I’ve got a bone to pick with you, Lin-Manuel Miranda!
But first … “Congratulations!”
I see where your hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” the rage of Broadway, has been nominated for 16 Tony Awards.
But, let me say loud and clear: as far as Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary War hero and first Secretary of the Treasury is concerned, I got there first.
In the mid-60s, almost 20 years before you were born, I was a student at St. Peter’s College (now University) taking a class on “The Federal Union,” the early years of our country when Hamilton, a newly arrived immigrant, played such an outsized role.
So hooked on Hamilton was I my professor asked me to give a talk about him to the class.
I spoke about how he advocated for a strong federal government, wanted the president elected for life and called the people “a great mob.” I didn’t like such elitist tendencies but Hamilton was treated like a son by George Washington, and, having an uncle named George Washington Maschal, I retained a soft spot for our first president.
I explained, too, that Hamilton had been mortally wounded in my home state.
Challenged to a duel by former vice president Aaron Burr, Hamilton with a friend and a doctor rowed from Manhattan to what historians liked to call “the Plains of Weehawken” in the pre-dawn cool of a summer morning.
Hamilton likely fired his pistol first but into the air. Burr, his political rival, shot to kill. The 49-year-old Hamilton died the next day, July 12, 1804.
Reading that a marker commemorates the duel, I went to see it. Then, I started taking dates, perhaps one reason for my so-so social life. After driving to Weehawken and parking near some houses, a short walk ended at a stone with a plaque. It was near the actual site, a rock shelf above the Hudson River.
I also felt connected to Hamilton because his ideas not only affected the nation but specifically my hometown, Bayonne, N.J. After the Revolution, he was determined to foster manufacturing in the new United States. He set eyes on Paterson, N.J., specifically the 70-foot falls of the Passaic River for the power they could generate.
The Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures he helped found planned to develop an entire factory town with a flourishing textile industry turning out cotton cloth using the latest technology, pilfered – with Hamilton’s connivance – from the British, an early example of industrial espionage.
Paterson eventually manufactured not only cloth, but silk, locomotives and firearms.
Following behind, Bayonne in the late 19th century became the East Coast headquarters for Standard Oil. A peninsula on the west side of New York harbor once known for sea breezes, a tourist hotel and yacht club became despoiled, polluted.
Hamilton was a Federalist, a forerunner of the Republican Party. But today’s Republicans object to his idea of a strong central government, while the Democrats are for it.
This leads, as I learned back in college, to one of those interesting turnabouts in American history.
Hamilton’s great rival was not Burr but Thomas Jefferson, who favored a limited, even weak central government. But Jefferson, at least in theory, also believed in broadening equality and opportunity.
Democrats today favor those Jeffersonian ends but are willing to use Hamiltonian means to secure them.
I bet I know what you’re thinking, Lin-Manuel, what I thought sitting in class decades ago: Ain’t history grand?
I’m glad your wonderful and sold-out-for-months musical is opening up new generations and minds to American history, so I guess I’ve got to back off my complaint.
I’ve got only one thing to add. Any chance you can get me some tickets?
Richard Maschal is a former Observer staffer.