Skip to main content

While Lin Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical hit Hamilton takes some artistic liberties with our American Colonial past, there is a lot of history packed into its 20,520 words. With so much material to work with, even what look like throwaway lines contain enough backstory to have entire books written about them. We’ve picked out ten such lyrics in case you want to delve deeper into early American history this Fourth of July weekend. If the Library does not have a title, you can ask about borrowing it from another institution via Interlibrary Loan. Additionally, remote access to JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources, has been extended through 31 December 2020. Virginia residents with active Library of Virginia accounts can sign in using their email address as they do for our other databases. The JSTOR entry on the Using the Collections page has been updated to reflect this.

1. The Mind of King George

“When you've gone, I'll go mad” - King George III, You’ll Be Back

King George III, the so-called “Last King of America,” was the British monarch from 1760 to 1820. His reign took Britain through the Seven Years War (called the French & Indian War in America), the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. However, towards the end of his life, George III suffered from an unknown mental illness and eventually had to hand over the day-to-day workings of the government to a regent. There are varying theories on what caused King George’s mental decline and past pop culture has not been very kind to him, reducing him to “Mad King George” or the tyrant to whom the Declaration of Independence is addressed.

Further Reading:

2. Burr's Family Life

“My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher” - Burr, “Wait For It”

In “Wait for It” Aaron Burr introduces his life philosophy (at least as a character in the musical) while also briefly introducing his family: “My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher;” “My mother was a genius/my father commanded respect.” To say Burr’s grandfather was a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher is a bit of an understatement, as he practically invented the genre. The early days of many American Literature classes are filled with discussing Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, the most widely-known sermon of Burr’s grandfather. Edwards famously invoked the image of God holding human beings over the fires of hell and at his pleasure: “God won’t hold them up in these slippery Places any longer, but will let them go; and then, at that very Instant, they shall fall into Destruction.” Edwards’s daughter (Burr’s mother) Esther Edwards Burr kept a journal detailing her life as wife to Aaron Burr, Sr., who was a minister and president of The College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University). Burr, Sr. died in 1757 and his wife Esther died seven months later, leaving Burr an orphan at two years old; he and his sister went to live with their grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, for a time before he and his wife died as well.

Further Reading:

3. Duels of Honor

“Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?”/“Sure, but your man has to answer for his words, Burr” - Burr and Hamilton, "Ten Duel Commandments"

Arising from the practices of European nobility, for many years dueling was a surprisingly frequent occurrence in American life—and politics. In a society pervaded by ideas of honor and reputation, disputes that started in the political realm quickly turned personal, and it was far from rare for politicians to engage in so-called “affairs of honor;” the Hamilton-Burr duel is only one of the most famous examples. Duels followed strict rules of conduct, and were considered an acceptable course of action by many upper-class men even when they were technically illegal. One Virginia duel, fought in 1818, ended in a recently-elected state representative, John Mason McCarty, killing his own cousin after years of political disagreement. McCarty fled to New York but returned a year later. 

Further Reading:

4. Burr's Legacy

“Now I’m the villain in your history” - Burr, "The World Was Wide Enough"

After his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton, Burr fled to South Carolina to stay with his daughter. Murder charges against him were eventually dropped. When his term as vice president ended, Burr traveled west into the lands acquired with the Louisiana Purchase. He was accused of plotting to foment war with Spain and seize land in the midwest in order to form an independent nation. Burr was put on trial for treason at a federal court in Richmond’s Old Hall of Delegates in 1807, with John Marshall presiding over the case. Jefferson, in his second term as president, thought Burr’s guilt was obvious and attempted to influence the court. Marshall had clashed with Jefferson in the past and resisted those attempts. Burr was eventually acquitted of the charges. 

Further Reading:

5. Black Patriots

“Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom” -“Yorktown”

Black men fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, many while still enslaved. This one line encapsulates a lot. The white patriots of the Revolution said they were fighting for freedom and liberty from the tyranny of the British; some Black patriots joined them in that fight not knowing what the outcome might bring for those who were enslaved or those who were, at least nominally, free. The British army, in order to swell its ranks, offered freedom to enslaved Black men in America in return for military service. Many took this risk only to be left with unfulfilled promises when the British lost. Many years later Frederick Douglas referenced this in his Fourth of July speech of 1852 when he asked “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Further Reading:

6. A Lasting Friendship

“I helped Lafayette draft a declaration, Then I said, ‘I gotta go” - Jefferson, "What’d I Miss?"

The idealistic, and extravagantly named, nineteen-year old Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, travelled to the American colonies against the will of his family and government to fight the British. Washington took the young Frenchman under his wing and he was quickly made a major general in the Continental Army. In 1779, Lafayette returned to France where he was invaluable in helping Benjamin Franklin negotiate French assistance before returning to America and participating in the Battle of Yorktown. Returning to France once again however did not stop him from closely identifying with America and its political ideals. Thomas Jefferson, the new ambassador to France, helped Lafayette draft The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, an important document of the early French Revolution. Lafayette always maintained his relationship with America. He named his son George Washington Lafayette, and on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence he once again crossed the ocean to tour the country. Lafayette was especially fond of Virginia due to his closeness to Washington and Jefferson. Almost two hundred years later, when France sent gifts to the United States after World War II, gifts such as some of Lafayette’s personal seals and a picture of his study were chosen to be sent specifically to Virginia.

Further Reading:

7. The Whiskey Rebellion

“Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky/Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whiskey” - Jefferson, "Cabinet Battle #1"

Jefferson did not have to imagine for long–in 1791 the newly-formed United States did place a tax on whiskey (and all other distilled spirits) in an effort to raise money to pay off its war debts. Rum and whiskey in particular however were integral to the financial stability of many farmers living west of the Appalachians. When saddled with surplus corn and grain, it was often more profitable for farmers to turn it into alcohol in order to sell it before it spoiled, and a tax on these liquors greatly reduced their profits. Starting in Western Pennsylvania, groups of armed men rebelled against those seeking to collect the tax. Washington sent out militia to enforce the taxation (Hamilton served as a civilian advisor) and the armed conflict was stopped but the federal government continued to have issues collecting the tax until it was repealed under Jefferson’s administration.

Further Reading:

8. The Creation of Washington, D. C.

“The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital” - Burr, "The Room Where It Happens"

The Compromise of 1790, as described in the song “The Room Where It Happens” in Hamilton, was a dinner table bargain between Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison that led to the passage of the Residence Act, establishing the nation’s capital, and the Funding Act, whereby the federal government would take over states’ debts. Under the terms of the Residence Act, the federal government would move to Philadelphia as a temporary capital while constructing a new seat of government along the Potomac River, a location previously resisted by Northerners. Maryland and Virginia both ceded land to the new capital city, although the act specified that public buildings should be constructed on the Maryland side of the river. In 1846, Governor William Smith oversaw the Retrocession of Alexandria County, when the lands that had been ceded to the District of Columbia were officially returned to the Commonwealth. 

Further Reading:

9. A Second Revolution

“The issue on the table: France is on the verge of war with England. Do we provide aid and our troops to our French allies or do we stay out of it?” -Washington, "Cabinet Battle #2"

Peace between England and France was always tenuous, and it broke down again in the wake of the French Revolution. Broadly speaking, support for the two foreign powers in the United States broke down along political lines, with Federalists backing Great Britain and Democratic-Republicans supporting the new French republic. Officially, the United States issued a declaration of neutrality, penned by Alexander Hamilton, despite having received significant aid from France during the Revolutionary War. This contributed to the Quasi-War, an undeclared two-year conflict in which French ships harassed and captured American vessels, trying to cut off American trade with Britain. The British also seized American ships that were trading with France. The British navy had a serious problem with deserters, and would use the excuse of looking for deserters to detain and board American ships, impressing not only deserters but naturalized American citizens who had been born in Great Britain and even occasionally native-born Americans. This sort of impressment contributed to the War of 1812. 

Further Reading:

10. The Election of the 3rd President

“It’s 1800, ladies, tell your husbands, vote for Burr!” - Burr, "The Election of 1800"

The presidential election of 1800, which pitted Federalist President John Adams against Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, has been described as one of the most vicious campaigns in American history. Partisan political rhetoric reached a fever pitch, with parties making wild accusations against each other, both claiming the other intended to overthrow the Constitution and start a new revolution. Burr in particular made use of a modern style of campaigning in a way unprecedented in earlier American elections. Historians have argued that the revolutionary rhetoric surrounding the election may have influenced Gabriel’s rebellion. The election failed to provide a clear winner at first; at that time, presidential electors voted for two people for the offices of president and vice-president, with the first- and second-place winners becoming president and vice-president. However, Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 votes each. After six days of debate, the House of Representatives voted to break the tie and elect Jefferson. 

Further Reading:

Leave a Reply