Friday, March 4, 2016

The Greatest Founder

It seemed like a large number of those attending the sold-out performance of Hamilton on Broadway that I saw the other day were very familiar with the score from listening to the CD which I hadn't had a chance to hear before seeing the show. But as with perhaps some others in the audience at the Richard Rodgers Theater (nee the 46th St. Theater--with a long history of staging great musicals), I had read Ron Chernow's masterful biography from which the show was drawn.

And yes, I thought the show as excellent and exciting as everyone else whose opinion on it I've seen also felt. It's a marvel. Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken Hamilton's outstanding yet surprisingly rarely chronicled career and made it a highly accessible and entertaining history program. Until Chernow turned out his massive and fascinating work, there actually was no extant significant biography of the man on the ten-dollar bill. (And long may he stay on it--put a woman on one of the others.)

Before I go into the history, let me note that the show works perfectly. The lyrics are clever, the personalities--Washington, Burr, Lafayette, Jefferson, Madison, the Schuyler sisters (Hamilton's wife Eliza and her brilliant sister, Angelica)--are depicted with perception. The show moves effectively and quickly, as if George Abbott were still alive and directing. The cast is wonderfully athletic in its dancing and movement.

Simply put, Hamilton in his brief life and short political career had more impact on what the United States would become than any of the other founders. At the end of the show, even his great opponent Jefferson tells the audience that Hamilton's financial plan was so masterful that he, Jefferson, was unable when he became President, to undo it: "and I tried!" he added.

Not only did Hamilton get his financial plan accepted--as the show describes, by dealing away the location of D.C. the capital to the South--but with his huge energy and industry, he organized the Treasury Department as the center of government. When the first Cabinet was formed, Jefferson, the Secretary of State, was off in Europe; Henry Knox, the Secretary of War, was an old comrade of Washington's placed in his post to keep the army under control; and the Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, was the new government's lawyer--he had no department (there wouldn't be a Justice Dept. until 1870) and wanted none.

So Hamilton put everything necessary, the customs service, all the tax offices, in Treasury, similar to the way Treasury is the chief department in the British government. Much of this structure persisted for the next 200 years. The Coast Guard was in Treasury during peacetime until 9/11 brought us the Homeland Security Department, for better or worse. The same was true of the Secret Service, which has suffered scandal after scandal since it left Treasury.

He was a roaring flame destined to burn brightly but briefly. As the song in the show puts it, he was GW's right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and managed to get a command right at the end, when the Americans linked with the French to win the final battle at Yorktown. Then as Treasury Secretary, he organized the whole government. 

His writing ability--he wrote fast and furiously, naturally--was his making and his undoing but he always took to his pen in any challenging situation, including exposure of his infidelity. Unlike our most accomplished intellectual President, J.Q. Adams, Hamilton was perfectly happy practicing law and he did well at the bar in those isolated times when he could focus on rebuilding his always shaky personal financial profile. Most of the time, he was too ensconced in public service to focus on making money.

He was the only one of the Founders who was an immigrant from the Caribbean who arrived with nothing. Possibly because he had no inheritance and had seen slavery in the islands, he was the only one who from the beginning opposed slavery in the U.S. But most important, in his recognition that America's future lay in industry and commerce, not Jefferson's yeoman farmers, he had a clearer vision of what the country would become. Not always good for everyone, but in terms of perception--right on the money.

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