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Hamilton: Rivalry, Redemption, and How Not to Kill Your Frenemy

(Warning: Spoilers abound in this post! If you haven’t seen Hamilton, you can watch a recording of the original Broadway production on Disney+!)

“Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?”

“Sure.”

If only the feuding founding fathers could have left it there.

But, of course, the destinies and legacies of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were always fatally intertwined. We all knew Burr would be “the damn fool that shot him.”

What many of us didn’t know, before seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton musical, was just how complex the relationship between Hamilton and Burr would be. Friendship, rivalry, admiration, bewilderment and contempt… these many relationships are entangled in the evolving tension between them. As they each hurl toward self-destruction and the destruction of the other, we can’t help but wonder what might have been if they had looked through a lens of appreciation rather than animosity.

At least, I can’t help but wonder.

That’s part of the genius of Miranda’s interpretative lens on this explosive episode in American history. Hamilton is rife with mimetic insight, exploring the powerful human connections that tangle us in relationship and rivalry.

Regardless of historical accuracy, Hamilton rings true because the messy, complicated humanity of its characters is on full display, particularly in its poignant portrayal of the tragic relationship between title character Alexander Hamilton and narrator Aaron Burr.  A connection that might have built them up instead destroys them as mutual ambition overshadows admiration and a fraught friendship devolves into enmity.

This tragic human pattern happens all the time. Most of us have experienced it in some form. But when we’re caught up in the throes of mimetic rivalry, losing ourselves in an increasing fog of hostility as we match our opponent insult for insult, blow for blow… we seldom realize what we do.

One way Hamilton brings hope, then, is by showing us this rivalry from a vantage point that helps us understand how to disentangle ourselves from a similar fate in our own lives. We may not worry about dying in a duel, but we can easily become caught up in conflict with a friend or someone with whom we have more in common than we would ever want to admit.

When that happens, there are at least three lessons we can learn from Hamilton in order to gain perspective on our rivalries:

  1. Allow our common desires to guide us toward cooperation rather than rivalry, and our differences to open space for learning rather than contempt.
  2. Root ourselves – our honor and our legacies – in love.
  3. Concede that the world is wide enough.

When we learn these lessons, we might finally understand not only that the world is indeed wide enough for our rivals and ourselves, but that life is too short to let rivalry overshadow friendship.

Hamilton is rife with mimetic insight, exploring the powerful human connections that tangle us in relationship and rivalry.

“My First Friend; My Enemy…”

The striking commonalities between Hamilton and Burr are so intrinsically intertwined with their differences that its impossible to untangle them. Both their similarities and differences ultimately lead to their demise, but this fate might not have been inevitable. There are better ways to steer a course through the complexities of contentious relationships.

The first step, again, is to allow our common desires to guide us toward cooperation rather than rivalry, and our differences to open space for learning rather than contempt.

Hamilton and Burr are the same age, orphaned, and brilliant. Though their different temperaments drive the story forward, there are deeper similarities than may first meet the eye.

Most importantly, the ambition that manifests itself so differently in Hamilton and Burr is underwritten in both cases by a sense of pragmatism. Hamilton, coming from nothing and surviving against all odds, rises to his position through dedication and decisive action, determined never to throw away his shot. However, Burr, though orphaned, was raised in stability. For him, survival has depended on holding tight to what he had, so he’s cautious, willing to wait until he knows which path will best benefit him.

Hamilton’s boldness and Burr’s caution work toward the same ends: building (in Hamilton’s case) or protecting (in Burr’s) a legacy. They each want to leave their marks on the world.

Ultimately, their mutual ambition becomes their mutual downfall.

And the tragedy is that their common goals had once brought them together in friendship. If only they had seen the value in that friendship instead of letting it devolve.

Hamilton admires Burr before they even meet. He wishes to emulate Burr, who sped through college to an early graduation, and seeks him out for help. Burr, sensing that Hamilton’s impulsiveness could get him into trouble, kindly advises him to “talk less; smile more.” This shocks Hamilton, who has gotten as far as he has precisely by speaking his mind.

Though it appears that Hamilton writes Burr off as unprincipled from that point on, the friendship continues. When Burr appears at Hamilton’s wedding, Hamilton sincerely congratulates him on a promotion through the military ranks, while Burr compliments Hamilton’s indispensability to General Washington. Both express a hint of jealousy at the other’s position, but for now, affection overpowers jealousy. Burr and Hamilton bewilder one another, yet respect remains.

Their mutual bewilderment careens toward contempt as their careers in law and politics evolve. While Burr marvels at Hamilton’s nonstop energy, Hamilton concedes that Burr’s even-handed diplomacy makes him a “better lawyer.” Yet Hamilton continues to despise Burr’s unwillingness to show his political leanings, while Burr bristles at Hamilton’s arrogance.

Still, Burr is inspired all the while by Hamilton’s ambition.  Envy of Hamilton finally compels Burr to stop waiting and seek his place in “the room where it happens.” When Burr switches parties and unseats Hamilton’s father-in-law in the Senate, Hamilton takes it as a personal affront. And when Burr later runs for President, he tells Hamilton, “I’m chasing what I want… and I learned that from you.”

Hamilton, meanwhile, learns nothing from Burr’s caution until it’s too late.

What if they had learned better lessons from each other?

What if Burr had chased his dream by following not only Hamilton’s relentlessness but also his willingness to state policies? What if he found a way to be decisive without being as divisive as Hamilton, blending his natural diplomacy with a vision beyond his own gain? After all, his losses came from a perceived lack of principles and the distrust that created (especially in Hamilton).

And what if Hamilton had learned caution and patience from Burr, enough not to publish the sordid details of his affair and ruin both marriage and political career in one fell swoop?

Hamilton and Burr could have taken different lessons from one another and potentially remained friends had they seen the value in the characteristics they despised and had they been willing to share political power. Yet they each took on the more self-destructive traits of the other. Burr lost his sense of caution and judgment and ultimately his reputation when he challenged Hamilton to a duel, and Hamilton lost his life when he chose to throw away his shot.

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“I Swear That I’ll Be Around For You”

How could Hamilton and Burr have re-prioritized in order to avoid their fates?

By rooting themselves – their honor and their legacies – in love.

Is this absurd? Not really.

Hamilton and Burr were both military men. So, their lives weren’t going to be entirely defined by mercy over violence. But they were also men who wanted to make peace in their new nation, defending loyalists in court to encourage national unity. And they were orphans who loved their children and knew what it was to have an absent father. They might have decided that dueling and other vengeful means of defending honor wasn’t worth the risk of leaving their children, or modeling a dangerous path for them.

They swore to their children that they would be around. Flirting with vengeful honor codes risks breaking that promise.

What if Burr and Hamilton had seen that their children’s future and the nation’s future would be best served by their collaboration and using their different gifts and perspectives to shape a strong, thoughtful country? What if they had realized that the violence towards which they were driven would set the new nation upon an already cracked foundation?

If we win our independence?
Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants?
Or will the blood we shed begin an endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?

What if Hamilton had cared as much about a cultural code of nonviolence as he did about a strong central economic system? That would have been truly revolutionary! And what if Burr had merely stuck to his original principle that duels are “dumb and immature” instead of losing sight of that fact when it was his own honor at stake? What if he had staked his honor on his ability to resist killing his compatriots rather than on his willingness to do so?

There are multiple potential incentives for Burr and Hamilton to choose restraint over vengeance. And Hamilton almost comes to this perspective when he, perhaps willingly, throws away his shot. But it was his confrontational nature that ultimately brought him to the dueling ground in the first place.

The World Is Wide Enough

And on the dueling ground, the focus narrows.

A duel of honor is the epitome of mimetic rivalry. Opponents literally mirror each other step for step, zeroing in on their hatred for the other. The Hamilton-Burr duel was an iconic ending to a relationship filled with mimetic parallels.

Sometimes, no matter what we do, we won’t recognize our opponent as a potential friend. Sometimes we’ll be caught up so deeply in a conflict that won’t be able to reorient ourselves in love until we gain some perspective. If we get to the point where we are thick in the conflict and are blessed with the insight to notice that we are losing sight of who we are, maybe we need most of all to step back and take in the view.

And recognize what Burr learns a second too late: “The world was wide enough.”

I’m not talking about a world wide enough for injustice to coexist with justice. The world is so wide that injustice anywhere creates a whole lot of injustice everywhere.

But the world is wide enough for people in a rivalry to coexist. The world is wide enough for multiple points of view, for sharing, for forgiveness and redemption, for coming out of conflict into compassion. And though both men made terrible and tragic mistakes, the world was wide enough for Hamilton and Burr.

The world is wide enough for all of us.