On July 3rd, one of the only good things to happen in all of 2020 took place – a professionally recorded movie of the OBC performing Hamilton: The Musical was released on Disney+! I was fortunate enough to see the play live. My first experience of the full play was in stunning, gut-wrenching, belly-laughing, tear-jerking living color. But now I can relive it over and over! I recently watched it with a friend, and when it was over he asked me a really interesting question.
“So who do you think the true hero of this play is?”
My feelings on this have always been Eliza Schuyler, but I’d have been willing to hear a well-spoken argument in favor of Aaron Burr. (Come on, you can’t say Hamilton. That’s like saying your favorite “Harry Potter” character is Harry. Lame.)
But seconds after Eliza’s heart-stopping gasp at the end of the show, with the entire narrative fresh in my mind and tears still wet on my cheeks, any answer seemed entirely beside the point.
Minutes after Aaron Burr laments that he “should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me”, how can I assign such a trivial role as “hero” or “villain” to any of these complex and nuanced characters?
This play is a an important critique of our individual and cultural tendency to oversimplify our perception of historical figures, celebrities, politicians, and even the people in our own lives. We choose to condemn some based on the worst thing every did, and we worship others based on the best thing they ever did.
When you really think about it, this is such a damaging and limited scope through which to view anybody! It falls apart so quickly when you imagine your own life boiling down to 1 choice. Whether good or bad, there is no possible way it would tell your whole truth.
This mindset is also so trivial. How do we decide which people to remember as heroes or villains?
Aaron Burr was a petty and slimy politician that murdered Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson was a beloved Founding Father wrote our Declaration of Independence, the very foundation of American democracy.
Aaron Burr was also a genius who graduated college at 16, served as a ranking officer in the Revolution and Vice President, and suffered the tragic loss of his beloved wife and only daughter. Thomas Jefferson was a racist who owned nearly 200 slaves, likely fathered all 6 of his kids by continuously raping his child house slave, Sally Hemmings, and privately accepted the practice of slavery while performing a public stance of opposition.
Both of these are true!
Alexander was a genius. He quite literally wrote himself out of poverty, bravely fought for young America’s freedom, created our Treasury system from the ground up, truly loved his wife and children, and devoted his life to building this nation.
Alexander Hamilton was an asshole. He was arrogant and conceited on a level that would impress Narcissus. He committed the first major sex scandal in American history by having an affair with Maria Reynolds, broke the heart and trust of his wife, and destroyed his own chances of ever becoming president.
Both of these are true!
The line that really encapsulates this point is in “The World Was Wide Enough”, as Burr is preparing for his infamous final duel with Alexander Hamilton. With a break in voice that also breaks my heart, Burr sings: “I had only 1 thought before the slaughter: This man will not make an orphan of my daughter”.
This lyric feels overlooked, but it is so powerful! It represents so much unconsidered possibility, an entirely different story to that day the one we all know.
What if Burr didn’t shoot Hamilton first due to their bitter rivalry? What if he didn’t even care about his honor? What if, as angry as he was about the political attacks Hamilton has cast upon his character, he didn’t actually want to kill Hamilton?
What if… in that final moment, Burr wasn’t a politician or a murderer… but a father. A father who wanted to see his daughter again; a father who would do anything to spare his daughter the pain of being an orphan just like he was? Because he knew the pain of losing both his parents all too well, and was willing to stain his soul and ruin his reputation for her??
Or, maybe he shot him as the result of their of political rivalry.
One story is simple, neat, and easily fills a bullet point in a textbook.
The other is messy and complicated and human. But that just might be the perspective we all need.