“Hamilton” and History’s Darkened Rooms

By Judith Lewis MernitJune 12, 2016

“Hamilton” and History’s Darkened Rooms

IN 1983, WHILE I was preparing to play the role of Abigail Adams in the musical 1776 at Theatre in the Round in Minneapolis, a fellow cast member lent me a recently published book containing the collected letters of John and Abigail Adams. I didn’t read very much of it; at 23, I had other things on my mind, and anyway, I lacked the commitment to deep background that might have informed such lines as, “We will not make saltpeter until you send us pins!”

One scene in those letters, however, lodged in my memory: in December 1775, Abigail wrote to her husband about a man named Charles Lee, a general in the Continental Army, who had brought his dog, a black Pomeranian named Spado, to a dinner party.

The General was determined that I should not only be acquainted with him, but with his companions too, and therefore placed a chair before me into which he [ordered] Mr. [Spado] to mount and present his paw to me for a better acquaintance. I could not do otherways than accept it. — That Madam says he is the Dog which Mr. —— has rendered famous.

Modern theater fans might recognize Lee, if only by name: he makes a brief appearance in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer and Grammy-winning — and heavily Tony-nominated — musical. Miranda places Lee in the middle of the first act as an irritant — his ascension sets up Alexander Hamilton’s impending falling-out with General George Washington:

HAMILTON: Instead of me he promotes Charles Lee, makes him second in command. —
LEE: I’m a general! Wheeee!

At first I didn’t make the connection; there are, after all, no dogs in Hamilton. But of course it’s him: “He shits the bed at the Battle of Monmouth,” chant Hamilton’s young allies. In contrast to the brave Marquis de Lafayette, the inestimable John Laurens, and the tenacious Hamilton, Lee is portrayed as a neophyte and a coward, a man who suddenly finds himself in charge of a battalion and yet unable to withstand the heat of battle:

WASHINGTON: What are you doing, Lee? Get back on your feet!
LEE: But there’s so many of them!
WASHINGTON: I’m sorry, is this not your speed?

Lee was accused of being many things during his lifetime. Most were probably true. A former British army officer who had defected to the Patriot cause, he was without doubt a mercurial, temperamental blowhard. Abigail Adams remarked on his slovenly appearance, writing that “the Elegance of his pen far exceeds that of his person.” Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton, the biography that inspired the musical, describes Lee as “[h]aughty, imperious, and overflowing with opinions,” with “seldom […] a kind word for anyone’s military talents except his own.”

Then there were his dogs. They followed him into battles, attended him during military conferences, rode at the front of his saddle, and followed at his horse’s heels. “He treated his dogs as family,” writes historian Phillip Papas in his 2014 biography of Lee, Renegade Revolutionary. He “believed that they understood his feelings, moods, and words.”

What Lee was not, however, was an incompetent bumbler. By the time the 46-year-old Lee met the 23-year-old Hamilton in 1778, Lee had survived a musket shot to the ribs while fighting for the British during the French and Indian War, served as an aide-de-camp to Poland’s King Stanislaus II, and hobnobbed with Emperor Joseph II of Austria. He spoke four languages, including Iroquoian, which he picked up while living among the Mohawks, who nicknamed him “Boiling Water” (“with good reason,” writes Chernow). He was a skilled essayist, the author of a pamphlet on American rights and liberties that predated Thomas Paine’s by two years, and an expert in petite guerre, the guerilla fighting strategies so crucial to the American Patriots’ eventual success over the British army.

Washington, who once called Lee “the first officer in military knowledge and experience we have in the whole army,” valued him so much that in September 1776 he changed the name of Fort Constitution, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, to Fort Lee.

Too bad for Lee, then, that Hamilton isn’t told from Lee’s, or Washington’s, or even Chernow’s perspective. It’s told from Hamilton’s. Although Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) serves as the story’s presumptive narrator, Hamilton takes the story of the United States’s founders as seen by Alexander Hamilton and filters it through the storytelling genius of the show’s creators, who include not just writer/composer/star Miranda but also director Thomas Kail and musical director Alex Lacamoire. One of the overarching themes of Miranda’s text is that the person telling the story controls it (for a time), so it makes sense that Lee comes off in Hamilton as little more than an intemperate fool. That’s the kind of person he appeared to be to Alexander Hamilton, and at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2016, Hamilton gets to say.

Historians still disagree on the implications of Lee’s behavior at Monmouth. Henry Knox, one of Washington’s most trusted officers, testified that Lee acted swiftly to protect his unexpectedly unmatched troops; Hamilton’s friend John Laurens (who later wounded Lee in a duel — that part’s true) accused Lee of creating chaos on the battlefield. Aaron Burr wrote a letter in Lee’s defense (though we don’t know what it said — only Lee’s thank-you letter survives). Either way, Lee’s fall from grace served an important political purpose: it allowed Washington to appear heroic in the aftermath of what may have otherwise been interpreted as the latest in a critical mass of Washington’s military blunders. In 1778, with the war effort sputtering and French aid only newly secured, it was imperative that Washington’s brand remain untarnished. Hamilton and Laurens, as favored members of Washington’s military “family,” made sure that it did.

Had they not — had Lee’s reputation been repaired at the expense of Washington’s — France may never have supplied the naval support and siege skills Washington required to prevail three years later at Yorktown, the decisive battle of the American Revolution. Popular colonial support for the rebellion might have crumbled. And we would be singing “God Save the Queen” at our sporting events, spelling color with a u, and pouring malt vinegar on our fish.

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” indeed.


It feels inadequate to say that I’m a “fan” of Hamilton. It’s as if that puny word can’t contain my paralyzing infatuation, my absolute, even comical, devotion to Miranda’s astonishing masterpiece. Now, months after seeing the show, I can scarcely talk about it without choking up. It feels a little insane, as though I’ve been infected with a parasite, or dosed with a potion like the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve felt compelled to learn all the songs, memorize the original cast’s biographies, read every tweet that issues from Miranda and his collaborators. In short, I have been seized by a desire to know everything about everything that has anything to do with Hamilton, in a way that reminds me of being six years old and obsessed with dinosaurs.

I’m not alone, of course; I’m not even unusual. I am, in fact, so common that I’m a cliché. Hamilton, with its colloquial verse and embedded rap references and musical theater homages, is pure and rich nerd fodder; it’s why the musical’s Genius pages are so crowded with inside references, and why the new book about the musical, Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, topped several best seller lists the first week it appeared. It’s why Tumblr overflows with blogs by teenage artists who do little all day but storyboard their favorite scenes, whether or not they’ve seen the show. I can’t draw, so instead I embarked on an immersion program in American Revolutionary War history. I even combed through those letters of John and Abigail’s for details in the ravenous way I should have in 1983, had I cared more about acting. Abigail, I would have discovered, was a delightful prose stylist — she had a gift for suspense in even the most mundane storytelling. Both she and her husband are, at times, morbidly funny. “By this Time, you are well acquainted with the Small Pox,” John wrote to Abigail on the 29th of July, 1776, shortly after she and her children had been inoculated — a procedure that inevitably brought on at least a mild form of the disease itself. “Pray[,] how do you like it?”

Both John and Abigail were also manifestly opposed to slavery. “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be [Equally] Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs,” wrote Abigail to her husband in the spring of 1776. But being against slavery was not the same as being nonracist, nor does it mean the Adamses were intolerant of the slavers in their midst. Abigail describes herself as being “struck” by the physical majesty and good manners of General George Washington, in whom “[d]ignity with ease, and complacency, the Gentleman and Soldier, look [agreeably] blended.” She made no mention of Washington’s staff of captive human labor.

Other observers, even some close personal associates, were more frank about Washington’s labor practices. Presidential secretary Tobias Lear wrote a letter during his stay at Mount Vernon in which he remarked that, while the president’s slaves appeared well fed and clothed, “they are still slaves.” The father of our country held people in forced service to him for their entire lives on pain of death. They would be born, grow up, grow old, and die without ever realizing any hopes they held for their futures; their lives would never be allowed to blossom, never change. Their suffering struck me almost somatically while reading Chernow’s biography of Washington; it was the same grief I felt for the characters in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), who grow up knowing they’ll sacrifice their organs one by one until they die.

And there’s the rub, really, with American history. How do we tell the story of a nation whose economy and government coevolved with the practice of cultivating human capital, not just for free labor but for profit? I grew up in the Civil Rights era; my best friend in middle school was a Native American girl who drilled me on the details of the brutal calculus involved in settling the United States. I played Abigail from a balcony above an arena theater, so I listened every night while a stentorian baritone delivered the show’s solemn ballad, “Molasses to Rum,” implicating — dishonestly, perhaps — both Southern planter and New England storekeeper in the slave trade. I have spent the bulk of my adult life examining the United States’s origin story with a jaundiced eye and a focus on its atrocities. Last month, however, in the grip of Hamilton-mania, I preordered Nathaniel Philbrick’s new Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, suddenly impatient for more detail about Benedict Arnold’s treachery, and why Washington wasn’t wise to it sooner.

Hamilton, by presenting “the story of America then, told by America now,” as Manuel puts it — an African-American Aaron Burr, a biracial George Washington, a Latino Hamilton — has allowed me to hold, however tentatively, both the cruel hypocrisy and complete miracle of the American Revolution in my head at the same time. Daveed Diggs, the Oakland-based, biracial rap artist who plays Lafayette in Hamilton’s first act and Thomas Jefferson in the second, has said that his objective as an actor is to make you fall in love with his character and then feel bad about it later. Hamilton allows you to swoon for the Revolution’s hopeful edifice and then look ever more clearly into its darkened rooms.


One of those rooms — a cavern, really, or a maze — contains the muddled, conflicted legacy of Thomas Jefferson. For years I’ve accepted the common interpretation of our third president as a man who in his heart believed slavery was wrong, even though he couldn’t muster the political will to take an enduring active stand against it. “Jefferson was in a bind,” writes Annette Gordon-Reed in her 2008 Pulitzer and National Book Award–winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello, about the large mixed-race slave family that produced Jefferson’s concubine Sally Hemings, the half-sister of his late wife Martha (they shared the same father, John Wayles). Jefferson always hoped that the practice of buying and selling black people would wither away in subsequent generations, Gordon-Reed writes, yet he was economically dependent on his own captive labor force. Jon Meacham, in his 2012 Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, offers up a similar portrait of Jefferson, a man who early on fought against the slave business but in midlife “made a calculated decision that he would no longer risk his ‘usefulness’ in the arena by pressing the issue.”

There is perhaps no one in the world more reliable on the Jefferson question than Gordon-Reed, whose even-handed, careful scholarship in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) effectively ended the debate about the intimacy of Jefferson and Hemings, a year before DNA evidence linked the two. In both The Hemingses of Monticello — a book whose imaginative, exacting storytelling vividly reconstructs a lost world — and her more recent collaboration with historian Peter S. Onuf, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs,” she takes pains to observe Jefferson in his era and judge him accordingly. To brand Jefferson as a rank hypocrite, she and Onuf write, “is ultimately shallow because it is far too easy on his times, on his fellow white Americans, and on all of us today.”

Gordon-Reed and Onuf acknowledge that Jefferson fell far short of his own stated principles. His faith in future generations to solve the problem, they write, “seems absurdly misplaced.” But the Jefferson that emerges from their texts compares far more favorably against his peers than does the Jefferson in Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, or legal historian Paul Finkelman’s 1996 book Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, in which the master of Monticello appears unenlightened even by the standard of his times. Chernow notes that Hamilton, writing under the pseudonym “Phocion,” made fun of Jefferson, the supposed man of science, for complaining that people of African descent smell bad because, as Jefferson wrote, “[t]hey secrete less by the kidneys and more by the glands of the skin.” Hamilton didn’t have to explain why this was ridiculous; its absurdity was clear even to his late-18th-century audience.

Finkelman lists several instances in which even Jefferson’s fellow Southern planters rejected slavery at the expense of their personal economies, including Virginian Robert Carter and South Carolinian slave trader Henry Laurens. Laurens’s son, John — the Revolutionary soldier whose short life Miranda so lovingly renders in the musical — “jeopardized his political career” for his unrealized dream of forming an all-black battalion. Even George Washington formally freed his slaves in his will. Jefferson liberated only a handful, all of them members of the Hemings clan. After his death, the remaining 130 slaves were sold at auction to pay down the crushing debt Jefferson left behind.

Finkelman’s is, let us say, an emerging position; Joseph Ellis in his 1996 treatise on Jefferson, American Sphinx, identifies Finkelman, who presented his case at a 1992 conference, as Jefferson’s “chief prosecutor.” But it’s hard to find countervailing evidence even in Ellis’s book, which examines the myth as much as the man. Jefferson argued vociferously against the slave trade, as Ellis points out, but that’s different from accepting the personal financial consequences of his beliefs. Jefferson opposed importing more human bodies for free labor most likely because he knew that he and his fellow planters “were already well stocked,” and “new arrivals only reduced the value of their own slave populations.”

We can probably never arrive at a place of absolute clarity when it comes to Thomas Jefferson. Liberal ideologues claim him as a hero, as do extremist Tea Partiers, who cling to the words Jefferson wrote to his friend William Stephens in 1787, in the aftermath of Shays’ Rebellion: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” That the rebellion-loving Jefferson never served in any militia nor withstood any battle in his life matters little. As early as the 1940s, he had become “a kind of free-floating icon,” Ellis writes, “who hovered over the American political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams.”

One of the best things about Hamilton, the musical, is that it doesn’t try to resolve any of the contradictions that swirl around the historical Jefferson. It presents him instead as wildly, deliberately absurd, a caricature untethered from factual reality but not completely separated from truth. Like the characters of Burr, Washington, and even Hamilton, the Jefferson of Miranda’s text exists not to define but to provoke. Historian Nancy Isenberg complained bitterly in a column for Zócalo last March that Hamilton is terribly unfair to Aaron Burr, about whom she wrote a passionately defensive biography, Fallen Founder (2007). Isenberg makes errors in her column that suggest she hasn’t actually seen the musical or even listened carefully to the cast recording. She also forgets that Hamilton does more for Burr than almost any history book ever has, simply by questioning whether any of the history books got him right. “History obliterates,” Burr sings in the musical. “In every picture it paints, it paints me and all my mistakes.” Miranda paints Burr with mistakes intact, but in “Wait for It” and “The Room Where It Happens,” he gives him the show’s two best songs.

I myself might have resented Miranda for distorting the legacy of Charles Lee, my fellow dog lover, whom historian Barnet Schecter, in his exhaustive military history The Battle for New York, celebrates as a man who “inspired devotion and a measure of awe in the troops he led.” But I would never have found my way back to Lee without Hamilton.

In an election year that appears at the moment to have broken us into hundreds of antagonistic fragments, it’s a great comfort to be reminded that Americans have been bickering about pretty much the same things since the nation’s fraught beginnings — and that still, for all the fundamental conflicts and slanted truths, we have managed, at certain points in our history, to bring about lasting political change. The radiant, balletic first-act musical number that commemorates Washington’s last great Revolutionary War battle, “Yorktown,” is far from a faithful rendering of that week’s events. But it is true in its significance: a celebration of triumph over tyranny, an American Passover, a shout-out to that rare moment when hope and history rhyme. It assures us that the world has turned upside down for the better before, and will again, and we can revel in that — even if better is still a long way from perfect.


Alexander Hamilton may have recognized something of himself in Charles Lee. Though more handsome and better dressed, Hamilton, like Lee, believed in the power of words, craved the adrenaline rush of a duel, and sometimes didn’t know when silence might have served him better than words. In the end, Lee and Hamilton make the same fatal error, mounting misguided self-defense campaigns when they should have just shut up. If Continental Army General Nathanael Greene recovered from the loss of Fort Washington, which he defended in spite of Washington’s advice, it’s because he didn’t talk about it. General Philip Schuyler, too, suffered a humiliating defeat at Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, largely due to his own incompetence. A few years mum, however, and it ceased to matter. There’s a life lesson there, one Hamilton didn’t heed, but it’s not too late for the rest of us.

On the morning of the day that I went to see Hamilton, I took the C train up to the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem, the rendezvous spot for Jimmy Napoli’s Saturday morning Hamilton history tour. The mansion on a hill between 161st and 162nd streets, the former home of Loyalist Roger Morris, is where Washington retreated during the British invasion of Long Island in 1776; it’s also where Burr lived with his second wife, Eliza Jumel, a widow whom he bilked nearly dry until she finally had the good sense to divorce him. There’s a garden, and a gift shop where you can buy bobbleheads of the founding fathers. Hamilton used to gather dust behind Jefferson and Washington, but now “they can’t keep the Hamilton dolls in stock,” the wisecracking Napoli lamented. “I don’t know what it is about that guy.”

There is, however, no bobblehead of Charles Lee, nor will there likely ever be. His legacy only continued to rot after Monmouth. On June 22, 1858, George Henry Moore, a librarian and historical writer, read a document to the New York Historical Society that seemed to establish Charles Lee as a traitor. The letter, “Scheme for Putting an End to the War,” was submitted by Lee to Sir Henry Strachey, secretary to British General William Howe, in 1777, while Lee was a British prisoner. Lee was not the first or only Patriot to correspond with the British about a potential armistice, and there are many ways to read the document — one of them being a sincere attempt to save the Continental Army from what looked to Lee like complete and bloody destruction, another to steer the British to a strategy that would give the advantage to Washington’s army.

But Lee wasn’t around to give such context to the letter, nor did he leave behind any wife or heir to organize it, along with his other writings, into a sympathetic narrative of his life and legacy. Lee died in Philadelphia in 1782, at the nadir of his career, with only his dogs and Italian servant, Giuseppe Minghini, at his side. His last words, according to Minghini, were: “Stand fast, my brave grenadiers! Stand fast!” For all we know, he was reliving his last battle at Monmouth, where he maintained to the end that he fought as valiantly as any. If Hamilton suggests otherwise, it has also put Lee back in the United States’s founding narrative. It’s a story we will continue to revise for as long as the nation lasts.


Judith Lewis Mernit writes about energy, water, nature, and animals from Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter as @judlew.

LARB Contributor

Judith Lewis Mernit writes about energy, water, nature, and animals from Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Yale Environment 360, High Country News, Sierra, The Atlantic, Audubon, and Los Angeles Magazine. Find her on Twitter as @judlew.


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