Hamilton, Ambition, and Death
People everywhere have been praising the musical “Hamilton”— and rightfully so. It has won 11 Tony awards. The cast was invited to perform a number of the songs at the White House under former President Obama. And the waitlist for its performances stretches out for months. It is the musical biography of Alexander Hamilton, first treasury secretary of the United States and a fascinating historical figure remembered most often for being killed in a duel by then vice president, Aaron Burr.
When I finally had a chance to see the show, though, what I found was a story on ambition that took a scalpel to the idols of my heart.
From the death of his mother to the bloodshed of the Revolutionary War, Hamilton’s life was inextricably connected to death. Years before he was killed in a duel himself, his son was also killed in a duel. Yet, in “Hurricane,” Hamilton sings he was kept from death because of some task he believed he had in front of him. “When I was 17, a hurricane destroyed my town. I didn’t drown, I couldn’t seem to die.”
The musical captures the burden of ambition for the task ahead in the song “Satisfied.” When Hamilton introduces himself to his future sister-in-law, she asks him who his family was, and he responds: “Unimportant, there’s a million things I haven’t done. Just you wait. Just you wait.”
By any account, Hamilton lived an influential and productive life, but he still died—as everyone does—with unfinished business.
I have feared death for many years. As I explore that fear, I find underneath it something else: fear of having not lived the life I hope to live. I don’t think I’m alone in this. It’s not that we fear death; it’s that we fear dying “incomplete,” not having the experiences we hoped for or the loves we wished we’d had.
For Hamilton, it was seeing the payout on some of his massive government projects, the overhauling the entire financial system of our country. For you, it might be getting married, having children, going on the dream trip to Europe, seeing the Grand Canyon or winning a race.
“Hamilton” addresses this reality head-on. Even the most ambitious and driven among us will not have completed all that we hoped. Our question should be, if we will all die with unfinished work, unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams, could it be that a life well-lived is fundamentally not about us?
At a crucial point in his work, in a split second before his death, as his life flashes before his eyes, Hamilton asks, “What is a legacy? It is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”
A life well-lived is one whose fruit may never be fully seen by the one who planted the seed. It’s a life lived fundamentally not for ourselves.
George Washington, the father figure for Hamilton in history and in the musical, indicates as much to Hamilton in Act One, “Let me tell you what I wished I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story…” The message is we are not our own. Even those who come right after us will misremember or forget us.
What was true about Hamilton is often true of me. I often live my life with a faulty expectation that it is my own. But Scripture tells us this is a lie: “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7-8).
Hamilton believed he could control his life through reckless ambition. Aaron Burr thought he could control it by playing it safe, but both ended up shipwrecked on the one certainty they both ignored: death.
Does the reality of death—that great enemy—make all of this meaningless? No, the presence of death in the world should put our lives within a frame of reference. The end of our days is in the hands of God, as are all the days that came before. We are not our own. We do not belong to ourselves and even our belief that we do is an illusion.
We are called to pursue faithfulness for whatever time is given, hoping and working as unto the Lord in an effort to walk in the good works God has prepared beforehand (Eph. 2:10).
A life with legacy is not one where every ambition was satisfied, but one spent in the name of something greater, a gift to the world instead of a trophy for self. This is the kind of life that produces fruit in a “garden we will never see.”