Art and LiteratureChristian TraditionsCultureRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

Hamilton as a Catholic Allegory

I will admit that I am late to the party. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has been a cultural craze since its debut in early 2015. At the time, I was still a poor graduate student. Only recently were my wife and I able to see the show in Chicago. As we entered, my wife was more excited to see the show than I, but as we left, I was the one charged with energy. From reviews, I had expected exceptional singing and dancing. I had expected witty rhymes and a spectacle of wordsmithery. I had expected a great historical narrative with current political relevance and a hopeful call to social action. I had not expected a sophisticated theological reflection. I had not expected a tale of redemption, grace, and sanctification. I had not expected to be moved by an allegory of Catholic truth. Yet, that is what I got.

Alexander Hamilton begins his life as the heir of original sin. He is a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore,” who is nevertheless placed “by Providence.” Hamilton learned from an early age to rely solely on himself, to work “a lot harder” and be a “self-starter.” He deeply feels the angst of “never [being] satisfied.” The young Hamilton is thus consumed by pride, ambition, and an Augustinian restlessness. He insists that “the world is gonna know his name.” He punches people who look at him like he is stupid (he’s not stupid). He always “assumes that he is the smartest in the room.” Above all, young Hamilton is concerned with how others look at him, with his legacy, with achieving glory through war, and with living up to his perceived potential. Hence, Hamilton’s defining refrain is an insistence that he is “young, scrappy, and hungry,” and that nothing could ever lead him into “throwing away [his] shot”.

By the end of the production, though, Hamilton, in New York, has become a “new man” who willingly throws away his shot in an act of love and self-sacrifice for the greater good. He comes to accept humbly that for all his intelligence, he has no control over “who lives, who dies, [or] who tells [his] story.” He comes to hand control of his legacy, that which he clung to as most dear, freely over to Eliza. Hamilton dies turning his eyes from his earthly ambitions toward a heavenly homeland, where he anticipates reunion with his loved ones. In his final act of kenosis and charity, Hamilton is even granted “a glimpse of the other side” while on Earth. Thus, in Miranda’s depiction, Hamilton’s story is a hagiography. Hamilton’s story is the story of a saint, who, much like Saint Paul or Saint Augustine, starts in a place of consuming pride, but then responds to and is transformed by grace into a creature so consumed by charity that he can partake in a foretaste of heaven.

Hamilton’s conversion begins through confession. His pride and narcissism lead him into unfaithfulness. The resultant suffering kills his political ambitions and makes it clear that “he’s never gon’ be president now.” Rather than lash out in anger or attempt to cover up his deeds in shame, when caught, Hamilton responds with humility by publishing the Reynolds pamphlet. He begins slowly to accept his finitude, and he openly confesses his faults to the world.

Hamilton’s ultimate turning point, however, comes from the penance following upon his confession, namely the death of his son Philip, who represents Christ. Philip, who is said to “outshine the morning sun,” dies on behalf of Alexander by fulfilling the “ten duel commandments.” Philip in fact has spent his entire life keeping the commandments by constantly counting to ten alongside his mother. After being baptized by the blood of the son, when Philip dies in his arms, Hamilton repents of his sinful ways. He subsequently “spend[s] hours in the garden” alone and in silence. He reconciles with Eliza after his infidelity. Then, together they return to “the garden” with Eliza having taken Hamilton’s hand in her own. After his conversion, Hamilton takes his “children to Church on Sunday,” makes the “sign of the cross”, and prays. These things astonish even Hamilton himself because they “never used to happen before.” Hamilton is transformed until the end of his days, whereupon his sanctification becomes complete by being fully conformed to the image of the son. Hamilton dies in the same way and even in the same place as Philip. Hamilton is brought by the law, of the ten duel commandments, to the grace of salvation only because the son has first fulfilled the law himself and is awaiting him in heaven. The precise occurrence that moves Hamilton from refusing to throw away his shot to freely giving up his shot is none other than Philip first giving up his shot in a pure modeling of charitable self-sacrifice.

Also instrumental to Hamilton’s conversion are Eliza and Angelica, who typologically represent the Church and the Holy Spirit, respectively. Eliza is innocent, humble, and never “the type to try and grab the spotlight”. The audience is told, “You will never find anyone as trusting or as kind” as Eliza. She loves Hamilton, a penniless sinner, helplessly. Hamilton marries Eliza selfishly seeking ‘the riches of her Father’ (whom Philip the son mirrors because they share the same name). Yet, throughout the story, Hamilton is enriched not monetarily but by Eliza’s goodness. Chiefly, Hamilton’s transformation is possible because Eliza bears Philip, the means of salvation, to the world, just as the Church bears Christ to the world. At his death, Hamilton entrusts himself and his legacy fully to Eliza. She continues long after him, telling his story as a model for others, doing good works for the poor (like speaking against slavery and founding an orphanage), and, finally bringing the entire play to completion with a meditation on time and a gaze toward heaven, thereby symbolizing the transition of the Church militant to the Church triumphant.

Angelica, all the while, is the force with which to reckon behind Eliza, as the Holy Spirit is the power behind the Church. Angelica is, in a word, angelic. Her spirit and her intelligence enamor Hamilton. She loves Hamilton in turn, but she selflessly leads him and gives him over to Eliza as a means of incorporating him into her family. Angelica, a paradigm of agapé, “knows [her] sister like [she knows her] own mind, [she] loves her more than anything in this life, and will choose her happiness over [her own] every time.” Throughout the play, Angelica is often far off in a distant land, but she always comes when invited, whereupon she functions as a great comforter. Angelica sides with and looks out for Eliza, especially when Hamilton is unfaithful. Moreover, like the Holy Spirit, Angelica fundamentally proclaims a message of freedom (“that all men are created equal”). She works to bring about revelation and is always “looking for a mind at work,” with whom she can unite and work toward the liberation of the oppressed (for instance, by “including women in the sequel”). Angelica ends the play in heaven, according to Eliza, along with Philip and Hamilton. Miranda even explicitly associates Angelica with the Trinity by having Eliza’s final song point out that Angelica ends the play at rest “in Trinity church.”

The minor characters in Hamilton fit this allegory of the Christian life no less well. Maria and James Reynolds together symbolize temptation, the lusts of the flesh, and the Devil. For example, the same actress typically plays both Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. Peggy was originally part of an Earthly Trinity, along with the representations of the Church and the Holy Spirit. After a brief and unenthusiastic appearance, Peggy ‘falls’ out of the play and becomes an entirely different character, clad all in red. Whereas Peggy first participated in the riches of her sisters and their father, after the fall, Maria takes on a role of tempting Hamilton to do something he should “say no to.” Hamilton is only able to fall victim to this temptation because he declines Angelica and Eliza’s invitation to “take a break”, keep the Sabbath, visit their father, and rest from his political toils. Hamilton thus allows himself to be literally distant from both Eliza and Angelica, which is precisely when temptation arrives. James Reynolds hereupon enters as the evil power behind temptation. Both Maria and James manipulate Hamilton’s pride, contrive for him to compromise his morals, and work to hasten his downfall. Only when Philip is mortally wounded does Hamilton reject Maria and reconcile with Eliza, which symbolizes his return to the Church and a path of righteousness. Following Hamilton’s repentance, Maria and James are vanquished and never heard from again, much like Satan in the Gospel of Luke after Christ resists the temptations in the wilderness.

Aaron Burr is another minor character of symbolic significance. As a fellow sojourner in a strange land, Burr serves as a rival and a foil for Hamilton. Whereas Hamilton moves from pride to sanctification by grace, Burr moves from a state of intelligence, wisdom, and clear sightedness, coolly advising Hamilton to “talk less, smile more”, to a state of ruin and ignominy. Burr and Hamilton both receive opportunities to repent and respond to grace. They both have wives and children who change their perspectives by showing them love. In the end, though, unlike Hamilton, Burr is unable to overcome his pride. His jealousy and paranoia drive him to murder, which consigns his legacy to villainy. He will forever be “the damn fool that shot [Hamilton].” In this manner, Miranda, like Deuteronomy 30:19 and also like the Didache, sets Hamilton and Burr in front of the audience as a choice between two ways, the way of life and the way of death.

Finally, George Washington’s character is allegorical. He serves as a father figure for both Burr and Hamilton. Washington often calls Alexander his “son.” Hamilton becomes Washington’s protégé and right hand man. Burr even describes Hamilton as being “seated at the right hand of the father.” One hears echoed in these relationships the parable of the Prodigal son, especially given Burr’s jealousy and the fact that Hamilton angrily leaves but is later is welcomed back into Washington’s service. Like some readings of the Prodigal son narrative, one may be tempted to read Washington as symbolic of God the Father. However, I think this reading falls short. Washington retires in the middle of the play in a triumphant “going home” scene. Washington thus appears more nearly to represent a priest, who models the Christian life for Hamilton. Washington quotes scripture, is selflessly concerned for the nation, and is overflowing with a calm sagacity. Washington shepherds Hamilton and often reproves him for his shortsightedness and immaturity. Washington directs Hamilton not to command a battalion, but to himself “go home” to his wife and son, thus symbolically leading Hamilton away from death and violence toward the respite of the Church and Christ. Washington hence, like a good priest, tutors Hamilton in virtue and provides an example to follow. He is the larger than life Earthly father behind the founding of America, but he falls short of being the heavenly father behind all of history.

This reading of Washington, in particular, especially when combined with the foregoing interpretation of the play’s other characters, leaves me with the same impression with which I left the theatre after the curtain fell on Hamilton. I was left searching and wondering. Where, in the play, was God? What is Hamilton’s theology proper? What accounts for Hamilton’s miraculous transformation and what brought about such a meaningful arc to his story? The answer to these questions, I decided upon further reflection, is at the heart of Hamilton’s allegorical message and is one of the play’s most beautifully conceived and expressed theological insights.

In Hamilton, God is never directly seen, as it were, in history. Viewers are left with an overwhelmingly conspicuous absence. Viewers are left searching for the play’s, and history’s own, animating principle, which guides it to a greater significance. Just like Hamilton when he dies and Eliza in the play’s final scene, viewers are asked to “wise up” and are left, “eyes up” looking for the mysterious power that intelligently directs all things to their end. In short, Hamilton imagines God as a kind of behind the scenes director. Or, stated in theological and Thomistic terms, Hamilton imagines that God works through secondary causes, through history, and, chiefly, through people.

In spite of and often through human sinfulness, ambition, and pride, the overall story of history seems to be going somewhere; it seems to be headed toward something all on its own. The overarching purpose of Hamilton’s story, as with the overarching purpose of history itself, is not something controlled by the characters in the story, either individually or as a collective. The play as a whole makes incredibly clear that the path of history is not left at the mercy of the ambitions and machinations of men. All of the characters, by the end, come to realize that they are not in control of “who lives, who dies, who tells [their stories].” Human lives and the course of history are in hands other than our own, but both are nonetheless guided to a beautiful conclusion.

Thus, Hamilton ends, as it began, by paying heed to an inscrutable Providence that works in history. This Providence breaks into history, echoes its refrain throughout it, and ceaselessly works in human beings through grace to make beautiful stories of redemption. As Hamilton himself ultimately concludes, face to face with Providence, the most one can do is to surrender to a power greater than oneself that seems to be working all things for the greater good. One cannot force one’s self, one’s story, or one’s ambitions upon history. Rather, the most one can do is, with humble thankfulness, participate in co-authoring a unique redemption story before finally handing that story over to Another in faithful self-surrender. The most one can do is hope to catch a glimpse of the ultimate meaning of one’s story and how it weaves together with a multitude of other tales into one grand all-encompassing history of redemption. As it has been for the saints throughout history, as Miranda’s Hamilton realizes, and as all of us who watch Hamilton ought to recognize, if we could let go of ourselves and reach this point of faith and love, “that would be enough.”

Luke Townsend

Luke Townsend

Luke Davis Townsend is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Marian University in Fond du Lac, WI. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University, and an M.Div. from Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Luke grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, and often attended Methodist and Lutheran Churches with friends and family. After college, he worked as a youth minister in a Presbyterian Church. During graduate school, Luke took classes on St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. These thinkers led Luke to find a home in the Catholic Church, which he joined in 2015, and to write his doctoral dissertation on the sacramental theology of Thomas Aquinas. Luke currently lives in Fond du Lac with his wife Mary Frances and their dog Gus.

Previous post

Why Everyone Should Study Church History

Next post

Why We Still Need the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr. Today