The Biography of Alexander Hamilton Put Into Songs
Alexander Hamilton experienced a rough childhood growing up on the Caribbean islands of Nevis and St. Croix. His parents were not married, making him an illegitimate child. They did not have enough money to send him to school, so he did not have a formal education. His father left the family, and his mother died when he was only eleven leaving Hamilton and his brother destitute. As a teenager he got a job as a clerk for a merchant which allowed him to showcase his genius for math and business, and to make important connections that would immensely influence his future. Recognizing his talent, his employers helped him get to New York where he would finally have access to a formal education. In addition, Hamilton ultimately formed important relationships that would affect the course of his life. It was there that he became involved with the politics of the time, where resistance to the British monarchy was growing. Simultaneously, Hamilton was discovering his own passion; he found a love for history and philosophy. Over the years at school, he developed a strong ambition to fight for certain rights and formed friendships with like-minded people. This early period of Hamilton’s life in New York and the lead-up to the Revolutionary War is captured in the the first rendition of the song “My Shot” in the play Hamilton. In this song, which recurs throughout the play, Lin-Manuel Miranda uses events from the biography by Ron Chernow to depict the passion and commitment of the colonists to create an independent country, and at the same time, shows how the personal ambitions of Alexander Hamilton align with those of the revolution.
In Act I, Scene II, which corresponds to Chapters 3-6 in the biography Alexander Hamilton, the song is used to introduce Hamilton’s significant associates and to explain their attitudes and roles in the revolution. John Laurens and Marquis de Lafayette are shown as Hamilton’s main partners and friends. Aaron Burr, who will eventually become his enemy later in life, is conveyed as arrogant, acting as though he knows more than Hamilton and his colleagues. Lastly, Hercules Mulligan is introduced as Hamilton’s first friend and only one who shares Hamilton’s lower status in society and his ambition to better himself. Together these men express the passion of the time for seizing the opportunity to create an independent nation, metaphorically expressed in the song as “taking their shot.”
In the first verse, Miranda writes, “I am not throwing away my shot; Hey yo, I’m just like my country; I’m young, scrappy, and hungry; And I’m not throwing away my shot.” These lyrics allude to the fact that Hamilton was not born into a wealthy family, which is different than many other founding fathers according to Chernow (pg.29&30). However, that did not stop him from wanting to be the best he could be and to make a difference. The words “young, scrappy, and hungry” describe both the ambitious Hamilton and the fledgling new country.
The next verse talks about Hamilton’s desire to get an education. He knows he has what it takes to go far. “I’mma get scholarship to King’s College; I probably shouldn’t brag, but dag, amaze and astonish; The problem is I got a lot of brains, but no polish; I gotta holler just to be heard; With every word I drop knowledge.” While in New York, Hamilton needed to attend preparatory school before college due to his lack of formal schooling or “no polish”. Hamilton wanted to attend Princeton, but had to settle for King’s College in New York City (pg.43).
The third verse from the song continues to discuss the challenges in Hamilton’s early life and his great potential, “ I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal; Tryin’ to reach my goal, my power of speech: unimpeachable; Only nineteen, but my mind is older These New York City streets getting colder, I shoulder; Ev’ry burden, ev’ry disadvantage I have learned to manage. I don’t have a gun to brandish; I walk these streets famished; The plan is to fan this spark into a flame; But damn, it’s getting dark, so let me spell out my name; I am the—.” Even from a young age, Hamilton was wise. He worked hard in school and at impressing influential people starting with his boss in St. Croix and continuing with John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan and Marquis di Lafayette. He had a gift, and people knew there was something special about him (pg42&43).
While attending King’s College, Hamilton’s passions shifted from his education to politics. He left school to join the local militia to fight in the American Revolution. First, he was an artillery captain, eventually moving up to one of George Washington’s military aides. This was his time to shine. Miranda summarizes the reasons for the revolt and cues Hamilton as the star in this next verse: “A colony that runs independently; Meanwhile, Britain keeps shitting on us endlessly; Essentially, they tax us relentlessly; Then King George turns around, runs a spending spree; He ain’t never gonna set his descendants free; So there will be a revolution in this century; ENTER ME!” Impressed with Hamilton, Washington put him in command of an infantry battalion in New York. Hamilton and his men fought bravely at the Battle of Yorktown in October in 1781 where Hamilton ran ahead of his battalion to engage the British, who eventually retreated. The song reflects Hamilton’s courage and success with, “Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me; I will lay down my life if it sets us free; Eventually you’ll see my ascendancy.” Indeed, less than five years after being a clerk in St. Croix, Hamilton became an aide to George Washington, “America’s most eminent man” (pg. 85). Hamilton’s personal ambitions began to line up with those of the revolution.
Next, the focus shifts to the group of Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan who together sing the chorus line “I am not throwing away my shot”. At this point in the biography, their friendship is solidifying. As Chernow writes, “…Alexander Hamilton, the outsider from the West Indies, had a rare capacity for friendship and was already attracting a circle of devoted, well-placed people who were to help to propel him to the highest political plateau”(pg. 96). These influential people in Hamilton’s life were just as devoted to the revolution as he was.
Lafayette is introduced in the next verse. He was a young aristocrat with connections to the French king. “I dream of life without the monarchy; The unrest in France will lead to ‘onarchy’; ‘Onarchy?’ How you say, how you s—Oh, anarchy!; When I fight I make the other side panicky; With my…” According to Chernow, he was so committed to overthrowing the British monarchy that he donated much of his own fortune to fund the war effort (pg. 96). Next up, Mulligan joins the song. He was Hamilton’s first friend, and one of his only friends who was a tradesman. “Yo, I’m a tailor’s apprentice; And I got y’all knuckleheads in loco parentis; I’m joining the rebellion cuz I know it’s my chance; To socially advance, instead of sewin’ some pants; I’m gonna take a…” Mulligan was already interested in politics at the time; he had done espionage for Washington and was an early resistor (pg.57). Laurens then has something to say: “Eh, but we’ll never be truly free; Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me; You and I, do or die, wait till I sally in on a stallion; With the first black battalion; Have another…” Like Hamilton, Laurens served as an aide-de-camp to Washington. He went to school in Geneva and got caught up in the anti-slavery movement there. Laurens became an abolitionist, urging Washington to free his slaves. Similarly to Hamilton, Laurens believed in dying for a worthy cause (pg.94).
Aaron Burr is the antagonist in Hamilton’s story. He and Hamilton had a long relationship dating back to when Burr attended Elizabethtown Academy a few years before Hamilton (pg.43). Both of them would end up working for Washington. Washington did not care for Burr very much, while he liked Hamilton a great deal (pg.74). He thought of Burr as a schemer and disrespectful, and his low regard shaped Burr’s political future. Hamilton, on the other hand, benefited from Washington’s respect. The arrogance that Burr carried around with him is evident in this verse in the song: “Geniuses, lower your voices; You keep out of trouble, and you double your choices; I’m with you, but the situation is fraught; You’ve got to be carefully taught: If you talk, you’re gonna get shot!” He believed he knew more than he really did about military strategy. In this part of the song, he tells the others what they should do because he thinks he is more qualified.
Hamilton is able to refute what Burr is telling them. Hamilton sings of his partners’ qualifications when he says, “Burr, check what we got; Mr. Lafayette hard rock like Lancelot; I think your pants look hot; Laurens, I like you a lot; Let’s hatch a plot blacker than the kettle callin’ the pot; What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot; Poppin’ a squat on conventional wisdom, like it or not; A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists; Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is.” Hamilton and Laurens had similar views and worked well together. Chernow called them “kindred spirits, spiritual twins” (pg. 94). Both craved military honor and thought it was noble to die for a worthy cause. Lafayette later became the third part of their trio. They shared a mutual admiration and they all believed passionately in the revolution.
The rest of the the song is mainly the company joining and singing, “I am not throwing away my shot!” to show their support for Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan. Their fervor and energy are conveyed by repeating the main words of the song, which shows their enthusiasm for the revolution. “My Shot” expresses their determination to seize the opportunity for independence. The early verses describe Hamilton’s personal aspirations, leading to how those aspirations merged with ideologies of the revolution. This flashy and energetic song retells Hamilton’s story by showing the commitment of the colonists to the revolution, while incorporating Hamilton’s personal goals that coincide with the revolution.
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