When I took my wife to watch Hamilton for our anniversary, I didn’t expect to have the idols of my heart exposed and my life as an immigrant retold from the perspective of one of America’s founding fathers. And despite having read about the Reformed evangelical faith of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton in Ron Chernow’s biography, I didn’t anticipate the musical would portray the gospel so movingly.
The surprising redemptive qualities of Hamilton continue to shape the affections of my heart for Christ in ways I never thought possible from a Broadway production.
Hunger to Succeed
Alexander Hamilton’s humble beginnings in the Caribbean, and later life in New York City, is the quintessential immigrant story. Instructed in “New Light” Presbyterianism by a student of John Witherspoon as a child, his fervent prayer life amazes his peers while attending what would eventually become Columbia University. But the growing spirit of revolution, Enlightenment ideas, and his insatiable hunger to succeed prove too much for Alexander. He increasingly neglects the care of his soul and eventually abandons his childhood faith.
Without any family connections or a penny to his name in America, Alexander uses his brilliant mind and works tirelessly to become indispensable to those around him, propelling him from the bottom of society to George Washington’s inner circle in a matter of years. As Alexander and the Marquis de Lafayette remark to one another in Hamilton, “Immigrants—we get the job done.”
But like many other immigrants, Alexander remains tormented by an incessant fear of never measuring up to the expectations of others as well as himself: When will it be enough? What will I leave behind for my children? Who will tell my story when I’m gone?
If immigrant parents tend to overwork and neglect their families, then Alexander’s adult life is all too typical. As his wife, Eliza, says to him in Hamilton, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Come back to bed. That would be enough.”
In “That Would Be Enough,” a song for restless, workaholic immigrants, Alexander’s striving heart comes in direct conflict with Eliza’s desire for him to spend more time with the family. He asks her, “Will you relish being a poor man’s wife, unable to provide for your life?” She responds, “I relish being your wife. . . . We don’t need a legacy. We don’t need money. . . . Run away with [your family] for the summer. Let’s go upstate.” But he replies, “Eliza, I’ve got so much on my plate.”
This decision to neglect his family and to neglect rest proves his downfall, resulting in one of the first public sex scandals involving a major American politician. If that wasn’t enough, Alexander’s eldest son inherits his insecurities and dies in a duel just a few years later, trying to protect his father’s reputation. This series of events nearly crushes Alexander and Eliza’s marriage, and Alexander is finally forced to “rest” and withdraw from public life.
Whereas many married couples would find such devastating events as grounds for divorce, in this season of suffering the strength and beauty of Eliza’s character—and Dutch Reformed faith—shines. Hamilton poignantly captures the redemption of the guilt-ridden Alexander and heartbroken Eliza in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown.” The choir subtly alludes to the gospel’s power of grace and forgiveness: “There are moments that the words don’t reach. There is a grace too powerful to name. We push away what we can never understand. We push away the unimaginable.”
At the feet of the crucified Savior, Eliza receives the strength to forgive her husband. The choir narrates, “They’re standing in the garden. Alexander by Eliza’s side. She takes his hand [and forgives him]. . . . Forgiveness. Can you imagine?”
Alexander’s childhood faith is rekindled as a direct result of Eliza’s forgiveness. He finally finds the rest his wife wanted for him all along. Having received the gift of forgiveness and rest in Christ, he commits his family to the historic Trinity Church and quietly settles down in Upper Manhattan.
Redeeming Alexander’s Premature Death
In Hamilton, despite Alexander’s sincere attempts to stay away from public life, Alexander’s life is cut short when he dies in a duel with the infamous Aaron Burr, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards. Eyewitnesses to the duel have noted that Alexander shot up in the air to express his desire for reconciliation with Burr. But Burr, the grandson of a preacher who spoke so powerfully of the beauty of forgiveness in Christ, did not reciprocate. Yet as if to quell any doubt concerning the sincerity of his faith, Alexander declares on his deathbed: “I have tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus.”
The story continues from the perspective of Eliza, who goes on to live another 50 years. After mourning her husband’s loss, she commits her life to retelling his story and continuing his abolitionist work. She even establishes the first private orphanage in New York City, in loving memory of her orphaned husband.
Hamilton is a poignant reminder of the futility of striving and the redemptive power of forgiveness. Despite all of Eliza’s encouragements for Alexander to rest, the self-destructive nature of striving eventually caught up with him. But forgiveness begets forgiveness.
Hamilton is a poignant reminder of the futility of striving and the redemptive power of forgiveness.
Soren Kierkegaard once remarked that “a completely unsparing confession of sin is the perfect love—such a confession of sins is to love much.” Presumably, Eliza’s courage to forgive and love her husband was rooted in the confession of her own sins and forgiveness in Christ.
Further, through Eliza’s efforts to redeem Alexander’s legacy, we’re reminded that our redemption entirely depends on the life and actions of another. In Jesus Christ, the redemption of our legacies is secure. Our names are inscribed in the Book of Life and will not be forgotten. We can rest knowing that even our greatest works pale in comparison to our Savior’s accomplishments—which we inherit by faith. We can rest knowing that we are seen and known, accepted and adored, by our heavenly Father.