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How Alexander Hamilton Wrote His Way to the Top

“To understand Hamilton’s productivity, it is important to note that virtually all of his important work was journalism, prompted by topical issues and written in the midst of controversy.”


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Brooke Harrison

4 months ago | 11 min read
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Advice for writers: the pen is mightier than the sword

Alexander Hamilton was many things — an immigrant, a soldier, a Founding Father — but first and foremost, he was a writer.

Writing was Hamilton’s weapon of choice. He was incredibly prolific. After he died, his wife spent much of her life organizing her husband’s papers and preserving his legacy.

Hamilton’s writing is what allowed him to rise up out of obscurity and make a name for himself in America.

When Lin Manuel-Miranda picked up Hamilton’s biography, he was moved by Hamilton’s story — this was a man who’d embodied the American dream. And Miranda, coming from a background in theatre, heard Hamilton’s voice through music.

The genre that best suited the “non-stop” writer? Hip hop, of course… lyrics packed with content, and a pace to match Hamilton’s relentless energy.

“He was born a penniless orphan in St Croix, of illegitimate birth, he became George Washington’s right-hand man, became treasury secretary, caught beef with every other founding father… and all on the strength of his writing. I think he embodies word’s ability to make a difference.” ~ Lin Manuel-Miranda

In the song “Hurricane,” Hamilton thinks back on the times writing gave him an “out” and shaped his future. Lin Manuel-Miranda, as Hamilton, sings:

“I wrote my way out of hell. I wrote my way to revolution. I was louder than the crack in the bell. I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell. I wrote about the Constitution and defended it well. And in the face of ignorance and resistance, I wrote financial systems into existence. And when my prayers to God were met with indifference, I picked up a pen, and I wrote my own deliverance.” ~ Alexander Hamilton, “Hurricane”

Our words have power. The ability to organize your thoughts on paper in a way that influences or incites others to action is a gift. As writers, we carry enormous responsibility.

There are so many ways your writing can make a difference. Let’s look at some of the pivotal moments in Hamilton’s life in which his writing helped shape his future. I hope these examples remind us of the power of our voices.

“Hurricane”: Hamilton Writes His Way Out

In the first song of the show, “Alexander Hamilton,” the cast summarizes Hamilton’s young adult life in 4 minutes. He came from nothing, but he was smart, and hard-working, driven by a desperate desire to make something of himself.

It was his writing that gave Hamilton an “out” and allowed him to build a new life for himself in New York. When he was a teenager, a massive hurricane devastated St. Croix — and he wrote about it.

“Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned / Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain / Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain / And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain.”

~ “Alexander Hamilton”

When we write from a place of personal pain or emotion, we tap into something raw and real. That’s the kind of writing that connects with people, especially if they can relate to it. In Hamilton’s case, he wrote about an event that touched the lives of everyone on the island.

His words — originally a letter, but published in a local Gazette — so moved the people that they collected money for him. In his biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow writes, “Hamilton did not know it, but he had just written his way out of poverty.

This natural calamity was to prove his salvation. His hurricane letter generated such a sensation that a subscription fund was taken up by local businessmen to send this promising youth to North America to be educated.”

This piece of Hamilton’s journey was not contrived… he wasn’t writing with an agenda, but with an honesty that spoke to others.

In what areas of your life could you be more raw or vulnerable? How could you be more open and honest in your writing? If you struggle to connect with your readers, this might be what you’re missing.

“Farmer Refuted”: Hamilton’s Bold Political Rebuttals

Hamilton was a go-getter — even when he was young and inexperienced in the eyes of society, he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind (or, more accurately, commit his thoughts and political opinions to paper).

Hamilton arrived in New York shortly before the American Revolution, and the tension between colonists and British loyalists was strong.

In the show, we see Hamilton voicing his strong opinions about the inevitability of revolution — in response to a man named Samuel Seabury. In Chernow’s biography, he describes Seabury as “very pompous,” and his writing as “bristling with energetic intelligence.”

“Heed not the rabble who scream revolution / They have not your interests at heart.” ~ Samuel Seabury, “Farmer Refuted”

“Oh my god. Tear this dude apart.” ~ Hercules Mulligan, “Farmer Refuted”

“Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea? / Burr, I’d rather be divisive than indecisive, drop the niceties.” ~ Alexander Hamilton, “Farmer Refuted”

This is such a fantastic scene because we’re given a taste of the controversial politician Hamilton is to become. His writing is unafraid and unashamed. The verbal sparring between Hamilton and Seabury in the song crackles with wit.

Historically, Hamilton responded to Seabury’s writings with pamphlets of his own, the more recognizable of the two entitled “The Farmer Refuted” (as Seabury wrote under the pseudonym ‘A Westchester Farmer’). According to Chernow, this “eighty-page tour de force” was Hamilton’s “first great performance in print.”

“Seabury gave Hamilton what he always needed for his best work: a hard, strong position to contest. [Hamilton] gravitated to controversy, indeed gloried in it… In retrospect, it was clear that [Hamilton] had found his calling as a fearless, swashbuckling intellectual warrior who excelled in bare-knuckled controversy.” ~ Ron Chernow

You can stand up and shout at people all day long, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to listen. Often, it’s putting our thoughts in writing that allows us to reach a wider audience and influence popular opinion.

“The pen is mightier than the sword,” as they say, and I think this phrase suits no one better than Alexander Hamilton.

What issues do you feel passionate about? How could your writing make a difference? You have a gift — use it. Think about Hamilton’s determination to use his writing prowess not only to defend his beliefs but to refute the ideas of his opposition.

Image from linmanuel.com

“Helpless”: Hamilton Woos His Wife

Hamilton was popular with the ladies, and it’s only natural that he made the most of his ‘way with words’ to woo his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. He wrote her love letters, and occasionally romantic poetry.

“Now my life gets better, every letter that you write me.” Eliza Schuyler, “Helpless”

In one of the saddest moments of the play, Eliza urges Hamilton to return to bed on the morning of his duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton sings, “Best of wives and best of women,” a reference to a hymn he wrote for Eliza before the duel. “Adieu best of wives and best of women.”

Of course, there was also the flirtation between Hamilton and his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler… the play teases the relationship between the two, particularly in the song “Satisfied,” when we see Hamilton’s whirlwind courtship with Eliza from Angelica’s point of view.

Hamilton and Angelica wrote to one another, and Chernow writes, “Hamilton always wrote to her in a buoyant, flirtatious tone.”

There’s a line I love in the song “Take a Break,” when Angelica ponders the meaning of Hamilton’s comma placement in the greeting of one of his letters:

“In a letter I received from you two weeks ago / I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase / It changed the meaning. Did you intend this? / One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days. It says: ‘My dearest, Angelica,” / With a comma after ‘dearest.’ / You’ve written ‘My dearest, Angelica…’” ~ Angelica Schuyler, “Take a Break”

In a footnote in Hamilton the Revolution, Lin Manuel-Miranda writes, “[The lyrics] are based on actual correspondence between Alexander and Angelica. They’d slip commas between words and change the meaning. The passage that inspired this verse was actually in French. Comma sexting. It’s a thing. Get into it.”

The written word gives us a vehicle for expressing our feelings and emotions. Someone might say anything, but written words are powerful because we know there was deliberate thought and intent behind them.

Have you thought about using your writing to show love or appreciation for the people who matter to you? How often do we take the time to pen intentional messages to the people we love (aside from texts or social media)?

“Right Hand Man”: The Revolutionary War

“I’ll write to Congress and tell ’em we need supplies / You rally the guys, master the element of surprise. / I’ll rise above my station, organize your information ’til we rise to the occasion of our new nation. Sir!” ~ Alexander Hamilton, “Right Hand Man”

During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton served on Washington’s staff and became the general’s chief aide. While Hamilton yearned to fight, it was his skill with a pen that made him such an indispensable member of Washington’s staff.

Chernow wrote that “Washington knew that he lacked verbal flow” and that he “sorely needed a fluent writer.” Washington’s aides wrote much of his letters and correspondence. Hamilton was adept at intuiting what Washington wished to say, and how best to say it.

“It was an inspired act of ventriloquism: Washington gave a few general hints and, presto, out popped Hamilton’s letter in record time… Pretty soon, the twenty-two-year-old alter ego was drafting letters to Congress, state governors, and the most powerful generals in the Continental Army.” ~ Ron Chernow

Even in times of war, writing proved to be an invaluable skill. Communication between the troops and Congress was critical, and Hamilton had a knack for expressing Washington’s thoughts and ideas clearly. Not to mention, he could write persuasively.

Though Hamilton would have preferred a command, it was his time as Washington’s private secretary that elevated his status.

How can you build credibility with your writing, or use it to serve others? Don’t underestimate the importance of documentation and literacy. Be proud of your ability to express yourself on paper!

“Non-Stop”: Hamilton Defends the Constitution

As one of our Founding Fathers, Hamilton helped draft the Constitution. At first, the American people were divided over the contents of the Constitution…

They broke into two camps: (1) the “federalists,” who advocated for the new Constitution and a dominant central government, and (2) the “antifederalists” who opposed it.

“The rancor ushered in a golden age of literary assassination in American politics… Poison-pen artists on both sides wrote vitriolic essays that were overtly partisan, often paid scant heed to accuracy, and sought a visceral impact.” ~ Ron Chernow

In other words, it was the equivalent of a heated social media battle. Think Twitter war, if tweets were wordy argumentative essays.

“We smack each other in the press, and we don’t print retractions.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, “Washington on Your Side”

In the musical, Hamilton shows up on Burr’s doorstep in the middle of the night to ask for his help in writing essays defending the Constitution…

“I know I talk too much, I’m abrasive. / You’re incredible in court. You’re succinct, persuasive. / My client needs a strong defense. You’re the solution. / [Burr] Who’s your client? / [Hamilton] The new U.S. Constitution?” ~ Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, “Non-Stop”

“A series of essays, anonymously published, defending the document to the public.” ~ Alexander Hamilton, “Non-Stop”

Rather than joining the heated conversations, Hamilton took a more educational approach. In tackling each of the topics addressed in the Constitution, Hamilton hoped the essays would give the people a better understanding of its goals.

“Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays defending the new United States Constitution, entitled The Federalist Papers. The plan was to write a total of 25 essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote 85 essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing 5. James Madison wrote 29. Hamilton wrote the other 51.” ~ “Non-Stop”

What purpose does your writing serve? In what ways could you use your writing to clarify or explain a concept for your audience? As Hamilton did, look for the things your audience doesn’t understand. Use your writing to answer their questions and educate them in a way that’s accessible.

“The Reynolds Pamphlet”: Hamilton Saves His Political Reputation

When Hamilton is accused of being dishonest and engaging in “improper speculation” as treasury secretary, he publishes a rebuttal…

“Hamilton now reverted to lifelong practice: he would drown his accusers with words.” ~ Ron Chernow

In an attempt to control the narrative, he pens “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” He admits to being blackmailed by Mr. James Reynolds for having an affair with Reynolds’ wife.

Hamilton exposes his own affair to prove he was not dishonest as Treasury Secretary… and, in doing so, publicly shames his wife and family.

“Alexander Hamilton had a torrid affair. And he wrote it down right there.” ~ “The Reynolds Pamphlet”

“The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds / For purposes of improper speculation. / My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife / For a considerable time with his knowing consent.” ~ “The Reynolds Pamphlet”

You might be thinking, who would do that?! The way in which Hamilton writes about his affair is so clinical, so cold… it’s difficult to understand why he would be willing to expose this part of his life to the American public.

“Have you read this? Did you ever see somebody ruin their own life?” ~ Thomas Jefferson, “The Reynolds Pamphlet”

He may have saved his political reputation, but he sacrificed his personal one. In the show, the company sings sardonically, “At least he was honest with our money!”

In “Hurricane” (the song I quote at the beginning), Lin Manuel-Miranda portrays Hamilton as feeling trapped. Ultimately, he decides that publishing a confession is his only option for protecting his public record. He comes clean.

One of the themes of the show is how the story changes according to who tells it… “who lives, who dies, who tells our story.”

With this perspective, it’s easier to understand why Hamilton felt compelled to publicly respond to his accusers. Without his version of events, what would history lead us to believe? Would we think Hamilton was a corrupt politician?

What’s your side of the story? While I hope you don’t find yourself in a situation like Hamilton’s, I think the takeaway here is to remember that we shape our stories. We can use our writing to provide an honest account, our version of events.

And there’s no guarantee that we’ll be believed. Hamilton’s story goes to show that an author’s intentions cannot always dictate readers’ perceptions. But that’s the beauty of the written word; as readers, we’re encouraged to compare the facts and come to our own conclusions.

Takeaway

Hamilton inspires us, writers, to ask the following questions of ourselves:

  • What do you want to say?
  • What do you want to leave behind?
  • What is your legacy?

“To understand Hamilton’s productivity, it is important to note that virtually all of his important work was journalism, prompted by topical issues and written in the midst of controversy.” ~ Ron Chernow

Our writing is often in response to current events, the cultural moment. Whatever genre or form your writing may take — fiction or nonfiction, short story, article, or poem — your words have the power to shape history. Hamilton’s did.

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