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The Weight Of Legacy In Hamilton

The Weight Of Legacy In Hamilton

Well everyone, here I am to give you my hot take on Hamilton. I just figured since everyone is getting their two cents in I should too! I came to Hamilton a little later than most, I remember when I was first hearing about it before it became huge and being interested because I had liked learning about him in my AP History class in high school. Once it became a thing, with a life of its own I very pointedly avoided anything about it because I wanted to experience it for the first time live. I was mostly a hermit circa 2015 so avoiding spoilers wasn’t hard. Once it started touring I lurked on the Hamilton Lottery pages hoping to score the discounted tickets because there was no way my broke ass was going to be able to afford to see it any other way. Which is maybe one of the biggest legacies of this production – its expensive inaccessibility. But we’ll get back to legacies. 

When I finally got around to listening to the soundtrack, and even later finally seeing the play live, I was blown away. The feelings and motivations of the characters were things I became very invested in, the lyrics to songs like “The Story of Tonight”, “Wait For It”, “Satisfied”, and “Nonstop” ones I’ve definitely devoted too much time thinking on. The major theme around legacies that you can’t help but consider because the play beats you over the head with it. Every character is in some way concerned with the legacy they and/or the people around them are leaving behind. This concern informs their actions as the play goes on, before coming to their final realizations at the end of the play. The weight of legacy in Hamilton is ever present in the story, the yoke which ties the characters down and together. 

Alexander Hamilton

Let’s start then with one of the titular Hamiltons, upon whom most of the story lays. From the outset, Alexander is bound and determined to be remembered and make himself a household name. Everything he does in service of securing his legacy. His only line in the opening number aside from his name  is “There’s a million things I haven’t done. But just you wait, just you wait.”. It’s telling that the only thing we hear from Alexander in this first song is an assurance of the legacy he intends to leave behind, which he does since the song serves as a summary of his life as told by the people who knew him. Over and over in Act One he show his desperation for his name to out live him, whether he’s talking to Aaron Burr – “God I wish there was a war! Then we can prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.”- or his crew of Laurens, Mulligan, and Lafayette during “My Shot” – ” Eventually you’ll see my ascendancy”. The choices he makes from working for Washington during the war or even marrying Eliza, are shown to be in the interest of cementing himself in the annals of history. Legacy is what drives him, and ultimately what ends him.

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How interesting then, that he doesn’t actually say the word ‘legacy’ until halfway through Act Two. Instead he has relied on his gift of language to impart its importance to him, and only until he feels it is being threatened does he call it by name out of the same desperation that has driven him since the beginning. In fact, it’s his friend and foil Aaron Burr who uses the word first. 

The Weight Of Legacy In Hamilton

Aaron Burr

Depicted as the more methodical and practical of the two, Aaron Burr is nonetheless just as obsessed with his legacy as Alexander. He’s the first to use the word ‘legacy’ in his song “Wait For It” in reference to his parents – “When they died they left no instructions, Just a legacy to protect”. The next time he says it, it is again in reference to someone else’s legacy “The Mercer legacy is secure”. Unlike Alexander, Burr spends much of the play more interested in the state of others’ legacies, content to wait for his own to come to him. When he finally does become invested in his own, it’s still not enough because as Alexander tells him “No one knows who you are or what you do” implying that Burr can have no legacy without taking a definitive stance. If Alexander is too eager and brash, Burr is too cautious and vague in creating his legacy, until they switch places at the most inopportune of moments. Legacy for Burr is something to be carefully molded, with precise words and actions.

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Furious, Burr finally takes his legacy into his hands and challenges Alexander to that fateful duel. In doing so he realizes a legacy he didn’t want “History obliterates, in every picture it paints, it paints me in all my mistakes…Now I’m the villain in your history” remembered chiefly for his role as Alexander’s executioner. 

The Weight Of Legacy In Hamilton

Eliza Hamilton

Of the main characters of this play, Eliza is probably one of the least concerned with legacy. When the Reynolds Pamphlet is released her reaction is to denounce Alexander’s obsession with his legacy and decide that she was “erasing [herself} from the narrative, let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart” in the song “Burn”. This especially after having told him in an earlier song, “That Would Be Enough”, that they “don’t need a legacy”. Both of these instances are of note because Eliza, like Burr, says the actual word ‘legacy’ before Alexander does and because of the agency she shows in “Burn”. She uses the word ‘narrative’ in a moment that seems almost as if she’s speaking to the audience, letting them know that not only will she not save Alexander’s legacy but she will take the most minimal of roles in it from then on. Indeed, though she continues to appear in Act Two her words and presence are at once limited and front and center in her absence.

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It’s not until after Alexander’s death that she takes the stage for herself again in the final song, doing so by saying “I put myself back in the narrative” and realizing what legacy means for her. She lists the things she does to  ensure the legacies of other characters, with them affirming her actions in the background singing out that she’s telling their stories. That legacy for her is the orphanage she founds and the children that come through the doors. The concern for her legacy is not only whether she will be remembered, but if she’s done enough to ensure that others are as well. 

The Weight Of Legacy In Hamilton

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What is a legacy?

Alexander poses and answers this question-“Its planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” A lesson George Washington tried so diligently to teach him and the audience – “You have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story” – and it’s only when death is staring him in the face that Alexander finally understands. A legacy is not something that you make for yourself, it’s the story someone tells about you after the fact, “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.” In that lens, Eliza is Alexander’s legacy. Her love for him ensured that his story would live on in her work to preserve it. 

There is more that can be said about the role of legacy in this play. There is important discourse being had online about the fact that Hamilton is shining positive light on people who were slavers while simultaneously doing very little to address that fact. This erasure will forever follow Hamilton, one of its own legacies, but in it can hopefully inspire a conversation about a national past that has refused, still refuses, to acknowledge its sins. Conversation that will in turn inspire definitive, changing action toward a more informed and inclusive future. 

What do you think about legacy in Hamilton? Let me know in the comments below! 

Featured Image via Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/429038301983350353/