had literally given his life to the cause of Negro equality in the United States. The intransigence and apathy of his white countrymen meant he would not live to see the fruits of his life’s work.


Words from the Baltimore Afro-American, in late 1926 after the Old Mon’s meeting with President Coolidge in the White House, when Trotter was already a tired, rumpled, “eccentric old man,” capture the significance of a civil rights paladin who had outlived his time but could not live long enough to win the changes he sought:

If Trotter did no  more than let the President know that the Negro is not blind to the injustice heaped upon him, no more than remind him that black men consider themselves just as much a part of these United States as any other  race; no more than let him see that there are still men in the race with backbone enough to tell him that we are not satisfied with existing conditions, that we are no asleep–his mission was a success. [334]

A fitting tribute for a largely forgotten radical and humanist.


Greennidge, Kerri K. Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020.


Confirmation Bias

posted in: Race and Gender | 0

We attend to data that support (confirm) our existing beliefs (biases). The phenomenon is so common it has a name: confirmation bias.


I was aware of this process as I read Kerri Greenidge’s important new biography, Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter. For, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I have consistently objected to voices (at least three in print) who find the solution in “the work that needs to be done amongst white people in white communities across the United States.”


My understandings are informed by my experiences on the playground, as a teacher. I have learned to counsel students they can’t control what their friend does, let alone says or thinks. What they can do is tell the friend how they feel and move away if she continues to annoy–and call in the teacher when words or actions break school rules, ie., harassment. In the larger society, too, we all need to speak up, firmly but respectfully, when we feel mistreated. Same in the larger society. Working for fair enforcement of existing laws and the passage of fairer, more effective ones seems a more productive use of time and effort than simply expecting others to change their hearts and minds.


So I felt took note when reading the following passage from the introduction of the book:


Monroe Trotter challenged the lie at the heart of American arguments over racism that persist to this day: that anti-blackness is a feeling rather than a persistent, defining force in the country’s political, social, and economic life; and northern white progressives, innately less “racist” than their counterparts in the conservative South, are the moral arbiters of a more racially just future. As Trotter’s life of activism indicates, only black people can define what racial justice looks like, and they can only do this through constant agitation for the political, economic, and civil rights enshrined in the Constitution during Reconstruction, yet denied through violent resistance, anti-black policies, and general white apathy. [xvi, italics mine]


A careful reader will see that this passage isn’t a slam dunk for my position, as described above. For, another reader of Greenidge might rather find support for her belief in institutional racism. (Trotter was astute and, perhaps, ahead of his time in perceiving it.) A third might feel confirmed in his anti-racist conviction that white liberals are self-deluded and as much a part of the problem as more overt racists. A fourth might focus on Trotter’s example of radical action. (The paragraph is a slam dunk for the relevance of confirmation bias, itself.)


Greenidge’s title makes clear she sees Trotter as a radical. His contemporaries did, too, black as well as white. Readers of this space know that I have little affinity for radicals or faith in the fruits of revolution. Yet I do for Trotter. Inconsistency? Not necessarily. Nothing that Trotter said or did was either destructive or unwarranted. In Greenidge’s telling, he was relentless but also principled. He was a tribune for the “genteel poor” (Greenidge’s term) even as he habitually sported a suit and tie and preferred Mozart to ragtime. Trotter was a man of integrity.


Confirmation bias notwithstanding, I can hardly turn the following passage (near the end of the book and the tragic end of Trotter’s life) to my purposes, no matter how hard I might try. Pushing to desegregate Boston City Hospital, the “Old Mon” of Boston met with hospital trustee, Carl Dreyfus, a progressive by all accounts who nevertheless thought Trotter’s aims misguided. He blithely explained that “most white people got along well with individual colored people, but they did not get along with masses of colored people generally.” To which Greenidge speculates:


If there was a single moment in Trotter’s life that precipitated his emotional decline, perhaps it was this–a devastating confirmation that whiteness itself supported and maintained institutionalized racism, and perhaps, that only whiteness could eventually destroy it. [344]


Perhaps, too, Greenidge agrees with the woman who so exercised me last year when she said, “If racism is going to end, it’s because white people end it.” But, again, readers of this space will know I have no difficulty holding contradictions in creative opposition. For, of course, white people’s racial attitudes have to change (and Black people’s, too). The question is what are we going to do about it while we slowly do (and don’t). Trotter’s response was to ignite Negro political consciousness and unite Negro political action. He succeeded in the former; his failure in the latter slowly destroyed him from the inside out. But if William Monroe Trotter is inspirational–and he is–it is because he didn’t let white America either define him or dictate his actions.


That’s my view. But, then again, I’m biased.

Who Tells Your Story?

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

I finished Ron Chernow’s definitive biography of Alexander Hamilton this month. It is easy to see how Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired to write a musical about this overlooked “founding father without a father.” His life is truly operatic. I could envision the scenes as I read the seven hundred-plus pages. Of course, I had already listened to Miranda’s music dozens of times and seen the stage production on TV once, so my logic is circular: The story is operatic because I had already seen the opera! Still, I made note of every line in the book that reminded me of lyrics in the musical. It became a fun game, which I play out for you in what follows. Miranda wrote an awful lot of music for this complex drama. As I listen to it post-Chernow biography, I catch so much more both of historical detail and dramatic meaning in the lyrics. Below, I have examined “just” twenty songs for their connections with Chernow’s text.


“Alexander Hamilton”

The first number grabs the listener’s attention right away:

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 driving music grabs our emotions. But Miranda also uses this lengthy rap to fill in the backstory of Hamilton’s early life on Nevis, West Indies, that he read in Chernow:

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping 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
Well, the word got around, they said, this kid is insane, man
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came
And the world is gonna know your name
What’s your name, man?
Alexander Hamilton

Surviving one of the worst hurricanes of the era, Hamilton was inspired to write a “melodramatic” account to his deadbeat father, who probably lived further south in the Windward Islands. The letter, full of “bombastic excesses” enabled by assiduous self-education, found its way into public circulation and earned the seventeen-year-old author local notoriety. Local businessmen took up a subscription fund to send Hamilton to North America for an education. As Chernow writes, “Hamilton did not know it, but he had just written his way out of poverty.” [36-37] The story, easy to miss in the rapid flow of the song’s lyrics, is more than a mere interesting anecdote.  It underscores the role of contingency in history. No hurricane; no letter. No letter; no Constitution. Miranda underscores this importance by giving it it’s one song, “Hurricane,” which reemphasized this past in the context of the political whirlwind that surrounded him in the late 1790s.

“And me, I’m the damn fool that shot him”

This memorable line, set at the end of the musical’s opening number, finds corroboration in Chernow’s text, if indirectly. Burr’s political career was already on the rocks when he and Hamilton dueled at Weehawken. Indeed, Chernow finds a clear cause and effect between the two. Burr had become so desperate, he allowed his usual “patrician hauteur” to be overcome by what might have been, according to Chernow, a murderous outburst. [192] (And this is examined with appropriate ambiguity and subtle implication in the lyrics of the second act’s “The World Was Wide Enough.”) Whatever the truth, New Yorkers blamed Burr. Their love for Hamilton, the city’s undisputed founding father, was instantly rekindled and burned more brightly in their grief. Burr became a wanted man. As Chernow writes, “Thus, Hamilton triumphed posthumously over Burr, converting the latter’s victory at Weehawken into his political coup de grace.” [716] Chernow follows Burr to his end, three decades later, adding, “Burr never lost his sense of humor about having killed Hamilton and made facetious references to ‘my friend Hamilton, whom I shot.” [721, italics mine]


“Aaron Burr, Sir”

The rivalry with Aaron Burr is the most powerful driving force of plot and character development. (As I listen more closely to lyrics in the less catchy songs, I find so much in that Miranda weaves into this dramatic relationship.) It starts innocuously enough when the two meet in scene 2. Burr says,

While we’re talking
Let me offer you some free advice
Talk less
Smile more

Memorable line and one that has its genesis in Chernow’s text. In his extended comparison of the two rivals, Chernow says “Hamilton was outspoken to a fault, while Burr was a man of ingrained secrecy.” [192] Later: “For Hamilton, unable to govern his tongue or his pen, his habit of self-exposure eventually placed him at the mercy of the tightly controlled Jefferson.” [320] Later still, Chernow cites Hamilton’s advice to his son, a life lesson he might have wished to address to his younger self: “A prudent silence will frequently be taken for wisdom and a sentence or two cautiously thrown in will sometimes gain the palm of knowledge, while a man well informed but indiscreet and unreserved will not uncommonly talk himself out of all consideration and weight.” [692] Talk less; smile more.


“My Shot”

Whenever I listen to the soundtrack, I can’t help rapping along to the chorus of this song, as if in response to a challenge issued:

Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwin’ away my shot

I seldom meet the challenge. I can’t keep my tongue from tripping up on those five words in the second line. Memorable words, too, especially that middle modifier, which Miranda might well have lifted from Chernow’s text. The context is an extended newspaper debate between the twenty-year-old college student (alias not given by Chernow, or else I missed it) and a fusty Anglican rector (alias “A Westchester Farmer”). In his “The Farmer Refuted” response, Hamilton apparently perceived–two months before a revolutionary shot had been fired–crucial tactics in the coming conflict: “It will be better policy to harass and exhaust soldiery by frequent skirmishes and incursions than to take open field with them.” In Chernow’s words, “The twenty-year-old student, anticipated the scrappy, opportunistic military strategy that would defeat the British.” [61, italics mine]

But the refrain has a significance, I’m embarrassed to say, I did not appreciate until I reached the final chapters of Chernow’s book:

I am not throwin’ away my shot

I sensed something curious in the phrasing, which I probably attributed to some kind of hip-hop locution. But it was not that. The phrasing is a delightful kind of linguistic foreshadowing. In the tragedy at Weehawken, as described by Chernow, Hamilton will make a fateful decision to “throw away his shot–that is, purposely miss his opponent.” [690, 715]


“The Schuyler Sisters”

One of the appealing aspects of Miranda’s musical is his effort to write in the overlooked players in our history. The Schuyler sisters, one or more, feature in four numbers, plus several more with Hamilton and others. In this, their introductory ensemble number, Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy (“work, work”) thrill with these lines:

Look around, look around at how
Lucky we are to be alive right now!
History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be
In the greatest city in the world!
In the greatest city in the world!

In fact, they lived in Albany with their father, General Philip Schuyler. Hamilton made their acquaintance there in 1777 while serving as envoy from Washington to General Gates at Saratoga. But he didn’t fall for Eliza until 1780 when she was envoy from her father to Washington in Morristown, New Jersey. He fell hard: “Hamilton is a gone man,” wrote one of his fellow aides. Chernow makes no mention of the Schuyler sisters “going downtown and slummin’ it with the poor,” as much as Miranda might wish to burnish their hip-hop bona fides for today’s Broadway fans.


“Right Hand Man”

Any hope of success is fleeting
How can I keep leading when the people I’m leading keep retreating?

What Washington actually said was: “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” [80]


“A Winter’s Ball”

If your mind wanders during this number, it will be brought sharply to attention with the final words, fortissimo, of this line sung by Burr and Hamilton:

We’re reliable with the

Biographers don’t need to work hard to corroborate Burr and Hamilton’s reputations as ladies men. Culling from the then aide-de-camp’s wartime letters (he had time and opportunity for liaisons?), Chernow says, “Hamilton was girl crazy and brimming with libido.” Even in adulthood, Chernow avers, “He tended to grow flirtatious, almost giddy, with women.” [93] If Hamilton’s letters show a man enamored of women, Burr’s, with “racy asides about his sexual escapades,” implicate a womanizer.[192] Chernow refers to some of these escapades, but the Hamilton is subject of the biography, as he is the protagonist of the musical.



No stress, my love for you is never in doubt
We’ll get a little place in Harlem and we’ll figure it out

I always heard this couplet as a fun little anachronism. But the chronology inverted was much narrower than I had thought. Hamilton and Eliza did build a home “near the corner of present-day West 143rd Street and Convent Avenue.” [642] It was an isolated hilltop, at the time, though it is now in the heart of Harlem. “Our little retreat” he called it, in a letter to Eliza. With others, they called it the Grange. It was nine miles by horseback from his law offices downtown, so he spent half the week away. But, in 1802, this would have been far in the future from during this courtship scene. By then, all they had to “figure out” was how to pay off the $55,000 for the house (which, in fact, was “small for a man of his fame”). [642] The diligent Treasury secretary  finally got a little loose with his personal finances.



Confession: The menage-a-trois between Angelica, Eliza, and Alexander in the musical was always a little opaque for me. Yes, I could follow it in the music and the staging, but I never captured meaning from the words. So I looked them up. Angelica sings, among other lines,

But Alexander, I’ll never forget the first time I saw your face
I have never been the same
Intelligent eyes in a hunger-pang frame
And when you said “Hi”, I forgot my dang name
Set my heart aflame, every part aflame
This is not a game
It’s a dream and it’s a bit of a dance
A bit of a posture, it’s a bit of a stance
He’s a bit of a flirt, but I’ma give it a chance

The forbidden relationship there, but still only a suggestion. One needs to read Chernow to get the full story. Even then, much can only be inferred or speculated. Chernow has read the letters in which “Angelica expressed open fondness for Hamilton in virtually every [one] that she sent her sister or to Hamilton himself.” In 1794, for example, she wrote her sister, “By my Amiable, you know that I mean your husband, for I love him very much and, if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while.” [467] Miranda must have plucked this attention-grabbing line straight from Chernow and put it in “Helpless,” above, slightly transformed:

Laughin’ at my sister ’cause she wants to form a harem
I’m just sayin’, if you really loved me, you would share him [italics mine]

For his part, “Hamilton always wrote to [Angelica] in a buoyant, flirtatious tone.” [133] If there was more than met the eye, it can only be conjectured, though Chernow found one letter tantalizing in what it might have revealed had it survived in entirety: “This previously overlooked letter is contained in the papers of Hamilton’s son James, who tore off and crossed out other portions, making one wonder whether it contained evidence of the long-rumored affair between Hamilton and his sister-in-law.” [457]


“Wait for It”

This is my favorite number in the entire show (though there are so many runners-up, so there is no let-down after this point in the show). It captures the heart of the Burr-Hamilton dichotomy, which has nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with democracy vs. aristocracy, yeoman farmers vs. urban stockjobbers, legislative vs executive, weak government vs. strong government. It is one of style: patient and calculating versus restless and eager, secretive and manipulating versus outspoken, guileless, and unrelenting.

Hamilton’s pace is relentless
He wastes no time
Hamilton doesn’t hesitate
He exhibits no restraint
He takes and he takes and he takes
And he keeps winning anyway
He changes the game
He plays and he raises the stakes
And if there’s a reason
He seems to thrive when so few survive, then Goddamnit
I’m willing to wait for it (Wait for it)

Miranda’s words once again come from Chernow’s, who writes, “Hamilton was easy to ruffle, whereas Burr hid his feelings behind an enigmatic façade. …Hamilton was outspoken to a fault, while Burr was a man of ingrained secrecy.” [192] (The contrast is hit even more forcefully in the act’s final number, “Non-Stop.” See below.)

In Chernow’s early chapters on Hamilton–his self-education on Nevis, his formal education at King’s College, making a name for himself in the world–the young orphan was “in a constant rush, scarcely pausing for breath….” [46] During the War–drafting and selling the Constitution, establishing the Treasury and a banking system, battling his opponents in the press–Hamilton exhibited an energy and a productivity that his peers (Founding Fathers, all!) could not even approach. Late in his career, he gave this rationale to Eliza: “I cannot make everybody else as rapid as myself.” [52] Burr, while not at all slow-witted, was downright laid-back in his work ethic compared to his eventual nemesis.


“Meet Me Inside”

Washington becomes Hamilton’s benefactor at the start of the war, but the relationship experiences a transition as victory comes within grasp. Hamilton wants a commission; Washington will not give up his “Right Hand Man.” When the General catches the Aide-de-Camp taking part in an “affair of honor,” he orders Hamilton to meet him inside his tent where he dresses him down, then dismisses him from his service.

The duel itself follows the historical record, as laid out by Chernow:

Lee, do you yield?
You [Laurens] shot him in the side
Yes, he yields
I’m satisfied
Yo, we gotta clear the field

But there was no dramatic confrontation in Chernow, that is in the historical record. Washington did not dismiss Hamilton for misbehavior. Hamilton, for all intents and purposes, resigned, and “Washington reluctantly honored” it. The young aide was simply unwilling to wield a pen any longer. He yearned to take up arms. Writing to his father-in-law Philip Schuyler, he was probably less than honest about the martial motivation for his decision. He chose to emphasize an interpersonal falling out which must have contained truth but feels overwrought:  “For three years past, I have felt no friendship for him and have professed none. The truth is our own dispositions are the opposite of each other….” And to James McHenry, “The great man and I have come to an open rupture….” For his part, says Chernow, “Washington remained unwaveringly loyal toward Hamilton.” [152-153]

Dramatically, Miranda’s rendition works much better, and it is still in the main faithful to the facts.


“Yorktown (The Shot Heard Round the World)”

The most rousing song in the entire show marks the end of the war–but not the end of the act, as I had first anticipated. Before it gets into full driving mode, Lafayette and Hamilton, now a colonel, meet center stage.

[Hamilton:] How you say, no sweat
We’re finally on the field
We’ve had quite a run
[Lafayette:] Immigrants
[Both:] We get the job done

The final line is punctuated with a fist-pump for the ages and a lusty cheer from the politically liberal audience. It’s a feel-good line (and uncontestably true on its face), yet Chernow’s full-life depiction of Hamilton allows regret and even disgust to mar the good feeling.

“No immigrant in American history has ever made a larger contribution than Alexander Hamilton,” says Chernow, midway through the book. [406] For many years, Hamilton apparently did view himself as an immigrant and his story a testament to the benefits of immigration. Thus, during the Constitutional Convention, he argued that “the advantage of encouraging foreigners is obvious….” [238] Unfortunately, under attack and out of power later in his career, desperate to preserve the Constitution and the young government against potential enemies, he stooped to an ugly xenophobia.

In 1794, an Irish-America government official, William Findley, was appalled when Hamilton “expressed much surprise and indignation…that Gallatin and I were both foreigners and therefore not too be trusted.” [477] We have multiple examples of Hamilton’s own ugly words on the subject, too. During the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, he wrote, “My opinion is that the mass [of allegedly seditious aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the country.” [572] A year later he asked rhetorically, “Why are they [renegade aliens] not sent away?” [600] After the Jeffersonians took power in 1800, he inveighed against “the influx of foreigners” who would “change and corrupt the national spirit.” Still, harping on the Swiss-born Albert Gallatin who then held his former position at Treasury, he asked, “Who rules the councils of our own ill-fated, happy country? “A foreigner!” [658] The fist-pump with Lafayette makes a better image to remember Hamilton by, but it is, alas, undercut by the evidence.



Many of the act’s themes, musical and otherwise, are reprised in the finale, which does double duty by moving the plot forward through the Constitutional Convention and Hamilton’s appointment as Treasury secretary. The most important theme is, again, Hamilton’s prodigious productivity, which foretells both his rise and his fall.

Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room? [Repeat]
Soon that attitude may be your doom!
Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?
Every day you fight, like you’re running out of time
Keep on fighting, in the meantime-

Meanwhile, Burr is content to “wait for it” behind an “enigmatic façade.”

[Hamilton:] Burr, we studied and we fought and we killed
For the notion of a nation we now get to build
For once in your life, take a stand with pride
I don’t understand how you stand to the side
[Burr:] I’ll keep all my plans close to my chest

But the line that cuts through in this lengthy number occurs in the discussion of The Federalist. Miranda is somehow able to make a solitary endeavor–the writing of a political tract–dramatic.  Once again, the seeds to Miranda’s song can be found in Chernow, who writes, “The Federalist Papers ran to eighty-five essays, with fifty-one attributed to Hamilton, twenty-nine to Madison, and only five to Jay.” [248] Miranda swaps the order for a more dramatic result:

The plan was to write a total of 25 essays
The work divided evenly among the three men
In the end, they wrote 85 essays
In the span of six months
John Jay got sick after writing five
James Madison wrote 29
Hamilton wrote the other 51

The number on the page does not convey the drama with which it is recited from the stage. Hamilton really did work non-stop.



“What Did I Miss?”

The second act begins, after a brief reprise of the first act’s opening number and some necessary backstory, with a foppish Thomas Jefferson strutting around stage, singing “What did I miss?”

You haven’t met him yet, you haven’t had the chance
‘Cause he’s been kickin’ ass as the ambassador to France
I’ve been in Paris meeting lots of different ladies
I guess I basically missed the late eighties

The words say less than the strutting: Jefferson is a dandy. That is Chernow’s view, for the most part. He writes: “Jefferson fancied himself a mere child of nature, a simple, unaffected man, rather than what he really was: a grandee, a gourmet, a hedonist, and a clever, ambitious politician.” [313-314]

Chernow provides eight pages of backstory as he brings Jefferson into his story, just as Miranda gives him a song to mark his entrance into his play. The ambassador to France returned to an America he helped set free with his pen but was now being governed by a constitution he had contributed not a word to. As he made his way to New York, the seat of the new government, Chernow writes, “Jefferson must have regretted having arrived so late” [319]–words that surely inspired a song titled, “What Did I Miss?”


“Say No to This”

We have seen that Hamilton “loved the  ladies and had a high libido.” [536] Even so his “sordid affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds,” in Chernow’s words, is “one of history’s most mystifying cases of bad judgment.” [362] For the historian trying to account for Hamilton’s behavior, “his moral laxity and absurd willingness to risk exposure…remain a baffling conundrum.” [409] How much more so for the libretticist, attempting to render the inexplicable explicable in a single song. Miranda does a good job showing how he was a victim, in roughly equal parts, of entrapment and of his own weakness. The man who forced through his political agenda on sheer will power lacked the gumption to say no to a sordid affair. Miranda has even set this song up with Eliza’s number from the first act:

Lord, show me how to say no to this
I don’t know how to say
No to this
Oh my god, she looks so helpless
And her body’s saying, “hell yes”

This  affair was sordid not merely for the sexual titillation, nor even for the callousness with which Hamilton treated his supportive–and, by all accounts, beautiful–wife. The affair is disturbing for Hamilton’s willful, entitled hubris. At a time when polarized, gotcha politics was even more cut-thoat than our own, when the Republican press would publish any scandalous bit of gossip that might bring down the all-powerful (in their eyes) Treasury Secretary, Hamilton had the audacity to write a fellow Federalist: “I pledge myself to you and to every friend of mine that the strictest scrutiny into every part of my conduct, whether as a private citizen or as a public officer, can only serve to establish the perfect purity of it.” [412] For a man who otherwise lived by strictest principle, Hamilton was simply lying to himself.


“The Room Where It Happens”

The title of this song provides one of the show’s catchiest, most memorable refrains. The room in question is in Jefferson’s lodgings on Maiden Lane, New York City. The historic occasion is June 20, 1790. A consequential bargain was struck over dinner between Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison, with “perhaps one or two others in attendance.” [318]

No one else was in the room where it happened
The room where it happened

The deal gave Hamilton the Congressional votes for the assumption of state debts by the federal government, while the two Virginians gained a permanent site for the nation’s capital on the Potomac, across from their home state. Chernow calls it “perhaps the most celebrated meal in American history.” Miranda gets full dramatic power from the event by including Burr–who was not in the room either in fact or in the musical–in the song’s introduction and later verses. The New York attorney general and soon-to-be senator asks the Treasury Secretary asks,

And how you gonna get your debt plan through?

To which Hamilton responds:

I guess I’m gonna have to finally listen to you.
Talk less, smile more
Do whatever it takes to get my plan on the congress floor

Miranda is being true to the history as presented in Chernow’s book. Hamilton was almost diametrically opposed to Burr in his approach to politics. He wore everything his sleeve, never left any doubt about where he stood, while Burr kept his plans opportunistically close to the vest, ready to change them when the political winds shifted. In the summer of 1790, Hamilton resorted to something he was otherwise almost constitutionally unable to do: compromise. He was willing to wage his battle, Burr-like, behind closed doors, rather than flamboyantly and openly with his pen. Chernow makes clear that Hamilton got the better of the bargain. By assuming the war debts of the states, Hamilton secured the preeminence of the federal government going forward. Jefferson and Madison let the Hamiltonian horse out of the barn;  it would never find its way back in. All for a capital city that wasn’t New York or Philadelphia.

No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in the room where it happens

In most iterations of the chorus, the verb is in the past tense. The debt-assumption/Potomac-capital compromise was a singular event. But here, as in the title, Miranda uses the present tense, transforming the song’s subject to the more generalized art of political deal-making: smoke-filled rooms and legislative sausage-making. It also moves to present tense when Burr reappears again at the end of the song. He seems to speak not merely for himself but for so many other politicos who have come after:

What do you want Burr? (What do you want Burr?)
If you stand for nothing then what’ll you fall for? (What do you want Burr?)
I, I wanna be in the room where it happens
The room where it happens


“Washington on Your Side”

It must be nice, it must be nice
To have Washington on your side

The music, as much as the words, conveys callow resentment unbefitting our conception of the Founding Fathers. Yet the truth is not far from Miranda’s caricature. Hamilton was Washington’s protégé from the war years, when the general “often referred to Hamilton as ‘my boy.'” [87] After the war, the two grew closer with every passing year. Their understanding of the world and of the needs of their young country grew ever more in sync; they trusted each other instinctively. Hamilton’s enemies believed his rise had to do with his bewitching of the great general. One partisan of Hamilton’s adversary, New York Governor George Clinton, sneered, “I have also known an upstart attorney palm himself upon a great and good man for a youth of extraordinary genius and under a shadow of patronage make himself at once known and respected….” [237] In other words, it must be nice to have Washington in your pocket.

Jefferson and Madison were more concerned with the power that flowed in the other direction, from Hamilton to Washington. As Chernow writes, “It petrified Jefferson and Madison that the one man in America willing and able to lead  the country in precisely the wrong direction was Washington’s right-hand man.” [389] As the two Republican leaders fought Hamilton’s agenda, Washington became yet more convinced of his own stance on the issues–and it wasn’t with his fellow Virginians. He became “increasingly disillusioned with both Jefferson and Madison” [499], writes Chernow, and correspondingly fond of Hamilton. By the end of his second term, “Washington no longer felt obliged to restrain his affection for his protégé.” [505] The two became equals and friends in the last years of his life. Yet Chernow also stresses Washington’s independence of mind. He documents every instance in which the president was not been merely a rubber stamp for Hamiltonian policies, as the Jeffersonians believed him to be.


“The Reynold’s Pamphlet”

Strange name for a song. It refers to the document Hamilton produced to explain his actions in the Reynolds scandal. In fact, he was originally accused of unethical business dealings with James, which accounted for by admitting his adulterous affair with Maria. As the scandal-mongering publisher James Callender  explained, Hamilton’s defense rested on a logical fallacy: “I am a rake, therefore I am not a swindler.”

The charge against me is a connection
With one James Reynolds
For purposes of improper speculation
My real crime is an amorous
Connection with his wife
For a considerable time
With his knowing consent

These lines and the two below were Hamilton’s exact words from the Pamphlet and are also recited by his character from the stage:

I had frequent meetings with her
Most of them at my own house

“The Reynolds Pamphlet” is an astounding document, possibly unique in American history, an extensive mea culpa (thirty-seven pages, plus fifty-eight more of appendices) written and published for public consumption. Chernow provides some of his choicest observations in his section on the Pamphlet.

  • “Hamilton now reverted to lifelong practice: he would drown his accusers with words.”
  • “Hamilton’s strategy was simple: he was prepared to sacrifice his private reputation to preserve his public honor.”
  • “Hamilton insisted in telling the story in almost picaresque detail.”
  • “Hamilton was incapable of a wise silence.” [“Talk less; smile more.”]

He says that Hamilton’s Pamphlet was equal parts self-righteous indignation and self-flagellation.

Not confined to the sources, Miranda imagines an encounter with Angelica that allows him to make a more modern feminist critique of Hamilton’s adultery.

[Hamilton:] Angelica, thank God, someone
Who understand what I’m
Struggling here to do
[Angelica:] I’m not here for you
[Company:] Ooooh!
[Angelica:] I know my sister like I know my own mind
You will never find anyone as
Trusting or as kind
I love my sister more than anything in this life
I will choose her happiness over mine every time
Put what we had aside
I’m standing at her side
You could never be satisfied
God, I hope you’re satisfied

The play is about Hamilton. It’s always about the man, and how the man feels. Angelica’s words are an unexpected slap in the face–unexpected but deserved. The drama intensifies, and the sour contrast with the first act number is artfully established with the disdainful double use of “satisfied.”


“The Election of 1800”

One memorable line is more heavily documented than any other in the show. In the climax of this song, Hamilton drops this line like a bomb in a crowded market:

Thomas Jefferson has beliefs; Burr has none.

The supporting citations from Chernow’s biography are almost too numerous to mention.

  • “Burr’s principle quality as a politician: he was a chameleon who evaded clear-cut positions. …Burr was an agile opportunist who maneuvered for advantage…. Hamilton asked rhetorically about Burr, “Is it a recommendation to have no theory? Can a man be a systematic or able statesman who has none?” [192]
  • Hamilton, during the 1792 vice-presidential campaign: “I fear the other gentleman [Burr] is unprincipled both a public and private man. ….In fact, I take it he is for or against nothing but as it suits his interest or ambition….”
  • With Chernow’s assessment: “But if Jefferson was a man of fanatical principles, he had principles all the same–which Hamilton could forgive. Burr’s abiding sin was a total lack of principles, which Hamilton could not forgive.” [422]
  • Hamilton, during the 1800 campaign: “As to Burr,…his public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement.” [632]
  • The American Citizen, after the fateful duel at Weehawken, on the antipathy between the two duellers: “General Hamilton did not oppose Mr. Burr because he was a democrat…but because HE HAD NO PRINCIPLE, either in morals or in politics.” [674]

The words were there for the picking, and Miranda made them stand out memorably.

Even more interesting is the symmetry that Miranda works in with the first act’s “Mr. Burr, Sir”:

[Hamilton:] Is there anything you wouldn’t do?
[Burr:] No. I’m chasing what I want
And you know what?
[Hamilton:]  What?
[Burr:] I learned that from you


“Your Obedient Servant”

The striking part of this song is in its epistolary nature, the repeated “Your Obedient Servant” with, “A dot Burr” and “A dot Ham.,” the juxtaposition of dignified formality and deadly purpose.  Miranda did not get these words from Chernow. He must have gone directly to the sources. His words capture the eighteenth century feel, even if they were not the exact ones used by the duelists.

For his part, Chernow provides brief snippets from their epistolary exchange in the spring/summer of 1804, including the line he identifies as Burr’s direct challenge to a duel: “Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply.” [686] Not direct to our twenty-first century eyes and ears, perhaps, but to Hamilton it would have been readily understood. His own words had done everything to bring the confrontation to that point.

Chernow believes Hamilton could have appeased Burr by “offering a bland statement of apology or regret. Instead, he adopted the slightly irritated tone of a busy man being unjustly harassed [in a] niggling and hairsplitting style….” Miranda’s lyrics capture both tone and substance of one of Hamilton’s letters:

Even if I said what you think I said
You would need to cite a more specific grievance
Here’s an itemized list of thirty years of disagreements


The World Was Wide Enough”

The title comes from Aaron Burr’s probably apocryphal words uttered late in life: “Had I read [Laurence] Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” [722] The words come at the end of the song, repeated as the last two lines, almost as an afterthought, just a they would have been in real life. But the rest of the “song” (a reprise from the duel rap in act one) enacts the entire duel scene: prelude, event, and aftermath. Again, Miranda is able to convey many factual details through Burr’s rapped monologue. But nothing is so affecting as Hamilton’s spoken soliloquy, bullet frozen midair in its deadly trajectory:

Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the
Beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony,
You sent for me.
You let me make a difference.
A place where even orphan immigrants can leave
Their fingerprints and rise up
I’m running out of time, I’m running and
My time’s up.
Wise up. Eyes up.

The Burr-Hamilton friendship/rivalry/conflict/crux-of-the-play reaches its climax, literally. With Hamilton dead on the field, Burr gets the last word, no less affecting than Hamilton’s own:

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints,
It takes and it takes and it takes
History obliterates
In every picture it paints
It paints me and all my mistakes

We recall that Burr has been no less neglected by History than Hamilton. (Probably more so and with good reason, though he did get a bestselling, critically-acclaimed novel a full forty years before Hamilton got his smash-hit musical.) But he had no more control over his fatal flaws as Hamilton did over his singular gifts (and fatal flaws, too).

I survived, but I paid for it.

Burr satisfied his thirst for vengeance; at the same time, he destroyed any hope for the political triumph he so desperately desired.


“Best of Wives and Best of Women”

In this touching scene–which never actually happened–Eliza coaxes her husband back to bed in what we, the audience, know to be his final night with her. But Hamilton is still writing–“like [he’s] running out of time”–a good-bye letter should he fall in the next day’s duel. In fact, he wrote the letter in his offices downtown. The song’s lyrics give us none of the substance of the letter, only its closing. It is the song’s final line, which is also its title:

Best of wives and best of women

Chernow quotes the letter in full. In the second paragraph the husband explains his rash actions: “If it had been possible for me to avoid the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem.” In fact, Chernow shows that “sacrifices” to his honor were readily available along the way. But we have learned from both Chernow and Miranda that Hamilton was outspoken to a fault.

“Why do you always say what you believe?” [“Non-Stop”]

Six years earlier, when had left government to earn more money as an attorney, he still expected to be influential in the new Adams administration. Instead he was persona non grata. Though their political views were similar, their personal styles were incompatible. Adams couldn’t stand him. Hamilton learned what it meant to be out of power and to appreciate time with his family. He began closing his letters, “Adieu best of wives and best of mothers.” [583]


“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”

The final number in Miranda’s musical gives Eliza center stage, just as Chernow’s epilogue does in his biography. Both recount Eliza’s accomplishments in the fifty-plus years she lived after Hamilton’s death: founding an orphanage society, fundraising for the Washington Monument, seeing that her late husband’s story got told. She appointed their fourth son, John Church Hamilton, to gather and edit his father’s papers and produce a biographical volume for posterity. He didn’t complete the project until seven years after Eliza’s death.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

The song’s power resides in its focus on the meta-narrative, its switch from history to historiography, the big question that it asks: Why is it that Alexander Hamilton is so little celebrated among our Founding Fathers when his contributions are so manifestly central to the country we have become? As Treasury secretary of the United States’ first executive administration, Hamilton was the single-most important force behind “the creation of a sound federal government with a central bank, a funded debt, a high credit rating, a tax system, a customs service, a coast guard, a navy, and many other institutions.” [628] As Chernow says, “If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.” [ca 400]

Chernow cites four superlative encomia from contemporaries. The Reverend John Mason retrospectively called him “the greatest statesman of the western world, perhaps the greatest man of the age.” [714]  Ambassador Talleyrand of France put Hamilton among the three greatest contemporary statesmen, along with Napoleon and Whig MP Charles James Fox. [466] No less an eminence than John Marshall, after reading the complete papers of George Washington, declared Hamilton “the greatest man (or one of the greatest men) that had ever appeared in the United States.” [648] Even a staunch enemy, Ambrose Spencer, acknowledged him as “the greatest man this country has produced…infinitely [Senator Daniel] Webster’s superior” in rhetorical ability. [670]

So why the neglect?

Perhaps it was his ignominious death at Weehawken.

How you remember me?
What if this bullet is my legacy? [“The World Was Wide Enough”]

But Hamilton was already out of political favor by 1804. His “paternalistic view of politics” had already gone out of fashion, according to Chernow. [657] The odds of resurrecting his career were slight. It is almost certain he would have aged poorly had he lived as long as Jefferson and Adams, who, themselves, became  dinosaurs in proto-Jacksonian America. In a letter to good friend Gouvernor Morris, Hamilton was already despairing in 1802, “Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.” [658] His early, tragic death should, if anything, have helped his standing in historical memory. As Will Rogers quipped more than a century later: “This thing of being a hero, about the main thing to do is to know when to die. Prolonged life has ruined more men than it ever made.”

A better explanation for Hamilton’s (previous) obscurity is that the Republican critique stuck. Fair or not–and Chernow argues repeatedly that it was mostly not–their critique was aided by being, we might say today, on the “right side of history.” America would become more democratic. Andrew Jackson would open the White House doors to the unwashed masses. Log cabin birth would become a political asset. Alexander Hamilton would have welcomed none of this. Republican charges of monarchy and aristocracy might have been off the mark, but Hamilton would never have become a Jacksonian democrat. Moreover, his behavior in the final years of the Adams administration was unmistakably paranoid and regrettably authoritarian.

His judgment became increasingly erratic. In the heat of the 1800 election, Hamilton engaged in “the most high-handed and undemocratic act of his career,” according to Chernow. [609] In a work of shenanigans we might more readily associate with the 2020 election, Hamilton conspired to change electoral rules mid-stream. (The baldly partisan scheme for choosing electors had already been rejected by Federalists when it was attempted by the Republicans in the previous cycle.) Normally a paragon of incisive reasoning, Hamilton resorted to the argument of a political hack: “In times like these in which we live, it will not do to be overscrupulous. It is easy to sacrifice the substantial interests of society by a strict adherence to ordinary rules.” His interlocutor, New York Governor John Jay, wisely ignored the appeal, and Jefferson received the state’s full slate of electors.

Alexander Hamilton was, in Miranda’s memorable words, “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore/and a Scotsman,” as well as a man who “got a lot farther by working a lot harder/By being a lot smarter/By being a self-starter.” He was both exceptional and all too human. No wonder Miranda couldn’t resist making him the subject of a Broadway musical, to all of our benefit.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

Alexander Hamilton lived life like he was “running out of time,” died succumbing to the kind of unruly passion he spent his professional career opposing, and–better late than never–benefitted from a top-notch biographer and Broadway composer to tell his story–not just for Americans but for the world.