The Gospel According to Hamilton

“God Help and Forgive Me / I Want to Build Something that’s Going to Outlive Me.”

Mockingbird / 7.6.20

This piece by Cort Gatliff was originally published in January of 2016. For more from Gatliff (and others) on all things Hamilton, check out the Mockingbird Hamilton guide!


My life can be divided into two distinct eras: Before Hamilton and After Hamilton. On October 1, 2015, after months of following the online hysteria and critical acclaim, the former era came to an end when I finally set aside time to listen to the Broadway cast recording of composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s latest, unconventional project: a hip hop musical about the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Moments after hitting play, this work of art captured my imagination in a way no other cultural phenomenon in recent memory has. So my love affair began.

Hamilton opens with a question: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / spot in the Caribbean by providence / impoverished, in squalor / grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The electric two and a half hours that follow are the answer. With dizzying wordplay and contagious energy, Miranda, the certified genius who wrote the music and lyrics and stars in the titular role, tells the story of Hamilton’s astonishing life—his bleak childhood, his tumultuous political career and scandalous love life, and his fateful encounter with the business end of Vice President Aaron Burr’s pistol—and invites audiences to imagine the founding of the United States in a new way.

After memorizing every word and peeling back the layers to discover hidden historical and cultural references, I moved on to Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow’s masterful 832-page biography on which the musical is based. I was downright evangelical about the whole thing, finding ways to bring Hamilton up in random conversations, often with strangers. Friends began to inquire about my mental health. In a scheme that worked better than I could have imagined, I got my wife hooked, too, and together we withdrew a significant chunk out our savings and purchased two tickets to the show while visiting New York City.

Indeed, Hamilton seems to inspire that rabid sort of fandom that turns a work of art into a genuine cultural force. One reviewer suggested people mortgage their homes to go see it. Each night, celebrities of all stripes, from Jay Z to Julia Roberts, fill the seats of the Richard Rodgers Theatre; the Obamas saw it—twice! With an extended run slated to begin in Chicago later this year and a national tour in the works, it doesn’t look like Hamilton is going away any time soon.

Of the many themes woven throughout Hamilton, there is one I find myself pondering most often: the need to justify our own existence. Born into poverty in the Caribbean, Hamilton had little hope of rising above his station. But when a hurricane ripped through his home, a series of events were set in motion that ultimately led to him playing an integral role in the birth of our nation. Despite the fact that he serves as George Washington’s right hand man, marries into a wealthy family, and accomplishes more in a few years than most men will in a lifetime, Hamilton is haunted by the feeling that he’s an outsider. There’s this constant need to do more, to prove himself worthy, to leave a legacy. “I’m not throwing away my shot,” he sings.

Essentially, Hamilton believes his worth is determined by what he accomplishes. Early in the musical, a character warns that Hamilton “will never be satisfied,” a phrase that takes on multiple meanings throughout the show. Several times, Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, urges Hamilton to “look around,” and asks, “isn’t this enough?” They survived the war, had a child, and are building a happy life together. Isn’t that enough? For Hamilton, the man obsessed with his legacy, the answer is no, it’s not enough. This is, of course, the problem with determining the value of our lives by what we do: there’s always more that can be done—we will never be satisfied.

“God help and forgive me,” Hamilton sings in “The Room Where It Happens,” one of the musical’s showstoppers. “I want to build something that’s going to outlive me.” I confess I’m as susceptible to this line of thinking as the next guy. Like Hamilton, I want people to remember me for doing great things. But when I examine these feelings, I find that, more often than not, they’re rooted in egomania and insecurity. Why do I want to do things that the world finds impressive? So I will be remembered when I’m gone. Why do I want to be remembered when I’m gone? Because if I’m not, my existence was a waste. And that’s my biggest fear–squandered potential. That’s what keeps me up at night. This is life under the Law: You are defined by what you do, and nothing more. For a sinner like me, prone to wander and liable to failure, this is a crushing burden.

Hamilton ends the same way it begins: with a question. “Will they tell your story?” In my darkest moments, I hear those words and panic. Am I living a story worth telling? Have I left my mark on the universe? But there is hope and life found in a true and better question: Whose story am I telling? The answers we are ultimately looking for are found in the Gospel of grace, which frees us from the weight of self-justification and tells us that we are defined not by what we do, but by what someone else–Jesus–has already done.