Rapping The Revolution At “Hamilton”

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There were some constants in my childhood — playing games, learning about American history and theater. My parents were active in local community theater building sets, gathering up props, costuming, running patron sponsorship and all the random tasks which come with a volunteer stage group. Life at home had a pattern for years with dramas or comedies over the winter and larger scale musicals over the summer. As I grew older, I also got involved with school musicals, and I’ve got a ton of great memories onstage and backstage from my teen years. All through my life, musicals have formed a soundtrack, from the piles of records by my parents’ stereo to the CDs I carted with me to college to the cast recordings I stream in my apartment today.

HamiltonSoldiers“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast

Living in Brooklyn for the past 20 years has granted me access to some of the best theater in the world, and this past week I had the opportunity to catch one of the most lauded American theater events of the century so far — Hamilton. Based on Ron Chernow’s bestselling 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, much has been written already about this remarkable work by Lin-Manuel Miranda, but for me, it just hits so many notes of my life past and present.

The musical jumps to a start with a quickly-sung early biography of Alexander Hamilton’s orphaned boyhood in the Caribbean and arrival in British-ruled New York City in 1773. The city itself is a main character in the story, staged as a place full of immigrants, wealthy families, big ideas, life-changing opportunities, celebrity scandals, an unforgiving press and power struggles intersecting in taverns, parlors and streets which very much resembles New York to this day. Hamilton sees only opportunity, the ensemble lyric repeating again and again –“In New York you can be a new man.”

The play goes a long way in showing how the American Revolution was fought over drinks, bedroom liaisons, spies and backroom deals as much as it was — or perhaps more so — on the battlefield. The “rooms where it happen” are where Hamilton, his rival Aaron Burr and his allies — the French upstart Marquis De Lafayette, tailor and spy Hercules Mulligan and early abolitionist John Laurens — meet, argue and scheme. These rooms are also where begins the arc of Hamilton’s relationship with the daughters of Philip SchuyluerElizabeth, Angelica and Peggy — who he charms and eventually betrays. Hamilton joins General George Washington as his aid with “Right Hand Man” and brings his friends in tow. The web of influences these characters have on one another in shaping the course of the war and the founding of the United States are delivered through alternately rousing and deeply emotional songs, rapped and soulfully sung.

HamiltonandWashingtonLin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Christopher Jackson as George Washington

On top of the personal dramas, there’s a ton of real real history (and military history) that rips and raps by in Hamilton. The arrival of British forces en masse in New York Harbor and the New York and New Jersey campaign of 1776-1777 is covered quickly with shock to the overwhelmed colonials forced into retreat. Washington’s cautiousness during the Revolution is chalked up to quick references to his early experience as a British officer during which he experienced death first hand. The historically-savvy will note this as an allusion to the slaughter at Jumonville Glen, Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity and the death of his mentor British General Edward Braddock.

Washington’s challenges in managing a barely-equipped army while surrounded by strivers like Charles Lee (who had served with Washington under Braddock during the French and Indian War) are covered through the middle of the first act. Lee’s disastrous decisions at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 and the rise of Lafayette’s military importance in partnership with Washington and Hamilton comes midway in the first act with “Stay Alive” and begins to point toward how the colonists may win the war through the intervention of the French with the song “Guns and Ships.”

Battles are covered by the ensemble cast quickly swapping blue and red coats, dancing with rifles and booming and flashing stage effects. The victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, sung by Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” presents the true shock felt by the British in the aftermath eventually leading to the end of the war in 1783.

HamDebateDaveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson, Jackson as Washington and Miranda as Hamilton in an Act II Cabinet debate

The second act moves from insurrection to nation-building with the arrival of Thomas Jefferson back from France in 1789, the creation of the first US Cabinet under Washington and the ongoing political battles through the administration of John Adams and the election of Jefferson in 1800. Four years later, lifelong rivals Burr and Hamilton meet in their fateful duel, and the legacy of both is written. The play closes with the company singing “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” with a gut-wrenching meditation on the nature of history itself.

IMG_7365The American Revolution stacks up in my apartment these days…

There is so much I love in Hamilton. The history is rich with complex events and relationships referenced in nearly every rhymed line. There are too many to recount, but everything from The Federalist Papers and the Compromise of 1790 to the Whiskey Rebellion and the dire illness of King George III late in his life are covered. If you’re up on the story of America in the last decades of the 18th-century, there is much to savor, and for the less knowledgeable, there is a lot of inspiration to dance out of the theater and learn more. The cast recording has played non-stop in my house since its release, and my wife, kids and I have talked more about the American Revolution than I think any of us have in our entire lives before.

But the discussion of history is only as good as it is relevant to the present, and again, Hamilton nails this. The use of pamphlets, papers and public oratory in the colonies was the social media of its day, used to build up one’s cause and take down rivals. The political infighting and quest for power of the period makes today’s national government look downright cooperative. Prominently, the rapping from a largely black and Hispanic cast in Hamilton alludes to the United States as a place only as strong as new arrivals and new ideas, no matter the race or country of origin. In all, the musical creates an overwhelming thrill and pride in being a citizen of a country like the United States which was founded and continues to be great, often despite itself.

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…as do games of the American Revolution on my shelf

And finally, as this is a gaming blog, Hamilton offers me yet another boost to get more time on the table with games of the period. In my post from last summer, Boardgames of the American Revolution, I talked about some of my faves and I am anxiously awaiting Liberty Or Death from GMT Games in the coming months. No doubt, there will be a fair amount gaming the American War of Independence for me this year, and Hamilton will be the soundtrack.

Touring French and Indian War America

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In the spring and summer of this year I vacationed in Missouri, Western New York and Southwestern Pennsylvania. While visiting family and friends was the main focus of my trips, my journeys intersected with the French and Indian War period repeatedly while driving hundreds of miles of back roads throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The hilly regions of the East were  formative in the first half of my life and the flat plains of the Mississippi River have been a presence in the past twenty years after marrying my wife from Missouri.

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National Park Service map with French and Indian War era sites I’ve visited

These regions also played a large role in the origin story of what would become the United States of America. The 18th-century American continent was the New World front in the worldwide competition between the French and English for worldwide colonial control. In the Americas, native peoples were inserted into the European conflict with the various Indian Nations shifting alliances among the European powers.

From 1754-1763, the Seven Years War stretched around the globe and occupied the colonial regions of America with the French and Indian War. From the Great Lakes and mountains of Upstate New York to the Allegheny Highlands of Pennsylvania to the western rivers frontier, French, British, Native American and American colonists fought for the future of the what would become the modern United States and Canada.

Over the years, I’ve had occasion to visit numerous sites from this contested Anglo-French period. Family day trips when I was a kid took me to just about every major fort and battlefield in New York state and nearby Canada, including Fort Niagara, Fort Ontario, Fort William Henry, Fort Ticonderoga and Fort York at present day Toronto. During graduate school in Michigan, I spent a weekend at the northern tip of the state and visited Fort Michilimackinac. After graduate school, my time in Pennsylvania included visits to Fort Ligonier, Fort Necessity and the site of Fort Duquesne at Pittsburgh. Since meeting my future wife while in Pennsylvania, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Missouri, getting married in the historic French town of St. Charles and visiting other colonial era towns and sites.

With the French and Indian War on my gaming mind this past year with the excellent A Few Acres of Snow, here’s a few of the places I’ve managed to visit (or revisit) this past year.

French Settlements on the American Western Colonial Frontier

Over the Easter weekend, I visited my in-laws in St. Louis and St. Charles, Missouri. After a bit of time in and around St. Louis, we headed south along the Mississippi River to Ste. Genevieve. Settled in the 1730s, Ste. Genevieve showcases a remarkably intact collection of distinctive French colonial-influenced buildings. We were particularly fortunate in being allowed to walk through the Bequette-Ribault House which I had read about in one of my graduate school classes. The building was under renovation, allowing us to view a rare surviving example of the “poteaux en terre” construction technique of posts sunk vertically into the ground.

From Ste. Genevieve we took a rickety ferry across the Mississippi and drove along the Illinois side to Fort des Chartres. Reconstructed in the 1930s, the fort today depicts a French outpost way out on the western boundaries of claims to French territory in the 18th-century which stretched from Canada to New Orleans. Standing in the middle of hundreds of miles of farmland all around, it’s amazing to imagine a small garrison of French soldiers at the fort watching over the far edges of a European empire over nearly 300 years ago. The well-interpretted partial reconstruction of the fort itself and the small on site museum captures the scope of the French empire’s commitment to taking a territorial stand on this edge of the New World.

Although the French would cede much control of North America to the British after the end of the French and Indian War, evidence of French culture remains in buildings and place names throughout the old colonial areas. Visitors from France and French-speaking Canada still flock to Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding area every year, and walking the streets of the town and the battlements of Fort des Chartres the French legacy still echoes today.

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Statue of King Louis IX of France, at the Saint Louis Art Museum

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The Bolduc House (c. 1770)  in Ste Genevieve, Missouri

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The Bequette-Ribault House (c. 1780) in Ste Genevieve, Missouri

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Fort de Chartres (c. 1720) near Prairie du Rocher, Illinois

Mary Jeminson, “The White Indian of the Genesee”

This summer I also took my family back to my hometown in Western New York which sits a quick drive from Letchworth State Park, home to deep river-cut gorges and spectacular waterfalls. The park also celebrates the story of Mary Jeminson, a young girl who was abducted from her family’s Eastern Pennsylvania farm in 1755, traded to Seneca Indians near Fort Duquesne and lived the remainder of her long life as a prominent member of the Iroquois in the area around present day Letchworth.

The legendary story of Jeminson is remarkable, and her life tells the story of the complicated territorial and military alliances between the various Native American and European peoples in the French and Indian War and subsequent American War of Independence. Jeminson is remembered at Letchworth with a monument marking where her remains were relocated in 1872 adjacent to a Seneca Council House which interprets the native people’s governance of the region during the colonial and post-Revolution period.
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The Mary Jeminson Monument at Letchworth State Park

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Seneca Council House relocated to Letchworth State Park in 1872

The National Road and Fort Necessity National Battlefield

Twenty years ago this summer I served as an intern researching and writing National Register of Historic Places nominations for three historic pike towns along the National Road (Route 40) in Pennsylvania. I hadn’t travelled back to the region in two decades, and touring Route 40 again brought back to me how rich the area is in early colonial American history.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield interprets a pivotal series of events that took place in this corner of the Pennsylvania wilderness in 1754 and 1755, arguably leading to the eruption and eventual escalation of the French and Indian War in North America. Commanding a force of Virginia colonial militiamen, British Lt. Col. George Washington encountered a small detachment of French Canadiens led by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville in May 1754. After a brief firefight, Jumonville was killed by Anglo-allied Mingo warriors. Two months later, a large force of French, Canadiens and Indians led by Jumonville’s brother Louis Coulon de Villiers met Washington’s small group in a wet, open meadow. Washington hastily built a stockade – a “fort of necessity” – but was overwhelmed by the French force attacking from the woods in a driving rain. One year later, Washington’s mentor General Edward Braddock met his end nearby during his doomed attempt to lad a British force inland to seize the French Fort Duquesne.

In the years since I’ve been to the battlefield, the National Park Service has created a new, modern visitors center telling two important stories from the past. The French and Indian War and its beginnings in the area nearby is depicted through interactive maps, videos and some great exhibits that zero in on the individual nations who fought over the region over two hundred years ago. The construction of the nearby National Road in the decades after the conflict occupies second half of the museum’s narrative, depicting the importance it played in the push West and economic development of the new nation in the early 19th-century. By the time you’ve spent a couple of hours in the visitors center and exploring the hilly region, you can’t help but leave with a real sense of the massive importance this part of Western Pennsylvania played in setting the stage for American progress in the subsequent decades.

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Fort Necessity National Battlefield

As with most of the French and Indian War and Anglo-French colonial era sites I’ve visited, it is remarkable that such wide-reaching ripple effects through centuries of subsequent history took place in these tiny corners of what was then an open territory for Europeans and home to a rich culture of Native peoples. By the end of the French and Indian War, the British had laid claim to much of the Americas. In so doing, the seeds of descent had also been sown among a bitter population of American colonists who would eventually rise up in independence against their British rulers.

All my travel this past year, followed up by a rewatching of the PBS series The War That Made America, has definitely fuelled the French and Indian War bug in me. I’ve put a few books on my reading list, including Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War, and Richard Berleth’s Bloody Mohawk. The period has also led me to pick up Wilderness War from GMT Games, the modern go-to board game on the period. With more than two-and-a-half-centuries between today and the fight for empire in the Americas, the French and Indian War is very much alive for me.