After more than a year on Broadway, a hip-hop musical about Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton shows no signs of slowing down—it enjoys popular clout and critical acclaim on an unprecedented scale. But it is not only by its artistry that Hamilton that has won a place in history. There is also the fact that it paints a morally serious portrait of leadership.
Hamilton tells of America’s pursuit of greatness and reminds us how much we need goodness. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical locates politics downstream of marriage and family. Alexander Hamilton’s legacy depends, in the end, on the grace of his wife Eliza. She is the answer to the last question of a three-part motif: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
The musical reverences George Washington as general, president, and man of God. Actor Chris Jackson, who originated the role, inhabited this threefold authority naturally, gathering the cast in a backstage prayer circle before each show. On stage Washington recites Micah 4:4, historically his favorite scriptural passage, incorporated into the farewell address: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree / And no one shall make them afraid.” With these words, Miranda emphasizes how Biblically-saturated America’s founding was, and hints at the moral concerns of the show.
Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s narrator and Hamilton’s killer, complains that Hamilton has been “seated at the right hand of the father,” elevated to Washington’s side. The Trinitarian image is ironic: Though Washington is a godly man and father-figure, Hamilton isn’t quite a spotless lamb. Inaugurating the role, Miranda played his protagonist as an irrepressible motor-mouth, committed to his ideals, hungry for fame, and susceptible to his passions. Hamilton’s involvement in America’s first political sex scandal is treated as a profound moral failing.
Hamilton woos his wife Eliza (originally played by Philippa Soo) in Act One, in a bright rhythm-and-blues/rap duet called “Helpless.” It’s a lady-and-the-tramp story, as the orphan immigrant Hamilton courts a daughter of the wealthy Schuyler family. He promises to protect and care for her: “Long as I’m alive, Eliza, swear to God you’ll never feel so helpless!” But he breaks this promise. Hamilton commits adultery with a married woman named Maria Reynolds, is blackmailed and extorted by her husband, and finally publishes an account of the whole thing to clear himself of the charge of mishandling government funds. The music of adultery darkly mirrors the music of marriage—again a rhythm-and-blues/rap duet, but more foreboding. Even as Hamilton succumbs to Reynolds’s charms, he reflects bitterly on how hollow the whole affair is: “This is the last time / I said that last time / It became a pastime.” Sin can take everything from you without even giving what it promised.
By his infidelity and its public fallout, Hamilton leaves Eliza helpless. Devastated, she “erases herself from the narrative” by burning all her correspondence with him (this is the musical’s clever way of incorporating the lack of extant writing by Eliza into the character’s arc). She sings, “You forfeit your place in my heart, / You forfeit your place in our bed, / You’ll sleep in your office instead, / With only the memories of when you were mine.” Striving for greatness but falling short of goodness, Hamilton has undone his family.
Hamilton has no reason to expect forgiveness from his wife, yet somehow he gets it. First, he must endure more heartbreak—the death of his eldest son in a duel. In the Act Two show-stopper “Quiet Uptown,” the Hamilton family grapples with this new sorrow. Hamilton sings, “I take the children to Church on Sunday, / The sign of the cross at the door, / And I pray. / That never used to happen before.” His prayer is for forgiveness, and he gets it. “She takes his hand,” go the lyrics, as Eliza draws near him. “There are moments that the words don’t reach, / There’s a grace too powerful to name”: Marriage is capable, if we humbly let it, of producing fruit that is greater than anything we could reasonably hope for.
The rest of the show, though tragedy-stricken, is suffused with grace. Even Aaron Burr (originally Leslie Odom, Jr.) is more than just “the villain in your history.” His thoughts as he shoots Hamilton are those of a scared father: “This man will not make an orphan of my daughter.” His mistake is in not realizing that “the world was wide enough” for him and his rival. Hamilton has compassion wide enough for even the bad guys in his world.
So what is the show saying to all of its adoring fans? Several things: America is fundamentally the same nation created by the Founding Fathers. We all get to join the chorus in what Hamilton calls “America, you great unfinished symphony.” And yet our leaders require not only vision and drive, but also strength of character—and that quality, the show suggests, entails humble contrition, repentance after sin, and receptivity to forgiveness. Great Americans must be open to the still, small voice of grace.
The creators of the show are liberal, like most Broadway impresarios. But Hamilton, like any story worth telling, has themes that transcend its immediate background: Politics requires virtue, virtue grows from grace, grace flows through marriage. And that’s a message worth shouting to the rooftops, whether in Psalms or in rap.
Alexi Sargeant is assitant editor at First Things.