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Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton's statue in Central Park. Photo from Wikipedia

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

“What if,” is always a tempting game to play with history. This week in July, thanks to what we learned from the play “Hamilton,” makes us wonder. 

What if Alexander Hamilton had not been fatally wounded on July 11, 1804? He died of his stomach wound the next day, yesterday, all those years ago.

He is reputed to have tossed away his shot, but Aaron Burr didn’t.

What if the two men, bitterly at odds over The Jefferson-Burr election for President in 1800, had never had a duel? Even though Hamilton was a member of the Federalist Party along with Burr, still Hamilton campaigned for Jefferson, a member of the Republican-Democratic Party, as having the better character.

What if Burr and Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, had not opposed each other in the election for New York State Senate? Subsequently, would Hamilton still have said such derogatory things about Burr’s character that prompted Burr to challenge him to a duel?

Hamilton’s oldest son, Philip, was killed in a duel not long before, reportedly defending his father’s honor. Instead, he brought unimaginable grief to his parents. Hamilton is said to have thrown away his shot in turn because of the anguish caused by that killing. What if that great loss hadn’t happened? Would Hamilton have accepted Burr’s challenge, then deliberately missed? After all, Hamilton had been a highly decorated Major General, proficient in battle. He surely knew how to use a gun.

What if Hamilton had lived? After all, he was only in his 40s at the time of his death. Hamilton had been of enormous influence, first as an aide-to Camp for George Washington, then in writing most of the Federalist Papers and helping to get the Constitution passed, again as the United States first Secretary of the Treasury and setting up the national banking system that still exists today during Washington’s administration. (Perhaps less known, to get the Southern members of the Congress to vote “aye,” he agreed to their demand to move the Capital from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, a far easier destination for them.)

Hamilton is regarded today as a brilliant visionary and one of the most outstanding men of his century, at least according to the French diplomat Talleyrand in 1794. His life and thoughts have spanned three centuries. What more might he have given us had he lived?

What if?

His wife, Elizabeth, known as “Eliza,” lived to age 97 and is saluted for her remarkable contributions to the young nation.

Initially left with young children, a mortgage and bills, she was to additionally suffer the loss of her father, who had at the time of his death lost his fortune. 

With the help of friends, she was able to hold on to her home but eventually was forced to move her family to lower Manhattan from her 35-acre estate in Harlem. Her children were well-educated and went on to impressive careers.

Eliza became co-founder and director of New York City’s first private orphanage in the area now just south of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. She remained in that role for 27 years, during which time she oversaw 700 children. She also was a founder of the Orphan Asylum Society. Throughout her life, she remained sensitive to the plight and the needs of orphaned children, reflecting the world her husband had grown up in.

Eliza also was dedicated to preserving her husband’s writings and legacy, including the purchase of his work by Congress. This is how we know so much today about his life and thoughts. His writings are in the Library of Congress.

We might play, “What if,” at any turn in history, some of which could send shivers down our spines. This week, though, it seemed clearly Alexander Hamilton’s turn. He did much to create the world we live in today.

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It’s a great history lesson. It’s a gymnastic dance performance. It’s a riveting narrative. It’s a clever rap session. It’s an authentic hip-hop musical, almost like an opera. It’s a whirlwind of energy. And it’s a remarkably true story. What is it? It’s “Hamilton,” the hottest Broadway show in many years.

We know that just about everything that is endlessly hyped usually disappoints. Just two things immediately come to my mind where for me there was no let down: the Grand Canyon and “Hamilton.” Now the anticipation ratcheted up was enormous. I bought the tickets when my friend turned 90 years old. It seemed like an appropriate birthday present, this story from the deep past. After all, for many dinners and evenings she had kept me fascinated with her eyewitness retelling of history from the first half of the 20th century. Now we were both going to see early American history come alive on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Let it be told that my friend will shortly be 92. Yes, she and I waited almost two years to get in to see this show. I also invited my 15-year-old granddaughter and another friend a generation younger than I to join us. With that span in ages, we were going to get an accurate demographic spectrum of reactions.

We LOVED it, all of us, from the opening number to the last sad moments of Hamilton’s life. It was witty, it was impassioned, it was fun, it was sexy, it was literate, it was tragic and it was wonderfully written, sung, acted, costumed and staged.

In truth, Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton” (2004), had great material to work with. Hamilton’s life had everything a playwright could have asked for, with perfect timing now for such a story. Hamilton, born out of wedlock in the mid-1750s (exact year uncertain) and orphaned when his mother died in 1768, comes as penniless immigrant from the Caribbean to make his way. He had distinguished himself through his writing at an early age, and men of means sent him to New York. He arrived in the midst of the pre-Revolutionary tumult, was accepted at King’s College (now Columbia University), met some of the key figures of the day and became George Washington’s aide-de-camp, in good part because he spoke French and could translate between Washington and his French ally.

He fought against the British at Yorktown in 1781, married the second daughter of a rich New Yorker, authored the majority of The Federalist Papers, became a successful lawyer, went on to be the first secretary of the treasury, from which position he established the banking system of the nascent United States, was blackmailed in what was one of the nation’s first sex scandals, and ultimately died from a bullet fired by his longtime rival, Vice President Aaron Burr, during a duel on a strip of land above the Hudson in Weehawken. If it sounds like a peripatetic life, that certainly describes the fierce energy of the play about him.

I had the same feeling about this play as I did so many years ago when “My Fair Lady” with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews ended, that I had just witnessed some sort of breakthrough Broadway event. And as the characters of “Hamilton,” the Founding Fathers, come alive the way they did in that other excellent historic play, “1776,” we recognized them for their magnificent talents and their all-too-human faults.

The erudite New York Times drama critic, Ben Brantley, had this to say about the play when it opened on Broadway in August 2015. “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But ‘Hamilton’ … might just about be worth it.”

So it’s expensive (unless you win tickets through the lottery that has been set up), it requires patience to wait for the actual performance date on the ticket, and most of the original cast is long gone. But none of that matters. There was never a marquee name connected with the show, unless it was that of Miranda. But his acting wasn’t the reason to go, it was his writing: music, words and creativity. And all that is still there, a wonderful respite from the politics of today.

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Though political fighting and manipulation of the media to wage a war may seem like a 21st-century concept, Clinton and Trump will not be breaking any ground this summer and fall when the mud inevitably continues to fly.

By Rich Acritelli

With the presidential election of 2016 upon this nation, it has been a hard fight between former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump. Today, Americans are watching these opponents utilize “mudslinging” and “deceitful” techniques to gain votes, but these tactics have been used almost from the start of this republic.

When President George Washington decided to retire after his second term, his vice president, John Adams, and the former secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, ran for presidency in 1796. Both of these men liked each other personally, but detested each other politically. This was during the establishment of political parties between the Federalists (Adams) and Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson).

Alexander Hamilton was a dominant leader within the Federalist Party who believed Adams was not psychologically capable of being president. Hamilton urged Federalist politicians from South Carolina to withhold any votes that would help Adams win the election; Hamilton wanted Thomas Pinckney, a Federalist from that state, to become the next president. If Pinckney won, Hamilton estimated it was possible for Adams to gain enough support to be a runner-up as a vice president. Hamilton was unable to achieve this political scenario, and Adams won the election. Jefferson became his vice president from the rival Democratic-Republican Party.

Hamilton again threw his influence into the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied, and Congress decided the contest. Hamilton supported his chief opponent in Jefferson, due to his notions that Burr was a political tyrant, and motivated congressional leaders to vote for Jefferson to become the third president of the United States. This was also the last election that sought “a winner take all” process for the presidency and vice presidency. The government established the system of running mates elected together to represent either party in the White House after that.

In 1860, the country watched a junior politician in Abraham Lincoln seek the highest position in the land. He was a self-educated leader, a respected lawyer and a one-term representative in Congress. While he did not have the political clout of the other candidates, he served within the Illinois General Assembly. Although it is believed slavery was the cornerstone of his values, he pushed for revisions within the tariff, free labor, the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act of 1862. He ran against many strong Republicans, and while he defeated William Seward from New York, he later made his rival into a trusted member of his cabinet as secretary of state.

During his failed attempt to win a seat in the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas, Lincoln debated he would never support the expansion of slavery in the new states and territories. It was these property rights concerns that the southerner never forgot when Lincoln decided to run for the presidency. When he proved to be a serious candidate, Democratic newspapers that opposed the end of slavery, wrote that Lincoln was “semiliterate, ignorant, an uncultured buffoon, homely and awkward,” according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Although Lincoln was perhaps our greatest leader, both Republicans and Democrats were highly unsure about his motives and abilities to lead the nation at the cusp of the Civil War.

Though political fighting and manipulation of the media to wage a war may seem like a 21st-century concept, Clinton and Trump will not be breaking any ground this summer and fall when the mud inevitably continues to fly.