Hamilton: Teach Them How to Say Goodbye

Monday marked the final meeting of our Hamilton class, so we all did some reflection about what we had learned.

The students agreed that they thoroughly enjoyed the history that they learned, and they liked digging into the show and the lyrics and finding all the gems of references and details that were there to be discovered.  The annotations were a bit challenging at the start, but the students rapidly got the hang of what to look for and where to make comments on the show’s lyrics.

For my part, I learned that no matter how much research I did, my students could still come up with details that I hadn’t found.  I also enjoyed discovering how my students’ brains worked and that I was deluding myself to think that I could predict their reaction to a given topic.  (They will still never be fans of Jefferson.)  Individually and collectively, I appreciated the students who were always brimming over with things to say in class and the students whose insights were shared with me through their writing or outstanding annotations.  I was given quiet gifts of service from the students who always showed up to class early and rearranged the chairs so we could sit in a circle.  I was gifted with amazing stories, honesty, and courage from each person.

This seminar class also represents personal growth for me.  Three years ago, I taught my first seminar course, and I was consistently petrified that the students wouldn’t have anything to say and the class would fail. As a scientist, I am trained to lecture, not lead a seminar, but by the time I taught Hamilton, I had grown comfortable and competent with facilitating discussion.  I also developed the knack of surveying the quiet students for responses at the beginning of class to make sure that they had a chance to get a word in before the group as a whole got the bit in their teeth and took off at a gallop.  I successfully attacked a huge topic that was outside my academic training and demonstrated the power of an inquisitive mind and a broad educational background.

Last Friday, all of the first year students in the College of Arts and Sciences gathered to present and share their first year seminar collaborative projects.  The next time the entire group will be assembled again will be at graduation.  Although my students did not win any of the presentation awards, I believe if there had been an award for class spirit, my students would have won it hands done.  While the judges were away tallying their scores, my students entertained themselves by having an a cappella sing-along of “Non Stop” followed by “The Schuyler Sisters.”  I may have begun the semester with a group of which half were already fans and half had no experience with the musical, but they were all fans by the end.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote that a legacy is, “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”  For most of my students, this is the only class they will have with me in their college careers, so indeed, I may not ever know what fruit my seeds will bear.  I did leave each student with a memento of our time together in the form of a button that read, “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait.”  I do hope that they learned some lessons in class about themselves that will give them all a shot at success.

We finished our semester appropriately with a last rousing karaoke rendition of “Non Stop.”  In the end, they were the ones to teach me how to say goodbye.  Although I am scheduled for a reprise of the course next fall, there is always a special relationship with the people who help you through a first project.  Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

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Werk!

 

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Hamilton: What is a Legacy?

After Alexander Hamilton’s death in the duel with Aaron Burr, Oliver Wolcott Jr. was faced with the daunting task of writing and delivering the eulogy for his friend who had preceded him as Secretary of the Treasury.  Hamilton was a complicated tangle of brilliant accomplishments and fatal flaws which combined to make Angelica Schuyler Church’s reference to him as an Icarus all too accurate.  Having focused in class on Hamilton’s many faults, it is important to recognize the vast scope of his positive legacy as well.  Hamilton ultimately had more impact on the country than many presidents, and he lived at exactly the optimum time for his exceptional talents to be used to their maximum scope.

In the lyrics of Hamilton, Burr tallied up many of Hamilton’s accomplishments.  He was a decorated war veteran, Washington’s right hand man, and founder of the New York Post, since it was important to have a newspaper to distribute a political party’s priorities and perspective.  When singing the lyrics describing Hamilton’s contributions to the Federalist Papers, I have noticed that the students’ voices rise in volume and unity when they announce, “Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one!” of the 85 essays, so that accomplishment is obviously notable in their opinion. What comes out less in the musical is the intricacies of Hamilton’s accomplishments in constructing the country’s financial system.

Upon becoming America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was faced with a country burdened with a $79 million war debt and no means of raising funds.  Understanding the power of rapid and decisive action, on his first day in office, he secured a $50,000 loan to the federal government from the Bank of New York, and he simultaneously requested a similar amount from the Bank of North America in Philadelphia.  He would ultimately acquire a large loan from the Netherlands to stabilize the country’s credit internationally.

Hamilton identified taxes on imported goods as being the most promising source of revenue for the new government so he created the Customs Service to collect those monies.  Unfortunately, during the American Revolution, smuggling goods to avoid British tariffs had become a point of pride to the colonists, so Hamilton also created the Coast Guard to enforce the lawful collection of duties on imports.  To this day, Americans still hate to pay taxes, but Hamilton did what was necessary to secure the vital revenue stream to make the government solvent.

Having played a considerable role in founding the Bank of New York, Hamilton also devised and executed the plan to create the Bank of the United States, the first federal bank, which would stabilize and expand the money supply, collect revenue, extend credit, handle foreign exchange, and generally keep and handle government funds.  Indeed these two banks were two of the first five securities traded as securities in what would become the New York Stock Exchange, which Hamilton designed and enabled.  The other three securities were Treasury securities that were also created by our man.  By the time Hamilton left office, he had set in place all six of the crucial pillars of an effective financial system, including setting the dollar as the national currency.  Knowing all this history, I find it infinitely appropriate that Hamilton’s picture still resides on the ten dollar bill.

When I try to summarize Hamilton’s legacy, I inevitably come back to a story from Jefferson’s presidency.  After Jefferson became President in 1800, he directed his Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, to go through the department’s records and archives to reveal “the blunders and frauds of Hamilton.”  Gallatin undertook the task to tear apart Hamilton’s work and reputation with great relish.  After a time, Jefferson asked what he had found, and Gallatin felt he greatly disappointed his mentor when he responded,

“I have found the most perfect system ever formed.  Any change that should be made in it would injure it.  Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds.  He did nothing wrong.”

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Hamilton: Projects

Collaborative projects were a requirement of all first year seminar courses, and at the recommendation of my students, they self-assembled into groups around different ideas.  There is a longstanding Hamilton tradition of interacting with the material of the musical through fan art, fan fiction, the EduHam program for high school students, and even that Hamilton Mixtape involves extra songs and different takes on existing material.  The students were limited only by their own creativity.

In the first project, four students each did a painting depicting a relationship between Hamilton and one of the other primary characters:  Angelica, Eliza, Washington, and Burr.  Each painting started with a silhouette of the characters, and then each artist added words, color, or details to illustrate the relationship.  With Eliza, the background is the green-blue of her costume palette embellished with symbols of Eliza’s wealth and Hamilton’s motivation.  This one painting was done in the gentle medium of water color, and it is the only silhouette in which the characters stand together.  Angelica’s relationship is illustrated by the red of passion, the white of the spark between them, and the black of regret that they will never be together.  Red, white and blue appropriately illustrate the Washington-Hamilton relationship, specifically white representing innocence, red representing valor, and blue signifying vigilance, perseverance, and justice.  Lastly, the duel between Burr and Hamilton is the culmination of years of fighting and is painted in the red of violence and a little bit of red’s polar opposite green to represent their antagonism to each other.  The chaotic background represents the constant eruptions in their messy relationship.

(I had to tell the class about the blog to get permission to share photos of their paintings, thus prompting my previous post.)

In the second project, six students collaborated on a set of “missing” letters revolving around Hamilton’s illicit affair with Maria Reynolds.  Each student created documents for a different interaction: Maria confiding her growing infatuation with Hamilton to her journal, James Reynolds manipulating his wife to seduce the Secretary of the Treasury, a heartbroken Eliza exchanging letters with her sister, a particularly delightfully vicious exchange between Angelica and Maria, the scorned Maria adeptly pushing Alexander’s buttons in a vain attempt to entice him back to her, and Eliza writing to Maria reflecting on her marriage and finally preparing to go on with her life after the revelation of the affair.  The students did a magnificent job of researching extra details about their characters, and the letters were created to have a definite chronological order.  As a nice touch, most of the hard copies of the letters were printed using various cursive fonts to give the impression of genuine letters.

The Reynolds affair obviously struck a strong chord with the class since an additional project related to it as well.  A scene between Eliza and Angelica occurs in which Eliza is reading the nearly illiterate letters written to her husband by Maria Reynolds.  In the stack of papers, Eliza finds a letter that stands out because of the beautiful writing, and it is from Angelica to Alexander.  Music starts, courtesy of a friendly music production major, and the two sisters sing the rest of the exchange.  In the presentation, the lyrics flashed up on the screen while the music played.  In a hilarious twist for me, after the presentation, one of the students decided to “be Dr. Pence” and she led her classmates through an analysis of the lyrics.  I must say she did me quite well.  The class pointed out that in the song, Angelica keeps trying to connect with Eliza by singing her sister’s themes whereas Eliza is so angry that she raps, which she does not do in the actual musical.  Eliza demonstrates that she’s not stupid, and she’s a force to be reckoned with.  Go Eliza.

The final project was a collaboration between two students who were both born outside the United States and came to the country as immigrants.  They described their own experiences of arriving in a new place and struggling to learn the language and the culture to provide insight into what Hamilton himself might have experienced as a young adult arriving in New York City.  One of the students lived with his grandmother for seven years before arriving in America and had the benefit of joining parents who had already made the transition in contrast to Hamilton who did not have the same built in family support system.

The students all seemed to thoroughly enjoy each other’s work, and I was quite impressed by their creativity and how well everything linked back to the musical.

As a side note, one student commented that for another class she had to write a paper about a leader, and she wrote about Alexander Hamilton.  I asked if she even had to do any research, and she said no, but it crushed her to have to leave out so many details.

I sympathize.

 

 

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Hamilton: On Being Eliza

I fessed up to the class today that I had been blogging about our discussions all semester.  I had been a little concerned that they might hold back on their contributions if they knew I had been sharing outside of class, but as usual, they proved the opposite.  The cell phones came out, and the students immediately dove into scanning the posts to see if their contributions had been mentioned.  (As a side note, that may not have been the official end of class time, but I was well aware that I was done with holding their attention for the day.  Sometimes it’s best to give in to the inevitable.)

One student commented to me, “You are being Eliza.”  I hadn’t thought about it that way, but indeed, I have been telling their stories all semester.  This blog was originally in response to a number of friends who declared, “I would love to take your class,” and I wanted to share the historical and lyrical stories and gems of information that I have discovered as part of my research.  As the class gelled as a unit, I also began to share details of our discussions because I was fascinated by the links that they made between their lives and the historical characters.  I also enjoyed laughing at myself when I would begin a class with a script all mapped out about how the discussion would go and we would end up in an entirely different place.  (It’s difficult to debate the merits of Thomas Jefferson when the whole class was in agreement about his faults.)

It has indeed been my privilege to tell the stories that were shared in class, whether they were shared off-handedly or in a whisper, with bravado or with bravery.  I had focused on myself and on the gifts that had been given to me in those stories, but today my students educated me yet again and showed me the power of having your story told.  I have been aware from the beginning of how much they all admired Angelica, but for the first time, we all seem to understand the power of Eliza.  It was Eliza who told Hamilton’s story and made sure that when historians such as Ron Chernow went to research him, there was a story to be told in the future.  I, too, have admired Angelica’s intellect and quick wit, but today, I am proud to be Eliza.

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Hamilton: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells your Story

I figured that having killed off both Philip and Alexander Hamilton that we were through the sad parts of the musical.  I could not have been more wrong.  We had more tears today than ever!

George Washington introduces the finale with a reference to “History has its eyes on you,” so I began by asking the students if they would behave differently if they thought history was watching them.  One student offered that it was the birth of her younger sister when she was in high school that made her clean up her act, but the rest of the students felt that they either were already proud of how they behaved and had nothing to change or that the knowledge that they would be famous would have no impact.  Since there have been a number of high profile men who have been fired for sexual impropriety recently, I asked if those individuals might have behaved differently if they had known what would eventually happen to them.  The students stuck to their guns that nothing was likely to change the power trip these men were on.  I chose to round out this segment by pointing out the persistence of social media even if you try to delete information and that people have lost job opportunities because of photos and posts in what they might think of as their private accounts.  I’m not above a little moral philosophy when I can throw it in.

Back to the song, Angelica sings, “Every other founding father story gets told.  Every other founding father gets to grow old.”  I asked the students who were the founding fathers, and the whole class jumped in with rapid fire, “Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jay, John Adams, Franklin.”  Yes, they definitely couldn’t have done that at the start of the semester.   (I was particularly impressed that John Jay got air time.) Anyway, other than Washington who died at age 67, the rest all died over the age of 80.  Hamilton died at age 49.  Imagine what kind of legacy he could have created with 30 more years to write!

Burr, strictly in a role as narrator, then asks, “When you’re gone who remembers your name?  Who keeps your flame?”  Hamilton has progressed through various fire images throughout the show, and I liked this final image of a gentle fire to be nourished.  I asked about flames as monuments, and the students went for the Olympic flame and another example that is currently escaping me.  I pointed them toward the eternal flame on John F. Kennedy’s grave, and that was news to most of them, even the ones who had visited Arlington National Cemetery.  I googled a few images, supplied a little JFK history, and to my surprise realized that JFK was like Hamilton in having a wife who burnished his image posthumously.  Consistent with the general attitude of the group, JFK also got judged negatively for his infidelity.

Wrenching the discussion back to Hamilton, I pointed out that although Burr’s next line, “Who tells your story,” has been asked multiple times throughout the show, it is only answered in the finale.  Eliza tells the story.  As one student observed, Eliza becomes her husband to some extent by working to deal with her grief.  She no longer asks, “Would I be enough,” but instead questions, “Have I done enough?”  She interviews the soldiers who fought alongside Alexander and tries to process and understand all his papers.  She raises funds for the Washington Monument, prompting Washington to proudly announce, “She tells my story,” only to hang his head in shame when Eliza follows up, “I speak out against slavery.”

Until her death, Angelica works with her sister to tell the story.  Angelica is buried in Trinity Church burial ground where Alexander and Eliza were also laid to rest, but sadly she is on the other side of the church from them.  Always close, but always a little apart.

Eliza also went on to co-found the first private orphanage in New York City to help hundreds of orphan children like her husband grow up.  The tears were already flowing freely by this time, so I just glanced off this detail.  If I weren’t laughing so hard at my students, one of whom was hiding under her scarf by this point, I confess that I might have shed a tear at this touching part.

For the finale, nearly all the players are now back in parchment-colored costumes including Washington and King George.  Burr and Hamilton stand out in their black from the duel, and Eliza is in a pale version of her robin’s egg blue.  Through a piece of fan art I stumbled upon while googling, I found a lovely parallel that Who Lives is Burr, Who Dies is Hamilton, and Who Tells Your Story is Eliza.  (More tears ensued.)

I have heard at least one of my friends comment that he or she was disappointed that rather than ending on a huge crashing chord like the ending of Les Miserables, the last note of the musical is all in unison on a single pitch.  Perhaps that person might be satisfied to know that the ending represents the motto of our country, E Pluribus Unum.

Out of many, one.

 

 

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Hamilton: The World Was Wide Enough

The famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr took place at the dueling grounds (the cliffside backyard of a man who hated dueling but didn’t seem to be able to stop people from using his land) in Weehawken, NJ on the morning of July 11, 1804.  My students are becoming quite adept at finishing my lyrics, so I prompted, “Everything is…” and they completed, “Legal in New Jersey.”  Dueling was not actually legal in New Jersey, but it was prosecuted less energetically than in New York, so both parties rowed across the Hudson for the dawn meeting.

Although Burr has been a reasonably reliable commentator in the show to this point, he is transformed into an unreliable narrator as he tells the story of the duel.  Authors will often use children or animals to tell stories understanding that children do not necessarily grasp the nuance of all that is going on around them, and an animal such as a dog may be distractible and thus miss pieces of the action.  In “The World Was Wide Enough,” Burr is mentally compromised and does not portray reality accurately.  He comments that “my fellow soldiers’ll tell you I’m a terrible shot,” while the reality was that he was not only an accomplished marksman, he had also practiced prior to the duel.  Burr is determined not to allow Hamilton to “make an orphan of my daughter.”  While technically being true, Theodosia is already married with at least one child in 1804, so she would not exactly be out on the street with no one to love her.

The counting ends, and the Bullet mimes the shot leaving Burr’s pistol and painfully slowly making its way across the stage.  Hamilton’s mind, faster than a speeding bullet, reviews the major themes and people in his life as for the first time he uncharacteristically hesitates about what to do.  He contemplates the meaning of a legacy, echoing Washington’s own imagery of a garden, but in the silence, he imagines America as a symphony in which instruments of all shapes, colors, sizes, and backgrounds blend together in beautiful harmony that is far greater than any individual alone.  As he runs out of time, he imagines all of his friends and family who have already died waiting for him on the other side.  For a moment Eliza appears in front of him as the counterbalance tying him to life.  His brain calms at the sight of her as he bids her good-bye.  He aims his pistol at the sky and throws away his shot.

Burr cries out, “Wait!”  He has acted rashly for the first time in his life, and he immediately pulls back to his theme (wait for it) and vainly wishes to reverse his action.  The reports from the seconds conflicted about who shot first, but it was established that Hamilton’s shot did go wide and high into the trees. Burr’s shot hit Hamilton in the abdomen above his hip, and Hamilton knew instantly it was a mortal blow.  The doctor and Nathanial Pendleton, Hamilton’s second, brought the injured man back to New York, where Eliza was summoned and her husband died the next day.  In the song, a heartbeat is heard from the moment the bullet strikes until the single chime of a church bell signals Hamilton’s passing.

The people of New York City were more devastated by Hamilton’s passing than by President Washington’s, possibly because Hamilton was relatively young age of 49 and the death was so senseless.  The New York Supreme Court and the Bank of New York were both draped in black.  Citizens wore black arm bands for a month.  In Philadelphia the front pages of the newspapers were printed with borders appropriate for a funeral.  Businesses closed for the hastily arranged state funeral that was the largest such event in the history of the city to that date.

In the lyrics, Burr comments about his rival, “He may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it.”  Hamilton had left several letters behind stating that he intended to throw away his shot, which had the desired result of destroying Burr’s reputation.  My students agreed that the only thing they knew about Burr from school was that he had killed Hamilton, so Burr’s legacy is a dark one.  Burr did have a rather black sense of humor about the affair, notably referring to his longtime nemesis as, “my friend Hamilton, who I shot.”  He did once express his regret by commenting, “Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

This video is a wonderful summary and has some footage from the stage production: https://cptv.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/ham16.soc.ushis.duel/hamiltons-america-understanding-the-burr-hamilton-duel/#.Wh7JSlWnFph

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Hamilton: Your Obedient Servant

This song begins with the familiar door squeak followed by a slam, and Aaron Burr vents his most venomous and angry version of the opening question, “How does Hamilton, an arrogant, immigrant, orphan, bastard, whoreson…” Having finally established his motivation to be in the room where it happens, Burr’s every move is blocked by Hamilton.  Burr sings, “I look back on where I failed, and in every place I checked, the only common thread has been your disrespect.”  The “checked” reference is the final move in chess as we approach the endgame of their contest.

Historically, having demonstrated his untrustworthiness in the mess of the election of 1800, Burr was dumped as a running mate for President Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1804, and instead Burr ran for Governor of New York State.  It was Hamilton’s aggressive opposition to Burr leading to Burr’s defeat that pushed our narrator over the edge.  Burr was told of some negative comments that Hamilton made about him at a dinner party and took insult as a result.  In the musical, the chorus member who will play the Bullet in the duel hands Burr a quill to pen a letter.

Burr’s angry missive to his rival is met by Hamilton’s cockiness that if Burr wants to take issue, he needs to be specific about which one of Hamilton’s many insults he is unhappy with.  The tune of the song is a prissy stilted waltz or minuet as the two men engage in the intricate dance of their letters.  Hamilton had been close to dueling numerous times before in his life, but in the other circumstances, he was always the one demanding an apology, so he could afford to be uncompromising.  As the challenged rather than the challenger, Hamilton lacked a credible way of extracting himself from the situation while still maintaining his already somewhat tattered reputation.

The two exchange a series of letters, Burr in succinct paragraphs, Hamilton in his usual voluminous exposition, in which each refuses to bend or apologize. Ironically, each man observes the social niceties in concluding, “I have the honor to be your obedient servant.”  Hamilton ends, “A dot Ham.”  Burr continues, “A dot Burr.”  Burr gets in the last word, but Hamilton comes out on top.

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