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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Hamilton: The Election of 1800

The Election of 1800 once again highlights the significant flaw in the Constitution that the Electoral College did not originally use separate votes for president and vice president.  President John Adams, having destroyed all of his political support with some help for the much-maligned Hamilton, was out of the running, and in the vote tally for his successor, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied.  Jefferson asked Burr to step aside and be vice president; Burr refused.  Thus the election was thrown to the House of Representatives, full of lame-duck Federalists, to sort it out with each state given a single vote on the issue.

In the musical, Hamilton, still in mourning for his son, repeats Eliza’s theme, “It’s quiet uptown,” and initially stands apart in the midst of the hoopla of both candidates and the ensemble, but inevitably Hamilton is drawn back into the political intrigue.

In a letter to Oliver Wolcott, Jr. around that time, Hamilton wrote:

“As to Burr, there is nothing in his favour.  His private character is not defended by his most partial friends.  He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country.  His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement.”

Hamilton had grave reservations about installing Burr, a man with questionable morals, with large debts who would be susceptible to bribery, and who appeared to have no principles at all as the leader of the country. Hamilton told his fellow Federalists that if they supported Burr, they would be signing their own death warrant.

In contrast, Jefferson had always argued passionately from a position of strong convictions, even if they were the polar opposite of Hamilton’s views on every topic.  Ironically, as Jefferson’s staunchest longtime critic, Hamilton found himself needing to undo many of the public accusations that he himself had made.  Perceptively, Hamilton realized that although Jefferson had long argued for the primacy of the legislative branch, Jefferson might change his tune if he was elevated to chief of the executive branch.  Similarly, Hamilton suspected that Jefferson’s unflagging support for France might be conveniently discarded when no longer needed as a counterweight to Hamilton and Adams’ sense of connection to England.  Both position shifts would indeed come to pass.

Hamilton threw his influence behind Jefferson, resulting (after 36 votes in the House) in Jefferson becoming president and the demonstratively untrustworthy Burr becoming vice president for Jefferson’s first term and to be discarded as soon after as was expedient.

In the lyrics of “The Election of 1800,” I’m amused by one ensemble member’s analysis of Burr, “He seems approachable, like you could have a beer with him.”  That was the reasoning behind numerous voters selecting George W. Bush as their president in 2004, so I asked the students what they would look for in a candidate they were selecting.  The responses included an understanding of the student voter as an individual, a lack of bias, and experience or competence in a position relating to the job.  Interestingly, our Kuwaiti student said that he valued independence in a candidate since so many government workers in his country are of poor quality.  I did note that competence was pretty far down on the list of desirable qualities.  I personally wish it were a higher priority.

I have done my best to resist modern partisan politics in the class, but in this case, that was the direction that the class wanted to go.  The students spoke of being in high school classes where every student was an immigrant, first generation American, or undocumented. In many of their classes there were no White faces in the room.  When a classmate voted for Trump in the 2016 election, they felt it as a personal betrayal of their lives and their existence.  When teachers refused to discuss the election, it was assumed that they, too, had voted for Trump, which felt like an even further betrayal of the students who they taught.  One student spoke about the cheerleaders, twirlers, and football players of her school who went to a neighboring school for a game shortly after the election.  What had been a friendly and welcoming environment the year before morphed into an ugly and hostile confrontation post-election.  One of the few White students in the school group was extremely disturbed and asked if that sort of aggression and antagonism was the norm.  Her classmates, who represented numerous ethnic minorities, sadly answered simply, “Yes.”  These were stories that the students obviously felt compelled to share and to have validated.  (I threw out the rest of the lesson plan at this point.)

I did not to disagree with the students’ experiences but instead presented a different perspective, particularly for the teachers.  I pointed out that although my students may be able to guess my political leanings, I feel it is very important for me not to impose my opinions on the students as a substitute for them deciding on their own.  My dual goals are to teach the students to think through situations independently and to make sure they took the time to understand people who have the opposite viewpoint.  It is quite possible that the students read the situation correctly that their teachers had voted for Trump, but it is also possible that the teachers felt that it would be inappropriate to mix partisan politics in a learning environment.

I’m not sure that I had articulated those goals to the students before, but I was happy to have the opportunity to reinforce that studying Hamilton has indeed been about standing in someone else’s shoes and understanding their perspective as well as gathering evidence and figuring out what you think without someone dictating it to you.

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Hamilton: Blow Us All Away/ Stay Alive/ It’s Quiet Uptown

We killed Philip on Friday.  It was very traumatic for the entire class.  There were tears.  I told the students that at least I packed the whole episode into a single class period rather than dragging it out over two sessions.  They were only slightly mollified.

At age 19, there was every evidence that Philip Hamilton was a chip off his father’s block.  Handsome and smart, he had been given all of the advantages of education and culture that his father had lacked, but he also had his father’s flaws of excessive pride and a quick temper (as well as being a ladies’ man.)  Philip and a friend overheard a young lawyer named George Eacker give a speech that blamed a recent diplomatic mess (the XYZ affair) with France on Alexander Hamilton.  Philip fumed over the insults and was primed for a confrontation.

In the musical, Philip encounters two women on the street.  (In the libretto, they are identified as Dolly and Martha, representing a sly dig from Lin-Manuel Miranda at the wives of Madison and Jefferson respectively.)  The actress playing Martha also plays the role of the Bullet throughout the show.  The Bullet is associated with death, and in this case, she tells Philip how to find the man who will ultimately kill him.

Historically Philip and his friend confronted Eacker at a theatrical performance, ironically a comedy called The West-Indian, a coincidental connection with Alexander.  Angered at the aggressive heckling from the pair, Eacker challenged each youth to a duel.  In the meeting with Philip’s comrade, four shots were exchanged with no injury, and the affair was settled.  Apparently far more vexed at Philip, Eacker met him later at the dueling ground in Weehawken, NJ.  (“Everything is legal in New Jersey.”)  Having been coached by his father to delope or “throw away his shot” by firing into the air, Philip did not raise his pistol. The two men stared at each other for several minutes with no action.  Eventually Eacker fired, and because duelists stand sideways to minimize their size as a target, the bullet entered Philip’s right hip, traveled through his body, and lodged in his left arm.  The wounded man was brought back to Manhattan and taken to Angelica Schuyler Church’s house where he died in agony about a day later.  The bass heartbeat in “Stay Alive” ends with Philip’s death.

By all accounts, Hamilton was absolutely devastated by the loss of his son, and although it is not mentioned in the musical, Philip’s sister Angelica Hamilton also loses her mind with the loss of her brother, and she is never mentally healthy again for the rest of her life.  “It’s Quiet Uptown” is narrated by Eliza’s sister, Angelica, who is the character in the show with the deepest empathy for both parents as they try to cope with the unimaginable losses they have experienced.  Alexander, a man for whom words have always been his passion and his salvation, is so wounded that he speaks in the words of others, such as Burr’s line, “You knock me out, I fall apart.”  Having not prayed since his prayers for strength went unanswered to say no to Maria Reynolds, Hamilton returns to church and becomes more religious.

Eventually Hamilton shifts his focus from what he has lost to what he still has as he tried to ease the pain for his wife, who has been through so much.  He sings to her, “Look at where we are.  Look at where we started… But hear me out.  That would be enough.”  These are Eliza’s themes, and at last he is singing her tune and is placing family above self.  At long last, Eliza takes her husband’s hand, the first physical contact they have had since Hamilton’s affair, and sings, “It’s quiet uptown.”  She has her husband’s undivided attention for the first time in her life, and their shared grief eventually brings Eliza to forgive Alexander for his infidelity.  They deal with their unimaginable loss together and Hamilton’s letters show a renewed concern and priority for his marriage.

We listened to “It’s Quiet Uptown” at the end of class, and there were definitely tears.  I had to let the students listen to “Nonstop” to put them back together again and cheer them up.  I’m impressed that a number of the students knew all the words and sang along.  We may have to have a Hamilton dance party at the end of the semester.

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Hamilton: “Immigrants- we get the job done”

In the second act of Hamilton, Alexander is frequently scorned as an immigrant behind his back.  I wanted to explore my students’ own family or cultural stories of arriving in this country, so I asked them to talk to their families and learn what they could.  The resulting discussion was brave, funny, and brutally candid.

Two of the students are first generation immigrants who were born in another country.  One is here on a student visa from Kuwait having left his entire family at home.  The other came to New York City from the Dominican Republic in January when she was five.  Her first memory is that it was so cold!  She made her first friend when a young boy asked her why she was dressed like it was summer, and he gave her his coat.

The vast majority of the students are second generation immigrants.  Their parents came to the United States from Haiti, Antigua, Jamaica, England, Portugal, Brazil, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and Mexico.  They spoke of the challenge of getting immigration papers and of families that were broken up when one parent got papers and the other couldn’t.  One explained that her El Salvadoran mother arrived undocumented but immediately was given protected status.  Another spoke of a mother’s harrowing trip across the Mexican border with “El Coyote,” and who had subsequently been deported twice because she remains undocumented.  That has meant no family vacations involving airport security and a constant fear that a parent could be removed without notice.

Family was of critical importance in their journeys.  A child might be left in the home country until the parent was financially stable enough to care for him or her, or a child might be sent to the States to help her escape a natural disaster.  Many specifically joined family members who were already in the U.S. to have a place to stay and some form of support.  Birth order in a large family might mean needing to grow up early to take care of siblings or that money had run out to pay for legal immigration for the youngest of a large brood.

Some parents grew up in abject poverty, such as the father from Mexico whose parents were both gone by his age 12 or the grandmother in Puerto Rico who lost three children to starvation.  Other students observed alcoholism or abusive relationships that had affected their families’ lives either in the home country or after their arrival here, where there was a negligible support network to be able to escape.

In some cases, family members arrived to find thriving communities of immigrants to help ease the transition such as the Portuguese community in Hartford, the Middle Eastern community in California, the Puerto Rican community in New Jersey, or Chinatown in New York City.  In other cases, there was little or no connection among immigrants leaving the newcomers to make their own ways in the bewildering system of American schools and jobs.  One individual arrived in the States to find that the mother who preceded her had changed almost to be unrecognizable.  She refused to cook the familiar food of her homeland, but she equally didn’t embrace the celebrations and holidays of her new home leaving her daughter adrift.  Another mentioned meeting other immigrants from El Salvador, but there was no central place where those people gathered to celebrate their culture.

The ability to speak English had a considerable impact on immigrants’ ability to find jobs and integrate into the local culture.  Inability to speak English at all made it difficult to find a job, and those people ended up employed as unskilled labor.  There was a perception that speaking with an accent made people assume that you were less intelligent, regardless of your test scores or offers of scholarships.  One student recounted the story of her father who arrived with no English except, he thought, the ability to express his gratitude appropriately.  After completing a transaction in a store, he proudly announced, “Merci!”  The shopkeeper replied in a torrent of French, which bewildered the poor native of Portugal.

It was universally felt that immigrants had to work harder to make ends meet to pay for education, support for children back home, and to get a fresh start in their new country.  They spoke of low-wage poorly paying jobs of being house maids, home healthcare workers, factory workers, or restaurant chefs.

There were a few students who elected not to tell their stories, but instead wrote them to me as part of the homework assignment.  Thus I was gifted with the story of a student whose ancestors were slaves who were brought from Africa against their wills under unspeakable conditions and whose descendants still experience irrational hatred and discrimination and random acts of violence simply because of the color of their skin.  I was rather surprised that more students didn’t have similar stories, but I was acutely aware in reading the papers that this was the one story that was not full of hope.  America was not a promised land for this students’ ancestors, it was instead a land of oppression.

It was disappointing to one fair-skinned student who is a fourth- or fifth-generation immigrant to be able to contribute less to the rich tapestry of stories woven by her classmates.  I felt it was a healthy change that the children of immigrants were the norm rather than the exception. This assignment also prompted the students to talk to their families and learn more of their heritage, although at least one student suspected that her grandparents heavily censored what they told her to leave out the bad parts.

I look upon my students differently today, since each one has been launched through the hard work of parents and families who want a better life for their children.  Each has been sent to college full of the hopes and dreams not just of the students, but also of all the people whose sacrifices gave them this opportunity.  I am incredibly honored to be gifted with their stories.


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Hamilton: Burn

In “Burn,” Eliza stands alone on the stage and delivers her heartbroken response to the revelation of her husband’s affair in the Reynolds Pamphlet.  “Burn” is also the culmination of the fire imagery in the production that began when Hamilton announced his desire to “fan this spark into a flame,” and that appeared to be burning out of control in “Washington on Your Side,” as Jefferson and Madison commented, “If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse, you can’t put it out from inside the house.”

The homework assignment for this song was what I call annotations.  Rather than simply reading the text, the key is to interact with it, so the students are asked to write comments, questions, and definitions in the empty space around the lyrics.  Students will often add to these comments based on what we discuss in class, but for this song, which is barely over a page long, several of them had already written so much at the beginning of the class that there little empty space on the page.  I usually choose songs for the students to annotate based on which songs I myself have written extensive comments on, but this is the first time that their annotations approached the density of mine.  They’ve learned a lot this semester.

Burn annotations

One reason I chose to look at this song in depth is because of an excellent example of intertextuality.  In addition to the Bible and Shakespeare, a third major source of reference material that both Colonials and modern day people might have encountered is Greek mythology.  Eliza mentions that Angelica’s response to Hamilton’s actions was that Hamilton is an Icarus who has flown too close to the sun.  Several of the students had looked up the story of Daedalus, who made wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son to escape from the labyrinth of the Minotaur.  In spite of his father’s warnings not to fly too high or too low, the prideful Icarus soared to great heights, causing the sun to melt the wax holding the feathers together, and Icarus tumbled to his death.  The excess heat represents another dimension of a burn.

This scene of Eliza burning all the letters she wrote to her husband probably did not happen in reality, although after Hamilton’s death, Eliza did apparently destroy her letters to him as part of preserving his legacy.  Other than Abigail Adams’ extensive correspondence, there are few examples of large bodies of letters from women of the revolutionary time, and “Burn” thus illustrates the great challenge of telling history from the women’s perspective.

In destroying her correspondence, Eliza deliberately “erases herself from the narrative” and withdraws from participating in Alexander’s story.  She allows Angelica to be her voice, quoting from letters she received from her sister, and towards the end, she refers to herself in the third person as though she is a detached observer who is no longer directly involved.

For the first time in her story arc, Eliza acquires agency, or the knowledge that she owns her own actions and her own life.  The students pointed out that Eliza has discarded her previous helpless theme and she no longer asks if she can be enough to make her husband.  It may be true that you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story, but her choices are still significant to how that story will be written.  In Eliza’s case, eventually she will live AND tell the story.

I was intrigued that many of the students felt that Eliza calmly dealt with her husband’s perfidy.  I assume that their observations of hurt and betrayal have been of loud angry rages rather than the bitterly quiet closing off of one’s self, which Eliza demonstrates.  They suggested that Angelica would have confronted a cheating husband more vocally and directly (they really do love Angelica), whereas Eliza retreats into solitude.  Eliza, however, knows Alexander better than anyone else.  In burning her letters, she destroys words that her husband prizes so highly, which is possibly the most painful retribution that could have been dealt to Hamilton.

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