Paul L. Caron

Monday, July 24, 2017

C.S. Lewis & Lin-Manuel Miranda: How I Found My Faith In Mere Christianity And Deepened It In Hamilton

MCH2I repeatedly (perhaps excessively) extol the genius of Hamilton (see links below). I often tell people that the play changed my life and led me to seek the deanship of Pepperdine law school.  

Part of the explanation, of course, is the artistic majesty of the play. Like Michelle Obama, I think it is the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life. Like Oskar Eustis, I believe that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the William Shakespeare of our time. But Hamilton also transformed my life like nothing else has since I read C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity twenty-one years ago. 

Although I was born and raised a Catholic and attended Georgetown University, in my 20s I drifted away from what little faith I had. Faith was totally absent in the early years of my marriage. When our children were 3 and 5, my wife decided that we needed to start going to church for the sake of our kids. After checking out several churches in Cincinnati, we attended the first service of a tiny start-up church (now one of the largest churches in America). We began regularly attending the church, and I devoured several books to learn more about the Christian faith. Reading Mere Christianity convinced me of the truth of the Bible and the Gospel message.  

Seeing Hamilton was the second epochal event in my faith journey, on a par with reading Mere Christianity.   

In all of the paeans to Hamilton, I have not seen any discussion of the stunningly powerful faith aspect of the play. The first 75% of the play is about how Alexander Hamilton, through his perseverance, hard work, and felicity as a writer and speaker, rose up from being a poor orphan in the Caribbean to become the second most influential person in the new United States of America.

The opening stanza in the opening song Alexander Hamilton:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

The ten dollar, founding father without a father
got a lot farther by working a lot harder
by being a lot smarter by being a self-starter

Aaron Burr later sings (in A Winter's Ball):

How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore
Go on and on
Grow into more of a phenomenon?
Watch this obnoxious, arrogant, loudmouth bother
Be seated at the right hand of the father

Hamilton served as George Washington's "right hand man" in winning the Revolutionary War and as Treasury Secretary in Washington's administration. Hamilton and his contemporaries assumed he eventually would serve as President himself. Yet in a breathtakingly sudden descent, Hamilton by 1800 was out of power with no political prospects for the future. The play illustrates how Hamilton's political fall was accompanied by a seemingly permanent rupture in his marriage in two scenes.

First, the play chronicles Hamilton's affair with a married woman, which his political opponents tried to use against him as evidence of corruption (he paid hush money to the husband of the woman). Hamilton instead published a pamphlet detailing the affair and argued that he was not corrupt, just unfaithful to his wife Eliza. In The Reynolds Pamphlet, Aaron Burr, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson repeatedly crow "He's never gon’ be President now."

Second, the play portrays the death of the Hamiltons' oldest son Philip at age 19. Philip challenged a man who publicly criticized his father to a duel, and Hamilton convinced his son to be a man of honor and shoot in the air, on the assumption that his opponent would do the same. From Blow Us All Away:

Pops, if you had only heard the shit he said about you
I doubt you would have let it slide and I was not about to —
I came to ask you for advice. This is my very first duel
They don’t exactly cover this subject in boarding school

Alright. So this is what you’re gonna do:
Stand there like a man until Eacker is in front of you
When the time comes, fire your weapon in the air
This will put an end to the whole affair

But what if he decides to shoot? Then I’m a goner

No. He’ll follow suit if he’s truly a man of honor
To take someone’s life, that is something you can’t shake
Philip, your mother can’t take another heartbreak

Father —

Promise me. You don’t want this
Young man’s blood on your conscience

Okay, I promise

Come back home when you’re done
Take my guns. Be smart. Make me proud, son

Instead, Philip was shot in the duel, and later died with Hamilton and Eliza by his side.

These two tragedies ruptured their marriage, and for the first time in his life, Hamilton could not fix things through the power of his words:

The first verse in It's Quiet Uptown:

There are moments that the words don't reach

The second verse:

There is suffering too terrible to name

There is a word (orphan) to name people like Hamilton who have lost their parents. In contrast, there is no word to describe people like the Hamiltons who suffer the loss of a child.

The song continues:

You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable

The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down
The Hamiltons move uptown
And learn to live with the unimaginable

So if words no longer worked for Hamilton, how did he reconcile with Eliza? The song continues as Hamilton sings:

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

The song later describes what brought Hamilton and his wife back together:

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

They are standing in the garden
Alexander by Eliza’s side
She takes his hand

It’s quiet uptown

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?
Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

If you see him in the street, walking by her
Side, talking by her side, have pity
They are going through the unimaginable

For me, the "grace too powerful to name" is the central message and beauty of Christianity. It alone is what empowers Eliza to forgive Hamilton and restore their marriage amidst "unimaginable" pain.

Seeing this wondrous depiction of forgiveness in the play left me hungering for more detail. What enabled Eliza to forgive Hamilton?  What was Hamilton's actual faith journey? Thankfully, a reader sent me a wonderful article that answers both of these questions: Douglass Adair & Marvin Harvey, Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian Statesman?, 12 Wm. & Mary Q. 308 (1955).

The article lays out the case that Hamilton's extraordinary fall led him to faith:

Hamilton, who in the years of his early success had almost forgotten God, who in the years of his greatest power had tried to manipulate God just as he manipulated the public debt to increase that power, began sincerely seeking God in this time of failure and suffering.

For twenty-five years his genius, his driving ambition, his energy, his will had carried him from triumph to triumph. His pen and literary talent had transported him from his obscure and unhappy status in the West Indies to what seemed to be the beginning of a respectable, but dull, professional career in provincial New York. Then, adventurer with his obsessive ambition and his arrival coincided with the outbreak of cataclysm that not only overstimulates ambition in some men, but also provides opportunities of magnificent scope for those who dare to take advantage of them. Now his talents and luck carried him ahead by leaps and bounds. By the time he was twenty-two, Hamilton had begun that association with Washington — the most potent figure in all America — which was to serve him so marvelously for the next two decades. By the time he was twenty-five he had allied himself with the Schuylers and automatically gained a top position among the elite of New York. Ten years more and he was Washington's "prime minister," the most influential man in the nation after his chief. Then after 1797, though Washington voluntarily resigned his supreme authority in the state to bumbling John Adams, the President's Cabinet was still made up of Hamilton's men, who could manage Adams for him. When the first test came in the war crisis of 1798, Hamilton, in spite of Adams's violent objections, gained control of the new army recruited according to his own specifications. With his army, and with a certain French war impending, Hamilton could feel he had the game in his hands. He had enemies, it was true, but they were no longer dangerous; for now no competitor could threaten his power and his ability to drive the United States along the path he knew it ought to follow. In 1798 everything that Hamilton had willed had come to pass; everything that he still desired had almost been achieved. His virtuous pursuit of power — to be used virtuously, of course — had been successful even beyond the soaring dreams of the immigrant boy of 1772. Who can blame him for feeling omnipotent? Who can wonder that by 1799 Hamilton confused himself with God.

But within one year Hamilton's power vanished, first by slow degrees, then with sudden and cataclysmic completeness. ... Perhaps never in all American political history has there been a fall from power so rapid, so complete, so final as Hamilton's in the period from October, 1799 to November, 1800. Twelve months earlier his party had seemed stronger than at any time since 1792. His position in the party was unchallenged and seemed unchallengeable. He had every reason to believe that soon his party would advance him to the chief magistracy. ... By 1801 Hamilton, whose will had mastered every obstacle, whose power so recently had seemed firmly consolidated and impregnable, suddenly experienced the nightmare sensation of impotence. ... [T]his sudden political tempest had wrecked his hopes, stripped him of his last chance for glory, ended his power to do good for his country, and stranded him a derelict on the shoals of a petty civilian life. No wonder Hamilton felt himself a failure in 1801. No wonder he suffered the tortures of a potent man suddenly become impotent. No wonder that in his despair he finally turned to God for help and support. ...

And as men do who feel completely powerless and helpless in the face of terrible adversity, Hamilton only then turned to the all-powerful Creator of the universe for support and help in his time of troubles. ... We can trace the process of Hamilton's religious conversion: beginning in anger, changing to bitterness, turning to despair, and ending with what theologians would call a new birth of the spirit. This process shows in Hamilton's own letters and in the account of these later years written by his son John Church Hamilton, who was twelve when his father died. ...

[W]e do know from his son's report that religion, beginning in 1801, suddenly achieved a new place in his life. In the words of John Church Hamilton, his father now "sought and found relief from the painful reflections which the growing delusion of the country forced upon him, in the duties of religion, in the circle of domestic joys, and in the embellishment of his rural retreat."

As Alexander Hamilton reluctantly cultivated his garden in what had become the worst of all possible worlds, his new interest in horticulture reacted reciprocally with his new interest in the Creator.

His religious feelings grew with his growing intimacy with the marvellous works of nature, all pointing in their processes and their results to a great pervading, ever active Cause. Thus his mind rose from the visible to the invisible; and he found intensest pleasure in studies higher and deeper than all speculation. His Bible exhibits on its margin the care with which he perused it. ... With these readings he now united the habit of daily prayer, in which exercise of faith and love, the Lord's Prayer was always a part. The renewing influences of early pious instruction and habit appear to have returned in all their force on his truest sensibilities.

Apparently the traumatic experience of 1800, the nightmare of impotence, produced in Hamilton a new birth of the spirit and a revival of religious practices previously atrophied through long disuse.

Nor was this new concern with God merely a matter of outward ritual observance. Hamilton became internally a new and different man. This psychic transformation shows forth clearly in the new focus of his family life. His children in later years always remember him in this period as the ideal father, proud of all their accomplishments, patient as an instructor, and joyful as a companion in play and sport. ... Hamilton himself was very conscious of the change that had taken place in his character. "While all other passions decline in me, those of love and friendship gain new strength. It will be more and more my endeavour to abstract myself from all pursuits which interfere with those of affection." As a consequence of this radical shift in the vital center of his personality, he publicly forswore willingness to hold any public office whatsoever, including the Presidency of the United States.

While the sufferings and frustrations resulting from political failure started Hamilton's religious conversion, a terrible personal tragedy crystallized the change. In November, 1801, his oldest son, Philip, was killed in a duel as a result of a political dispute: And to double the Hamiltons' oldest daughter, Angelica, became permanently insane grieving over her brother's death.  [Fn. Philip's death was a terrible blow to both parents (his mother was pregnant with her eighth child, a boy born Jun. 2, 1802, and named Philip after his dead brother), and Hamilton nearly collapsed at the funeral.]

It is this plenitude of sorrow that accounts for a totally new note — the first echo in all his writings of "Thy will be done" — that now appears in certain Hamilton letters. ... [H]ere again we have parallel evidence that Hamilton now put into practice what he was newly preaching. In his relations with individuals the old Hamilton arrogance had disappeared, and there is an unexpected and novel attitude of tact, of consideration, even of gentleness. ...

It is, however, the last tragic act in his life that shows most conclusively Alexander Hamilton's sincere and strenuous efforts to act in accordance with the precepts of Christ. In contrast to the series of earlier duels which Hamilton almost fought, his fatal meeting with Burr was not an act of pride, but ... an act of resignation. In one sense Hamilton died in 1804 because of his strong new religious faith.

When Hamilton reluctantly agreed to accept Burr's challenge, he was faced with an ethical and religious problem of the first magnitude. In a memorandum explaining his motives for agreeing to fight Burr, he frankly acknowledged a sense of guilt over the "extremely severe" and "very unfavorable criticisms" he had made of Burr's character. In making these criticisms, he admitted with painful honesty, "I may have been influenced by misconstruction or misinformation." Thus according to the code of honor he owed Burr the right to shoot at him from twelve paces. But what was his duty to Burr — his enemy, it is true, but one whom he suspected in his heart he had wronged? According to the code of honor, by accepting Burr's challenge to receive his fire Hamilton gained the right to kill Burr if he could. Moreover, by merely shooting at Burr, even though he missed, Hamilton's blazing pistol would help disconcert Burr's aim and would thus lessen Hamilton's chance of injury. This was the code duello. But Hamilton was now trying desperately to live by a different and higher code. Daily he repeated Jesus' words, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." How could he continue to say these words with good conscience, beseeching God's love and help, if his actions toward Burr, even on the field of honor, did not exemplify complete forgiveness — yes, even love — on his part? There is plentiful evidence that during the last week of June, after the duel was arranged but before the actual date for meeting had been fixed, Hamilton wrestled terribly with this problem in his soul.

At last the day was set for Wednesday, July II. On the final Sunday before the duel, July 8, 1804, Hamilton led his family at home in the Episcopal service for family worship. At this service, surrounded by his children, he said aloud the noble prayer with its resolution to grow daily in goodness, dedicating his body and soul to God's service. Then in the next prayer for grace to perform this resolution Hamilton repeated, "O God, who knowest the weakness and corruption of our nature, and the manifold temptations which we daily meet with; We humbly beseech thee to have compassion on our infirmities, and to give us the constant assistance of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be effectually restrained from sin, and excited to duty." Gradually Hamilton came to see clearly what his Christian duty toward Burr must be.

In his memorandum on the duel, found after his death, justifying his actions he wrote: "My religious and moral principles are strongly opposed to the practice of duelling, and it would ever give me pain to be obliged to shed the blood of a fellow creature in a private combat forbidden by the laws." Consequently Hamilton concluded that when he faced Burr pistol in hand, "if . . . it pleases God to give me the opportunity, [I will] reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire."

Monday and Tuesday, July 9 and 10, Hamilton quietly got his affairs in order. Tuesday night he arranged for his twelve-year-old son, John Church, to sleep with him. The son never forgot how he and his father recited the Lord's Prayer in unison. Before dawn on Wednesday, Hamilton rose without waking the boy, to ride the eight miles from "The Grange" to New York City. There he met his second, Pendleton, and together they boarded the barge in which they were rowed to the Heights of Weehawken.

The authors describe in gripping detail Hamilton's final moments: 

It was shortly after seven when the two duelists stood to their stations in the wooded clearing high above the river. At the word "Present," two reports rang out, one shortly behind the other; and the shorter of the antagonists, rising convulsively on tiptoe, staggered a little to the left and fell headlong upon his face. As the surgeon hastily examined the gaping hole in his right side, the wounded man had just strength to gasp before fainting, "This is a mortal wound, Doctor." The doctor agreed, but there might possibly be a chance to save him if he was taken back to the city at once. With the help of the boatman who had brought the party to the field, the unconscious figure was carried down the steep path, put aboard the barge, and rowed swiftly across the river to New York City. Once on the water, the fresh air and the doctor's liberal application of the spirits of hartshorne rubbed on his face, lips, and temples brought the dying man again to consciousness, although he complained that his vision was indistinct. By the time the New York shore was reached, he appeared tranquil and composed, although he was clearly in terrible pain as he was carried from the wharf to the nearby house of a friend on Jane Street. At his request his wife was sent for; and the doctor, although he did not now have a shadow of a hope of his recovery, asked that Dr. Post, as well as the surgeons of the French frigates in the harbor, who had had much experience in gunshot wounds, come as quickly as possible for consultation.

And fast as a spreading brush fire, the news went through New York City that Colonel Burr had shot General Hamilton in a duel — that Hamilton was dying — was already lying dead in Mr. Bayard's house at Greenwich.

But Hamilton did not die at once. In ghastly pain, despite Doctor Hosack's massive doses of laudanum, he begged, as soon as the first messenger hastened off for his wife, that another messenger be sent to bring Bishop Moore to him at once. Bishop Moore, the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church and Bishop of New York, was a personal friend of Hamilton's. When the Bishop arrived, Hamilton spoke from his bed: "It is my desire to receive the Communion at your hands. I hope you will not conceive there is any impropriety in my request. It has for some time past been the wish of my heart, and it was my intention to take an early opportunity of uniting myself to the church, by the reception of that holy ordinance."

Sadly, reluctantly, the Bishop refused. Both his priestly office and his Christian beliefs made it incumbent on Moore to condemn dueling; moreover, while recognizing and welcoming sincere deathbed conversions, his church holds it to be its duty to take especial care that such conversions do indeed represent a new spiritual birth. Therefore the Bishop, conceiving it "right and proper to avoid every appearance of precipitancy in performing one of the most solemn offices of our religion," refused Hamilton the Communion, comforted him as best he could, and took his leave.

But the dying man would not be satisfied. Another messenger rushed off posthaste to another clerical friend of Hamilton's, the Reverend Dr. John Mason, a Presbyterian. But again, when Mason arrived, the desperate plea for the sacrament was turned down, Mason explaining that it was strictly forbidden by his sect "to administer the Lord's Supper privately to any person under any circumstances." And again the priest did what he could to comfort the wounded man with prayers and texts from the Scripture, reassuring Hamilton by reminding him that Communion is merely "an exhibition and pledge of the mercies" of Christ, and that sincere faith made this mercy accessible without the pledge. "I am aware of that," the dying man told Mason. "It is only as a sign that I wanted it." But there was nothing Mason could do, and after a time he left.

While the two priests were interviewing Hamilton and denying his request, one of his closest friends was anxiously waiting in the next room to get exact news of his condition and to offer his sympathy and aid. Deciding to delay his trip home so that he would be available if there was anything he could do to help Hamilton's family, Oliver Wolcott dashed off a note to his wife in Connecticut, explaining why he would be late returning from New York:

"I had prepared to set out to see you tomorrow morning, but an afflicting event has just occurred which renders it proper for me to postpone my journey a few days. This morning my friend Hamilton was wounded, and as is supposed mortally in a duel with Colo. Burr. ...

"I have just returned from Mr. Wm. Bayards — where Hamilton is — I did not see him — he suffers great pain — which he endures like a Hero — Mrs. Hamilton is with him, but she is ignorant of the cause of his Illness, which she supposes to be spasms — no one dare tell her the truth — it is feared she would become frantic. ...

"Genl. Hamilton has of late years expressed his conviction of the truths of the Christian Religion, and has desired to receive the Sacrament — but no one of the Clergy who have yet been consulted will administer it.

"Whilst there is life there is Hope, but that is all which can be said. Thus has perished one of the greatest men of this or any age. ...

"Kiss the children and believe me Affectionately yours, Oliv. Wolcott."' Meanwhile in the death room at Mr. Bayard's the minutes dragged on. Hamilton's time was running out. ...

"Almighty, everliving God, Maker of mankind, who dost whom thou dost love, and chastise everyone whom thou dost receive; We beseech thee to have mercy upon this thy servant visited with thine hand, and to grant that he may take his sickness patiently, and recover his bodily health, if it be thy gracious will; and that whensoever his soul shall depart from the body, it may be without spot; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." With these words Bishop Moore began the Episcopal service for the Communion of the Sick, the dying man listening all the while intently.

For the Bishop had returned to Alexander Hamilton's bedside about two o'clock in the afternoon of the day he was shot, July ii, for a second interview. Then after catechizing the stricken man and being assured that he had met Colonel Burr "with a fixed resolution to do him no harm," that he bore Burr no ill will, that he received the consolations of the gospel with a "humble and contrite heart," the Bishop proceeded to gratify Hamilton's wish. "The Communion was then administered, which he received with great devotion, and his heart afterwards appeared to be perfectly at rest.

Alexander Hamilton lingered on another twenty-four hours. Death finally released him from his physical agony at two o'clock on the afternoon of July 12. Undoubtedly — as eulogy after eulogy repeated during the following weeks of public grief and ceremonial lamentation — undoubtedly, "Hamilton died a Christian."

The article thus enriches the play's powerful faith theme.  Hamilton repeatedly sang that he was "not throwing away [his] shot:"

I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

Yet Hamilton wrote immediately before the duel that his newfound faith impelled him to do exactly that:  "if . . . it pleases God to give me the opportunity, [I will] reserve and throw away my first fire."

A constant theme in the play is that Hamilton's fear of an early death motivated his incessant striving toward the top:

My Shot:

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory
When’s it gonna get me?
In my sleep? Seven feet ahead of me?
If I see it comin’, do I run or do I let it be?
Is it like a beat without a melody?
See, I never thought I’d live past twenty
Where I come from some get half as many
Ask anybody why we livin’ fast and we laugh, reach for a flask
We have to make this moment last, that’s plenty

Scratch that
This is not a moment, it’s the movement
Where all the hungriest brothers with
Something to prove went?
Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand
We roll like Moses, claimin’ our promised land
And? If we win our independence?
Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants?
Or will the blood we shed begin an endless
Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?
I know the action in the street is excitin’
But Jesus, between all the bleedin’ ‘n fightin’
I’ve been readin’ ‘n writin’
We need to handle our financial situation
Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation?
I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately
Smashin’ every expectation
Every action’s an act of creation!
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow
For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow


I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.
This is where it gets me,
On my feet, the enemy ahead of me.
If this is the end of me,
At least I have a friend with me.
Weapon in my head,
In command of my men with me.

Then I remember my Eliza's expecting me,
Not only that, my Eliza's expecting.
You gotta go,
Gotta get the job done,
Gotta start a new nation,
Gotta meet my son.

Get yo bullets out yo guns,
Get yo bullets out yo guns.
We move under cover,
And we move as one.
Through the night we have one shot to live another day.
We can not let a stray gunshot give us away.

We will fight up close,
Seize the moment and stay in it.
It's either that or meet the business end of a bayonet.


Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?
Ev’ry day you fight, like you’re running out of time

In the play, by the time of his duel with Burr, Hamilton's changed perspective empowers him to throw away his shot despite his earlier fear of death. 

The World Was Wide Enough:

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory
Is this where it gets me, on my feet, sev’ral feet ahead of me?
I see it coming, do I run or fire my gun or let it be?
There is no beat, no melody
Burr, my first friend, my enemy
Maybe the last face I ever see
If I throw away my shot, is this how you’ll remember me?
What if this bullet is my legacy?
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference
A place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up
I’m running out of time. I’m running, and my time’s up
Wise up. Eyes up

The play bemoans that every other founding father got to be president and got to grow old. But Adair and Marvin note that Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington all struggled in their faiths. Hamilton, in contrast, died "perfectly at rest," confident that he would spend the rest of eternity with his creator.

To those (perhaps few) who have read this far:  the story of how Hamilton led me to the Pepperdine deanship is a story for another day.

See also New York Times, ‘Hamilton’ and Heartache: Living the Unimaginable (Oct. 13, 2016). For more on my obsession with interest in Hamilton, see here and:

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Thanks Paul

Posted by: Pedestrian Accountant | Jul 25, 2017 4:42:04 AM