Ambition in Hamilton the Musical

Being completely and utterly late to the bandwagon, I’ve been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack constantly without ceasing lately. I know, I know. It’s just so damn good. One of the things that stands out the most to me is the idea of ambition as a dual-edged sword. Previously, I’ve written about how female ambitious characters are almost always villains. But a lot of male ones are too (just look at Slytherin), and Hamilton is a really interesting exception. (And yes, it feels strange to write about these actual historical events as if they were fictional, but assume at all points that I am talking about the somewhat fictionalized characters as presented in the musical)

You see, Hamilton is not a villainous character, but his ambition absolutely does end up being his downfall. Aaron Burr is generally presented as the villain, or at least the antagonist of the show, and he is no less ambitious than Hamilton is – he is simply less decisive. Angelica Schuyler, I would say also, displays a lot of ambition – she is unfortunately limited by her gender and the time in which these events happen, but she knows what she wants and by god she is going to get it.

And in all of these characters, the ambition changes their lives in different ways, especially shown in contrast in the first and second acts of the show. Alexander Hamilton was born a poor bastard orphan in the Caribbean (“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…” is a recurring lyric in the show), and in the first act, his ambition takes from from his arrival in the colonies to his appointment as Secretary of the Treasury by George Washington after the war. It’s a huge moment of triumph, showing how all of his constant work is paying off. The lyrics reinforce this constantly – “I am not throwing away my shot” and “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” being the two standouts in my mind.

Angelica Schuyler’s desires are very clearly introduced in “The Schuyler Sisters”, when she makes quite clear that she is “looking for a mind at work”. She is a keenly intelligent woman and she wants a man whose wit can match hers. She’s also a firm believer in equal rights for women – “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel!” And when she meets Alexander Hamilton, it seems like she’s found what she’s looking for. But when she realized a few key things – he’s broke and she needs to marry rich, and her sister is in love with him – she puts her own ambition aside. She sets Alexander up with Eliza and she finds a new way to get what she wants. She keeps up correspondence and friendship with Alexander, keeping him in her life, while also ensuring her sister’s happiness, about which she says “I love my sister more than anything in this life; I will choose her happiness over mine every time.” In the final song of the first act, it’s revealed that Angelica has married a rich man who will “keep [her] in comfort for the rest of [her] days” and is moving to London with him.

Aaron Burr’s ambition is a little different from the others. What Hamilton wants is set up in the first, second, third songs of the musical. Angelica’s ‘I Want’ song is the fifth song of the show. Burr’s ‘I Want’ song isn’t until the second act, with “The Room Where it Happens”. Instead, in the first act, he gets what is possibly my favorite song from the show, “Wait For It”. He doesn’t know what he wants and he doesn’t know why his life has turned out the way it has, but by god he’s willing to wait for it. “And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when so many have died, I’m willing to wait for it,” he sings, and you can tell that he is desperately hanging on looking for that purpose. He spends a good half of the song lamenting Hamilton’s successes – he’s so young and so new and completely audacious – “he takes and he takes and he takes and he keeps winning anyway”. And I think everyone’s felt that. Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer, director, and star of the show) said “I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve seen friends and colleagues zoom past us, either to success, or to marriage, or to homeownership, while we lingered where we were—broke, single, jobless. And you tell yourself, ‘Wait for it.’”

The second act is where a lot of things take a turn for the south. After all, we have the benefit of knowing the history, and we know the end of the feud between Hamilton and Burr. As Burr starts to figure out what he wants, it turns out that a lot of that is what Hamilton has wanted from the beginning – and is starting to obtain. Over the course of the second act, Burr’s indecisiveness starts to bite him in the ass, specifically because of Hamilton’s disdain for it. When Burr runs for president against Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Hamilton ended up with the tie-breaking vote – and even though he was lifelong enemies with Jefferson, Hamilton voted for him, specifically to keep Burr from taking the office. In the show, that turns out to be the final insult, the final breaking point in their friendship (in real life, they didn’t duel until after the 1804 New York gubernatorial election).

But that only happens after Hamilton has completely and utterly destroyed his own personal life. To summarize, he had an affair with the wife of a former officer from the revolution, who then blackmailed him to keep the affair a secret. When Jefferson, Madison, and Burr get a hold of those financial statements, they accuse him of improper speculation. In order to save his professional life, in order to maintain some semblance of being an electable man, he confesses the entire affair, not just to Jefferson/Madison/Burr, but to the world. Shockingly, it doesn’t work. It’s one of the first American political sex scandals, and we don’t have a good history with electing or re-electing the people involved. Due to a few bad choices, Hamilton ruins both his professional and personal lives, which never had to happen.

When all this goes down, Angelica returns from across the sea, and Alexander says “Angelica, thank God, someone who understands what I’m struggling here to do” and she disdainfully responds, “I’m not here for you.” Alexander’s mistake was that he put his ambition above his family and the people who love him, something Angelica would never do. In my opinion, they start out the show no less ambitious than the other, but Angelica has a line that she won’t cross. Hamilton does not.

Of course, the problem with Hamilton 1) wanting the same things as Burr but actually getting them, 2) not having any standards about what not to say, and 3) being generally a prideful person (all traits that Burr shares) is that the point of no return was very easily crossed for them. After Hamilton stood in the way of Burr being elected, there really was no chance after that. Earlier in the show, when Hamilton’s son was going to duel, he advised that they both first make every attempt to resolve the conflict with words. I don’t think Hamilton and Burr really did all they could, but actual historians theorize that both felt so severely insulted that neither felt they could back down without losing face. In “The World Was Wide Enough”, you can basically hear both of them losing their goddamn minds over this. Burr is basically howling, his voice cracking as he says “I had only one thought before the slaughter: this man will not make an orphan of my daughter.” The music actually stops completely when Hamilton starts uh… a capella rapping? I think that’s what he’s doing? Anyway, he’s musing on the nature of death and legacy and what will happen when he’s gone, accepting at this point the inevitability of his death.

The rest of the song has Aaron Burr saying how history will always paint him as the villain in this story, and his many regrets over how it went down. I don’t know if the real Aaron Burr had any regrets, but it doesn’t seem unlikely. And the song concludes on Burr saying “I should’ve known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” That line is fairly heartbreaking (especially with Hamilton saying earlier in the song that Burr was his first friend) even without knowing that that’s based on a real thing that Burr said once towards the end of his life. “Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

In the end, I think Angelica, being the more principled of the characters, is the least hurt by her ambition. She gives it up to make the people she loved happy, and that’s what mattered more to her. Burr and Hamilton sacrificed their friendship and many others for their ambition, and Hamilton sacrificed his life for it. In the final monologue, you see that Hamilton has learned his lesson entirely too late. And even though Burr survived, he learned a little too late as well.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.