Telling a Monumental Story

washington_monument_funding_petition
Funding Petition for the Washington National Monument in the City of Washington, ca. 1848 (RG 42, Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, National Archives)

 

Cultural Reference: The Washington Monument (Act 2: 281)  

Macy Davis (Spring 2018)

Part I ~ Introduction

Alexander Hamilton, as he appears in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, is obsessed with his legacy. When Hamilton is killed by Aaron Burr in a duel at the age of 47, control of his legacy shifts to those around him. Miranda uses the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” to explore how Hamilton’s legacy is constructed after his death. The primary focus is Eliza’s extension of Hamilton’s legacy through her advocacy. One notable example of this is raising “funds in D.C. for the Washington Monument” (Miranda 281). Because of Eliza’s work, George Washington explains, “She tells my story” (Miranda 281). Hamilton uses the Washington Monument to position monuments as stories, thereby showing how we can construct powerful legacies through a variety of narrative forms. By constructing Hamilton’s legacy through narrative, Hamilton becomes for Alexander Hamilton what the Washington Monument is for George Washington, an enduring legacy.

Part II ~ Historical Background

Built from marble and standing at 555 feet, the Washington Monument’s familiar obelisk wasn’t originally its intended form. Pierre L’Enfant, Washington D.C.’s city planner, was the first to propose a monument for George Washington. He envisioned an equestrian statue that would encapsulate Washington’s victories as a military leader (Savage 36). However, L’Enfant’s plans were set aside when Washington died, and Congress wanted to entomb him in the nation’s capital. Federalists wanted a lavish mausoleum that Republicans wanted no part of. Regardless of the partisan feud, the founding father’s will stipulated he be buried at Mount Vernon, preventing Congress from memorializing Washington with a tomb (Savage 39).

Left without the possibility for a tomb, Congress handed control of planning and constructing a monument to the Washington National Monument Society. The Washington National Monument Society drew up its constitution in 1833 and limited its membership to “adult male contributors” (Washington National Monument Society), assumed to be white men. Donors were restricted to donating only a dollar (Lockwood 8). The Society’s initial design, created by Robert Mills, closely represented the final form of the monument—a stone obelisk with a large column-supported pedestal that would feature statues of Washington (Savage 56). Eventually, the pedestal was abandoned, leaving only the recognizable form of the obelisk.

Despite the Washington National Monument Society’s limited membership, women played a crucial role in establishing the Washington Monument. At the request of the society in 1847, Eliza Hamilton, Dolly Madison, and Louisa Adams organized groups of women to aid in the collection of funds (Harvey 39). Eliza Hamilton, at the age of 91, and Dolly Madison were present when the cornerstone of the monument was laid in 1848 (Harvey 47). Despite the claim that the women’s efforts “resulted but a very moderate addition to the funds of the Society” (Harvey 38), women’s fundraising was necessary, especially when construction of the monument was halted for the Civil War. (Lockwood 9). The monument stood at 152 feet when construction ceased in 1854. The Ladies National Monument Society, founded in 1859 (Lockwood 11), continued to raise funds for an uncompleted monument that stood at the crux of a warring nation.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Washington Monument was completed and spurred the transformation of the National Mall into a memorial space, cementing Washington’s public legacy. The Army Corps of Engineers took charge of finishing the task (American Heritage). The walls were completed in December of 1884, though Congress kept working to perfect the monument (United States Congress). After the Washington Monument was opened to the public, a memorial space took shape in the capital city. The banks of the Potomac were pushed back, forest land cleared, and other national monuments constructed. The Washington Monument is the center of a space to celebrate the story of our nation and George Washington’s legacy.

Part III ~ The Scene Where It Happens

“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” establishes narratives as a central mechanism for constructing a legacy.  Miranda positions “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” at the end of Hamilton and gives it a narrative-driven title, cementing the power of stories as a key theme for the show.  Eliza tells Hamilton’s story by delving into Hamilton’s “thousands of pages of writings” (Miranda 281) and speaking “out against slavery” (Miranda 281). Every action Miranda gives Eliza is centered around building a powerful legacy for Hamilton by telling his story in any way possible. By placing Hamilton’s legacy at the forefront of Eliza’s work and having the chorus repeating variations of the song’s title, Miranda emphasizes that narratives are essential for constructing a powerful legacy like Eliza did for Hamilton.

Miranda writes the Washington Monument as another chapter in Washington and Hamilton’s stories to broaden our definition of narratives and their narrators. Eliza explains, “I raise funds in D.C. for the Washington Monument” (Miranda 281). This fundraising initially seems to differ from the narrative-driven work Eliza has been doing. However, Washington follows up Eliza’s statement by noting, “She tells my story” (Miranda 281). Through this pair of lyrics, Miranda positions the Washington Monument as an important contribution to Washington’s story and as a vital part of his legacy. The monument occupies a physical format, rather than one which is typically expected of a narrative. Eliza is likely constructing this narrative because of who Washington was to Hamilton—a general, a comrade, and a president—extending Hamilton’s story even through another’s narrative. Furthermore, Eliza takes the role of narrator for Washington and Hamilton’s stories shaping the tone of the narratives presented. Eliza provides power to the legacy of the Washington Monument because her involvement with the project exceeded what was expected of women during the time period.  The cultural reference to the Washington Monument in Hamilton establishes a variety of ways, such as distance, format, and an unexpected narrator, to construct powerful legacies, because if the Washington Monument is a story, anything can be a story.

Part IV ~ Thematic Implications

The form of narrative distance in relation to Alexander Hamilton is used to build his legacy across the show, and provides audiences the power of perceiving which narratives hold more weight through context. Hamilton’s legacy primarily stems from directly related narratives. In “Non-Stop,” Aaron Burr explains, “Alexander Hamilton began to climb. How to account for his rise to the top? Maaaaan, the man is non-stop” (Miranda 136). Burr’s narrative of Hamilton’s doggedness is a close connection to Hamilton’s legacy because it stems directly from action’s Hamilton has taken. Alternatively, there are indirectly related narratives that also construct Hamilton’s legacy in a manner similar to that of the Washington Monument. For example, Jefferson explains about his relationship with Hamilton, “We smack each other in the press, and we don’t print retractions” (Miranda 199).  This statement indirectly affects Hamilton in the show and thus isn’t fully explored; however, this narrative affects Hamilton’s legacy because it highlights his political opposition to Jefferson. Using both direct and indirect narratives enhances the power of perception for audiences because narrative distance provides context through which to judge the merit of the narratives surrounding Hamilton. Direct narratives come with the context that they’re more important, whereas indirect narratives allow the audience to understand how characters and situations connect to Hamilton’s legacy, even when references aren’t fully developed, because of the context they hold in the rest of the show. Miranda employs the form of narrative distance in relation to Hamilton to show the contextual impact narratives can have on legacies for characters in the musical and for the audience.

Hamilton’s narratives also come in a variety of formats—physical, verbal, and written—to create a widespread narrative presence surrounding Alexander Hamilton and to provide that presence for audiences of the musical. Alexander Hamilton is introduced as “the ten-dollar Founding Father” (Miranda 16). By invoking money, Miranda locates Hamilton’s narrative in a physical object which has widespread familiarity for American audiences. Placing this reference at the beginning of the show means audiences can constantly tie Hamilton to their money. Verbal legacies appear through the stories that are told about Hamilton.  For example, Madison tells Jefferson, “Hamilton’s new financial plan is nothing less than government control. I’ve been fighting for the south alone” (Miranda 153). This verbal narrative, told through gossip, places Hamilton as the opposite of Jefferson before the two characters have even formally met. Characters in Hamilton form and share their opinions of Hamilton with others, contributing those verbal narratives to his legacy. Finally, written narratives are the most prevalent in Hamilton. Hamilton is established as writer in the opening number with the line, “put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain, and he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain” (Miranda 16). Hamilton’s identity as a writer is carried through the show, establishing his written legacy. Miranda dedicates songs such as “Hurricane” and “The Reynolds Pamphlet” to Hamilton’s writing.  For audiences, there is no forgetting the words of a man with “thousands of pages of writings” (Miranda 280). Miranda uses three formats of narratives to build a thread for audiences to follow throughout the show, providing audiences the option to construct Hamilton’s legacy for themselves through whichever formats appeal to them the most or stick out to them the most while experiencing the musical.

Constructing legacies through the use of narratives is also dependent on who the narrator is due to the tone and position they hold in relation to the story. After all, stories change based upon who tells them. In “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Miranda positions Eliza as the most prominent individual telling Hamilton’s story, despite the fact that Burr takes the role of principle narrator over the course of Hamilton. Eliza explains, “I put myself back in the narrative” (Miranda 280), giving her agency in any story to which she lends her voice. Without Eliza, Hamilton would have ended on a much different note. We get a glimpse of this alternative tale through Jefferson and Madison’s statements in the final number. Jefferson grants that Hamilton’s “financial plan is a work of genius…I couldn’t undo it if I tried, and I tried” (Miranda 280). Subsequently, Madison posits, “I hate to admit it, but he doesn’t get enough credit for all the credit he gave us” (Miranda 280). Both men offer grudging respect, but their perspective as Hamilton’s political opponents provides bias to their narrative. Furthermore, Hamilton rarely tells his own story in the musical without interference from an additional character, offering the possibility that narratives only gain significant power in constructing legacies when they are placed in the hands of others. The one who tells the story has the power to influence how the audience perceives the legacy being presented. Eliza, in relation to other narrators in Hamilton, provides her perspective and implores the audience to view Hamilton as a character worthy of being monumentalized.

Focusing on the power of legacy through narratives allows Hamilton to construct a new legacy for Alexander Hamilton. The company constantly asks in the closing number, “Who tells your story?” (Miranda 280). One answer: Lin Manuel Miranda and company. Miranda constructs a legacy for Hamilton through his musical using the narrative forms he employs to create legacies for his characters within the show. Hamilton combines direct narratives through historical fact, and indirect narratives through characters’ more fictionalized reactions to those events. Hip-hop lyrics develop verbal and written narratives, and a physical narrative appears in the staging of the show. Furthermore, without people of color performing Hamilton, the story and its impact on audiences would be drastically different, implicating the importance of the narrator in telling a story. Hamilton becomes Alexander Hamilton’s opportunity to have a powerful chapter in his story akin to the Washington Monument.

Part V ~ Concluding Thoughts

The United States makes monuments out of men, but those monuments can become vehicles for stories. The Washington Monument is part of George Washington’s story, which Eliza Hamilton helped tell. Because of the variety of narrative forms introduced, in part through The Washington Monument, Hamilton showcase Alexander Hamilton’s powerful legacy. Similarly, Hamilton stands as a new variety of narrative form for the legacy of its titular character. Eliza asks, “When my time is up? Have I done enough?” (Miranda 281), and the company echoes her, wondering, “Will they tell your story?” (Miranda 281). Hamilton may not be an obelisk, but using monuments as stories tells Alexander Hamilton’s story on the Broadway stage and beyond. Hopefully, this powerful, monumental story will be enough.

 

References

American Heritage Magazine. George Washington’s Monument. Vol. 20, no 1. December 1968. http://www.americanheritage.com/content/george-washington%E2%80%99s-monument

Harvey, Fredrick L. History of the Washington National Monument and of the Washington National Monument Society. Press of the Norman T. Elliot Printing Co. 1902. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37535/37535-h/37535-h.htm

Lockwood, John. “The Men–And the Women–Who Built the Washington Monument.” Prologue, vol. 48, no. 1, Spring 2016, pp. 7-12. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=114835826&site=ehost-live.

Miranda, Lin-Manuel, and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton The Revolution. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

Savage, Kirk. Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape. University of California Press, 2011.

United States Congress. Senate. Joint Commission for Completion of the Washington Monument. Letter from the Joint Commission for Completion of the Washington Monument. Transmitting their Annual Report. 49th Cong. 1st sess. Exec. Doc. 6. Washington: 1885. ProQuest Congressional. congressional-proquest-com.er.lib.k-state.edu/congressional/docview/t47.d48.2333_s.exdoc.6?accountid=11789

Washington National Monument Society. Constitution of the Washington National Monument Society. Washington D.C., 1847. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. Kansas State University Libraries. galenet.galegroup.com.er.lib.k-state.edu/servlet/Sabin?af=RN&ae=CY3809693052&srchtp=a&ste=14

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