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Portico columns

Hamilton: The Man and the Musical

James Barber
August 21, 2018

The relatively recent fascination with the life of Alexander Hamilton began with a best-selling biography, which inspired a talented young lyricist and playwright to write, compose, and produce Hamilton: An American Musical. The show has been playing in Washington this summer and has turned the Kennedy Center into a virtual monument to this singular founding father, whose life, like the musical’s DC run, was much too short. Hamilton is itself a monument to its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda; it has won a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award, and eleven Tony Awards. Moreover, its pop appeal has garnered tremendous commercial success.

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Alexander Hamilton by George Graham, c. 1800-1804; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Hamilton, the historical entity, however, does not have a permanent national monument in Washington to rival the grand memorials to Washington and Jefferson, two of his many influential political contemporaries. Washington, who was Hamilton’s senior by twenty-years, was close to being a mentor during the Revolutionary War when Hamilton was his chief staff aide. Washington came to rely upon his keen administrative talents, articulation, and penmanship in writing military orders and sending the Continental Congress requests for supplies and money. Likewise, as president, Washington shared Hamilton’s national view for a strong federal government. Appointed as the first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton and his policy proposals—especially for a national bank—won Washington’s approval.

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George Washington by Thomas Cheesman after John Trumbull, 1796; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
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Thomas Jefferson by David Edwin after Rembrandt Peale, 1801; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Conversely, the political philosophies of Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were at odds in their day and are still being debated nationally in forums throughout the country. The case for strong central government versus less government will always be a relevant issue, one that will never be decided definitively, and one that can be both wise and ill advised. Yet who can deny that the necessary and inevitable expansion of the federal government to meet the seemingly innumerable needs and entitlements of the American people has exponentially validated Hamilton’s point of view. His legacy and image are as ubiquitous as a ten-dollar bill.

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