“What is a legacy?” wonders the character of Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. Known to the masses as Hamilton, the musical tells the story of the first United States secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
This wildly popular musical opened on Broadway in August 2015 and has run “Non-Stop” since then. Furthermore, it plays in Chicago and London and operates three simultaneous national tours, one of which came to North Carolina in fall 2018 at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC).
On the surface, Hamilton is an entertaining musical that shows Hamilton’s life and death, complete with love, ambition, heartbreak, and betrayal. However, it communicates much deeper themes through over 40 songs that chronicle the lives of Hamilton and his friends and family.
The idea of a legacy dominates the story more so than any other concept, and it is central to Hamilton’s message.
Hamilton on legacy
In American History at Leesville, students learn three basic facts about Alexander Hamilton: during the American Revolution, he wrote essays included in The Federalist Papers; he started a national bank as the first secretary of the treasury; Aaron Burr killed him in a duel. Do these facts constitute Hamilton’s legacy? What is history if not just a collection of legacies? And who decides what someone’s legacy is?
Hamilton argues that although one cannot control how others will decide one’s legacy, one’s actions can shape it.
The musical begins with a brief retelling of Hamilton’s childhood in the Caribbean and then flashes forward to the beginnings of the American Revolution. In the song “My Shot,” Hamilton decides that he is “not throwing away [his] shot” at building his own legacy, so he joins the American Revolution in support of American independence. He hopes that one day, “when [he and his friends’] children tell [their] story/They’ll tell the story of tonight” (“The Story of Tonight”), the night Hamilton and his friends joined the separatist movement; their children will one day develop their legacy.
Time passes, and Hamilton marries Eliza Schuyler. She asks him to “let [her] be a part of the narrative/In the story they will write someday” (“That Would Be Enough”) about Hamilton’s efforts in the fight for American independence; in doing so, she acknowledges that the tale of Hamilton and his deeds live on.
Another one of Hamilton’s allies recognizes Hamilton’s potential to go down in history: George Washington. As the final battle of the American Revolution draws closer, Washington warns Hamilton that “from here on in/History has its eyes on you” (“History Has Its Eyes On You”). Hamilton has succeeded in thrusting himself into the spotlight, and Washington realizes the significance of the revolutionaries’ actions; for better or for worse, history will remember them.
Even after the American Revolutionary War, Washington continues to mentor Hamilton and to show him the power of a legacy. Washington tells Hamilton that he intends to step down from the presidency in “One Last Time.” After Hamilton wonders why Washington would give up his position, the first president reveals that “if [he says] goodbye, the nation learns to move on/It outlives [him] when [he’s] gone”; he hopes that futures presidents will follow his precedent—his legacy—of serving for just two terms.
Putting the legacy of his earlier successes at risk, Hamilton has an extramarital affair. He recognizes that his infidelity threatens his legacy, so he devises a solution: exposing his own adultery. He declares that “[he’ll] write [his] way out/Overwhelm them with honesty/…this is the only/Way [he] can protect [his] legacy” (“Hurricane”). Although the affair will forever taint his story, he would rather others remember him for honesty concerning his actions rather than deceit.
In response to her husband’s disloyalty, Eliza Hamilton decides to remove herself from his story by burning the love letters he wrote her. She accuses him of being “obsessed with [his] legacy” and “paranoid in every paragraph/How they perceive [him]” (“Burn”). Since Hamilton seems to treasure his legacy more than his own wife, she knows that “erasing [herself] from the narrative” and refusing to advance Hamilton’s reputation will hurt her husband.
The musical reaches its climax with Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s famous duel in “The World Was Wide Enough.” While Hamilton watches Burr’s bullet approach him, he ponders the nature of a legacy—”Legacy, what is a legacy?/It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” By comparing a legacy to planting seeds in a garden, he communicates that he cannot control whether the actions he took during his lifetime—the seeds—will one day yield a positive, long-lasting legacy in the form of a flower-filled garden.
To close the musical, the chorus asks, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”). The answer for Hamilton is his wife. Eliza ultimately forgives Hamilton and “[puts herself] back in the narrative”; she carries on her late husband’s legacy by operating an orphanage and collecting his many writings.
During his lifetime, Hamilton relentlessly tried to shape his legacy through his actions, including joining the American Revolution, writing day and night, and revealing his adultery to the public. His efforts came to fruition because his wife (and, in 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda) kept his story alive throughout the years. Hamilton’s legacy today is one of overcoming early adversity to assist in the establishment of the United States.
With each school year, one group of students enters the Leesville student body, and another group leaves. The Class of 2022 began high school this past fall, so like clockwork, it is now time for members of the Class of 2019 to turn their tassels. In all their excitement, though, seniors often forget to contemplate the legacies they will leave within the Leesville community.
To my fellow seniors: think about your actions—positive and negative, helpful and hurtful—from the past four years. Are you especially proud of your decisions, or do you regret some? How have your actions culminated in your own narrative within the Leesville community? Whatever your situation may be, you have a chance to start over beginning June 14. You will enter a new community in college, in the military, or in the workforce, and you will have the power to create a fresh legacy for yourself.
To freshmen, sophomores, and juniors: your journey within the Leesville community is either just beginning or is coming to an end. The good news is that unlike seniors, you have the luxury of time, no matter how much, to affect your legacy before you leave Leesville. How do you want others to remember you once you graduate?
In conclusion, I ask you, “Who tells your story?”