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The Moral Heart of Hamilton

August 25, 2016

"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."

 

Read the whole piece at First Things

 

 

 

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