Marriage Lessons from Hamilton

Hamilton saved our summer! That might be a slight exaggeration ─ but not by much. In the midst of Coronavirus, massive closures, cancelled sports and political upheaval we received a gift.  There truly wasn’t much that shined during the summer of 2020. The musical Hamilton sits like a crown on King George’s head.

This is not the first blog post about Hamilton. Almost daily, my news feed has articles and discussions about the music, the characters, and the ways in which the production portrays history. Is it really history or a distortion? Does Hamilton have any value for us today?  Every aspect is finely tuned—from the costume designs to the moving stage—to give us a message. Even the gasp of Eliza at the end of the production has multiple meanings. The musical is set at an interesting time in history in terms of politics and culture. It traces the career of Alexander Hamilton and his marriage to Eliza Scheyler as well as his constant debates with Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson and his other colleagues. It also highlights his service and loyalty to George Washington and his role in the forging of a new nation.

It’s a lot to be taken in, but there are messages that jump off the screen. Did you catch them? The whole production is about trust, betrayal, and ambition. Is there a message that Hamilton wants to say about relationships and marriage? I want to walk you through these ideas, and hopefully it is shorter than the Federalist Papers. I have skimmed it down to just 10 powerful lessons for marriage.

 

1.    Talk Less, Smile More

This humorous line is repeated and becomes the overarching theme for Alexander Hamilton that tries to speak wisdom to him. Alexander lives his life through words, through confrontation, through debate. Words are what he lives by but they always gets him into trouble. Aaron Burr, the adversary to Alexander, is the first to suggest this: “While we’re talking, let me offer you some free advice. Talk less…” Hamilton interrupts, “What?” Burr continues, “Smile more.”  Good advice for a politician, even better advice for a marriage. From the first date to your 50th wedding anniversary, this is true. It does not help to talk past or over your partner. Pause, take time to listen. Practice active listening. Make sure you give your spouse the platform to speak and share thoughts. Talk less and certainly smile more.

Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton. Disney

 

2.    Listen to the Parents of Your Spouse (or Father Knows Best).

Hopefully, you have a good relationship with your parents. If you don’t, just know that a poor relationship with your parents will show up in your own marriage.  This is not impossible to overcome, but it is something that needs to be addressed. Listen carefully to the parents of your spouse especially during the engagement; they are saying something about your partner and you. When Alexander talks about his family, we quickly realize that there is not much there in terms of influence or guidance. For his fiancé/wife Eliza, it is meager, but poignant.  In Eliza’s signature song Helpless, she is recounting the fun and flurry of courtship leading up to a wedding.  

"Be True!"

The season of dating and engagement is extremely high energy and usually incredibly positive. Amid making plans there is also plenty of advice that comes your way. Some of it is anecdotal, some of it comes in the form of premarital counseling if you pursue that ─ which you should. Perhaps, some of the most helpful things can be the words offered by the parents of your partner. It does not matter whether the relationship is particularly strong or not; they still know something about their child and at this point should know something about you.  Eliza describes the encounter when Alexander asks for Eliza’s hand in marriage…

“My father makes his way across the room to you I panic for a second, thinking “we’re through”

But then he shakes your hand and says “Be true”

And you turn back to me, smiling, and I’m Helpless!”

Now before we move on to the romance and everyone in unison trying to imitate Phillipe Soo’s now famous "Ooohhhh," it was the two words uttered by Philip Scheyler, Eliza’s father, that are the focus here. In just two words, “Be True!” he said something about Eliza and something very clear to Alexander. Angelica, Eliza’s sister, sings the next song called Satisfied. She speaks about her sister Eliza, “I know my sister like I know my own mind, you will never find anyone as trusting or as kind.”  It is a beautiful and accurate description and probably one that Philip Scheyler knows as well.   Mr. Scheyler could have charged Alexander to take care of Eliza, to love her, to honor her. His only admonition was to be true. What is it that he sees? Perhaps ─ he sees a drive or ambition, an end that justifies means approach to life in Alexander. Philip sees potential success in Alexander’s future. Perhaps he also knows that Eliza is trusting to a fault.

 

3.    DON'T FORGET TO SPEND TIME WITH YOUR FAMILY.

Soon after the wedding, the excitement of romance gives way to the practicalities of life. There are multiple opportunities for Hamilton to recognize that he has put his career before his family and ample opportunities to correct it. When Alexander leaves to be treasury secretary, Eliza questions this move wondering if he indeed needs to go right away. The story moves quickly from the Declaration of Independence through Revolution wartime service to the world of politics and nation building. What keeps getting pushed to the background is Alexander's marriage and growing family.

“Impressions get you married, relationships keep you married.”

When Alexander says that he has to leave right away, Eliza pleads, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”  Eliza utters the most poignant line in the musical. She explains, “Impressions get you married, relationships keep you married.” She summed up the message of premarital counseling in this one phrase. Eliza calls on Alexander to leave the work for the summer and go on a vacation. She pleads,“Run away with us for the summer Let’s go upstate.” She is using the language of escape, knowing that he needs this and more importantly, she needs this as well.  Unfortunately, his excuse to Eliza and Angelica and their father is, “I’ve got so much on my plate.” These are famous last words. Eliza counters that John Adams goes on vacation. Hamilton responds that Adams doesn’t really work. Conflicting value systems come into full display for both Alexander and Eliza.  While Eliza and Angelica and the rest of the family are away, Alexander falls into an affair that ultimately ruins his career and does much harm to his marriage & family.

The original Broadway stars of “Hamilton” including Lin-Manuel Miranda (in the title role) and Philippa Soo (as Hamilton’s wife Eliza) were filmed in 2016 for this movie edition. Disney+

It takes the real Alexander Hamilton about 10 years to finally get it.  History shows us. In a letter written to Eliza in 1801 (about 10 years after his affair), Alexander confesses, “Experience more and more convinces me that true happiness is only to be found in the bosom of one’s own family.” If only he learned this earlier.  

Another theme for Alexander is the belief that he can “write” his way out of any situation. He believes that he had God’s hand upon him in his youth and thereby convinced of his invincibility. Ignoring family with work or other priorities cannot be restored. It is not like politics or achievement. Time is still time and once time is gone, it cannot be replaced or fixed. Alexander honestly believed that he could write himself out of any situation, until he is faced with a situation where he cannot.

“Experience more and more convinces me that true happiness is only to be found in the bosom of one’s own family.”

4.   Pay attention to the context your partner come from.

You are not marrying just a person; you are marrying a set of circumstances. You are marrying a person with a story; a marriage means you are entering into that story. Hamilton paints himself with honesty but is also asking Eliza to look past it all: “Eliza, I don’t have a dollar to my name. An acre of land, a troop to command, a dollop of fame. All I have’s my honor, a tolerance for pain. A couple of college credits and my top-notch brain.”  He continues, “We’ll get a little place in Harlem and we’ll figure it out. I’ve been livin’ without a family since I was a child. My father left, my mother died, I grew up buck wild.” He is telling Eliza who he is and where he comes from. In a romantic love song, he is making it clear: I don’t have much of a model for marriage or family. Still, I really like you, so let’s go for it. In the premarital context, I hear this idea often, “I do not want to be like my mom or dad” or more directly, “I don’t want to do it like my parents did it.”  That is a beautiful sentiment. However, it only works if you can identify what it is that your parents did wrong. You need a clear plan for how you will not repeat it. We are a combination of our parents. All our best and worst comes from a basic default ─ our parents. If we are not intentional, we will always drift back to our default.

Alexander promises, “But I’ll never forget my mother’s face, that was real, and long as I’m alive, Eliza, swear to God, you’ll never feel so…Helpless!” Promises must be made with plans and intentions on how to actually make them work.  While Alexander looks bad when he does not choose his family, there is something to be said about it being programmed into his DNA.  Based on what Alexander tells us about himself, we should not be shocked when he doesn’t want to spend time with the family.

 

5.   Be Satisfied.

Along with the theme of “Talk Less, Smile More,” one of the more powerful themes circles around the idea of satisfaction and the admonition to be satisfied.  In Angelica’s main song where she confesses regret in introducing her sister Eliza to Alexander instead of pursuing him on her own, they have an exchange about satisfaction.

HAMILTON: You strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied.

ANGELICA: I’m sure I don’t know whatyou mean. You forget yourself.

HAMILTON: You’re like me. I’m never satisfied.

ANGELICA: Is that right?

HAMILTON: I have never been satisfied.

If you keep searching for more, you will never find it. More doesn’t exist. Satisfaction, at its root is a decision, not something that happens to you.  The contrast between Aaron Burr and Hamilton revolves around this idea. Hamilton often accuses Burr of lack of passion, moral compass, and not going after what he genuinely wants. But in reality, neither of them are satisfied.

 

6.  If the story of your relationship or how your relationship started, sounds bad when you tell it, there is a reason.

Aaron Burr confesses to Alexander that he is seeing a married woman─ not only married but married to a British Officer. Historically, Burr meets an older woman named Theodosia Bartow Prevost while she was married to Jacques Marcus Prevost. While Prevost was away, Burr began a relationship with Theodosia. This relationship of course led to rumors. In 1780, the relationship became public.  Theodosia learns in 1781, that her husband Prevost died in Jamaica of yellow fever.  Theodosia and Aaron Burr were married in 1782. Theodosia died in 1794 from cancer. Their only child to survive to adulthood was Theodosia Burr Alston, born in 1783.  Amid the scandal, Burr sings about his anguish and the mistakes he has made: “Love doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes and we keep loving anyway.  We laugh and we cry and we break and we make our mistakes.” Burr speaks of his grandfather, “My grandfather was a fire of brimstone preacher, but there are things that the homilies and hymns won't teach ya.” That grandfather was none other than Jonathan Edwards, the famous Puritan Minister who preached the iconic Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon.

The musical makes Alexander the hero or at least the protagonist. Burr is the bad guy.  Whether by default or the perspective of history or the choices that he makes in the musical he is the antagonist. From the outset, we are not going to like Aaron Burr. Regardless of the intent of the musical, the choice of an affair is never a good look. Being involved with a married woman was probably one of the things that stopped Aaron Burr short of what his career could have been.  Prevost dies and eventually Burr marries Theodosia, which cleans it up a little.  Aaron Burr and Alexander both have the potential to rise to the levels of George Washington, Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps the missteps of both Burr and Alexander have kept them on the second tier of founding fathers.

 

7.   Listen to what your spouse needs.  

In an intimate moment during the song, That Would Be Enough, Eliza shares that she is expecting. She frames this news in the hopes that Alexander will reprioritize things, that she would become a priority. She sings, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now…Look around, look around…”  This exchange exposes what the problem is. She wants Alexander to value her and his family. Alexander bemoans his lack of finances or stature. He asks, “Will you relish being a poor man’s wife unable to provide for your life?” She replies, “I relish being your wife.” She wants him to realize all that he has already. Eliza wants him to realize what is truly important ─ what in fact "would be enough." It’s not about money or stature, but his presence which brings peace of mind.

“I relish being your wife.”

8.  Pride

The tragedy of Hamilton is Alexander Hamilton himself. As stated earlier, neither Burr nor Alexander shine completely. They both suffer from pride. They loathe it when they see it in each other, but they do not recognize it within themselves. They have conflicting and unhealthy views. They keep stepping on each other. Even though Alexander is surrounded by strong, humble characters in Eliza, Angelica and George Washington, no one can truly bring the need for humility into focus for Alexander.

Aaron Burr asks Alexander frequently, “Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?” His question comes from Burr’s own desire to be the voice in the room. Burr predicts, “soon that attitude may be your doom!” Pride was in fact the doom for both of them.  Alexander is driven, but it is that drive that builds pride and thereby allows the things he should be focusing on to fall by the wayside. From the opening words of the musical, we are introduced and admire the self-made rags to riches story of Alexander Hamilton. Unfortunately, the stuff that made Alexander was eventually the stuff that ruined him.

 

9.   No, Really... Say No to This

Injecting yourself into a bad story does not make the story better.  Alexander’s fall into an affair was almost predictable. The idea of pride going before a fall is obvious. Thinking you can fix any situation allows the situation to trap you. A woman named Maria Reynolds approaches Hamilton with a story of abuse and mistreatment from her husband. Hamilton initially wants to help, but unfortunately, his invincible and savior-complex ego leads to an affair. The song, Say No to This is powerfully disappointing. Especially as we watch Alexander fall into something that could have been prevented. The song plays on a number of religious themes. He sees Maria and the opportunity and says, “That’s when I began to pray.” Unfortunately, this is not the time to begin praying. It’s too late. Even so he continues his prayer, “Lord, show me how to say no to this I don’t know how to say no to this but my God, she looks so helpless, and her body’s saying, “Hell yes.”

Many times, the description of an affair, whether it is physical or emotional, is made to sound like it just happened. There are always circumstances leading up to it. Small choices that result in larger choices with larger consequences.  And while we initially think this is a one-night stand, Hamilton further explains, “I wish I could say that was the last time I said that last time. It became a pastime.” The nature of infidelity or any poor choice is that while we all struggle doing something the first time, the following times are much easier.  We see in Alexander’s life story, trying to cover something up took a lot of work and it eventually cost him in blackmail and the rest of his political career. How long does it take to cover up something that happens in a moment?

He does finally confess, but only after he has been caught.  His confession is the only thing that can keep him from deeper trouble. Confession may be good for the soul but not for Alexander's career or the marriage.  It doesn't really do anything to repair the damage. In recounting the earlier idea of satisfaction, the condemnation from Angelica is simple. She states, “You could never be satisfied, God, I hope you’re satisfied.” Or in other words, Alexander could have stopped this well before it got to this point.

While we see Alexander handle the situation in an attempt to salvage his political career, in the song Burn, there is a painful recounting of Eliza processing the affair. She offers us a true glimpse into the broken heart. Every facet of the affair and broken family is processed in this powerful song. She goes back to courtship and compares it all to her current station.

Her sister Angelica warned her early on, "Be careful with that one, love he will do what it takes to survive."  Maybe it was a mistake, maybe she should have seen this in the beginning. Often in the early stages of a relationship we have confirmation bias and only see what we want to.  Eliza shows inward pain, public embarrassment and exhibits the selfishness of his choice. Alexander’s pride and drive drove this story into tragedy.

In the biblical narrative of David and Bathsheba, there is much that pains David in the immediate aftermath of his affair. But the present pain gives way to continued repercussions. David doesn’t lose his kingdom, but his child dies, and the rest of his life is marred by family strife. The same thing happens to Alexander. It hurts in the present but stings more in the future. The words of Nathan the prophet to King David could have also been said to Alexander. What you did in private will be brought out into public. And once it is public, you can no longer control your story or who tells it.

 

10.  Forgiveness, Can You Imagine?

One of the most moving episodes takes place in the song It’s Quiet Uptown. Alexander is a broken man in a broken marriage. The affair takes a toll on their lives, as well as his career, the climax is reached when they lose their son in a pistol duel. Their young son Phillip attempts to defend Alexander when a man named George Eacker blasts Alexander in a public speech. Phillip challenges Mr. Eacker and is killed as a result.  This moment brings the world down upon Alexander. In another reflection of the biblical story of David and Bathsheba, David loses his son as a result.  Finally, and unfortunately very late, everything changes for Alexander. He describes the shift in his life:

“I spend hours in the garden, I walk alone to the store

And it’s quiet uptown, I never liked the quiet before

I take the children to church on Sunday, a sign of the cross at the door

And I pray…That never used to happen before”

In a moment of epiphany, he finally is able to own up to his choices to Eliza and what those choices have wrought. And the most amazing word is said ─ Forgiveness. It is followed by a question: “Forgiveness. Can you imagine?”

The song suggests they are going through the unimaginable. Ironically, in this moment, they are also doing the unimaginable. Alexander asks and Eliza forgives.  The idea of forgiveness for many, for all really can be unimaginable. One of the hardest things to reconcile is the idea of God offering forgiveness to humanity. What is even more unimaginable is the idea of God forgiving us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.      

I am not suggesting that forgiveness be fast or easy or expected. There are plenty of relationships that cannot be saved, they are too far gone. Even in the words of Jesus, divorce is frowned upon except in the case of adultery. There is perhaps a recognition that some things are just broken. Sometimes people only have one choice ─ to move on separately.

Be that as it may, there is still something beautiful in the picture of forgiveness. Even after Alexander has gone through it all, there is a realization that there is really only one person who has been through it all with him. Does Alexander deserve it? No. Does Eliza have to forgive? No. But forgiveness sets them both free in the end. Without forgiveness, you become both a prisoner a prisoner and a guard. The reality is they are both doing time, and neither are really free.  Forgiveness is the most beautiful thing that can happen in a marriage, in any relationship. You don’t want to abuse it or take it for granted.

Without forgiveness, you become both a prisoner a prisoner and a guard. The reality is they are both doing time, and neither are really free.

If you are reading this, you are most likely in the engagement world. The fun and romance that Eliza enjoyed before her wedding is hopefully what you are experiencing now.  You want your marriage to be strong and lasting.  This is my hope for you as well.  Do not throw away your shot at a healthy marriage. I encourage you to think about these ten lessons and when you tell your story, my hope is that it is a good one.

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