There are a couple of songs in Hamilton that I would rather skip. (Yes, Lin Manuel-Miranda devotees. Have at me.) Frankly, “It’s Quiet Uptown” is too painful for me to hear. As a father of two, I wouldn’t dare to imagine the pain of that loss.
And the other song? “Hurricane” just sounds so… meh. It’s an ominous, somber tune that heralds the coming of scandal in Hamilton’s life and career. By design, it’s one of the sadder melodies in a play packed with infinitely more memorable tunes. Whenever I listen to “Hurricane,” I try to find some redeeming quality that justifies two minutes of my attention.
Now, I may have just found it.
You see, the lyrics to “Hurricane” establish one of the main themes of Hamilton. Of course, any aficionado of the play will tell you that legacy, death, nation-building, and love are the musical’s backbone. The theme underscored in “Hurricane,” though, is a little closer to home—a humbler concept compared to those sublime motifs.
It’s writing. Yes, you heard that right. Hamilton—with all its duels, cabinet meetings, and sexual innuendos—is all about writing.
To be specific, writing has three faces in the musical. A closer look at “Hurricane” (as well as other choice cuts from the soundtrack) makes it clear that writing is a potent, multi-faceted force. Depending on the person, situation, and motivation, writing can conjure a calamity… or rescue someone from it.
And just as the musical appealed to a diverse audience, the advice I’m about to give is meant for all writers. If you’re a young lion seeking to make a name for yourself in the industry, take this as a vote of confidence in your decision to become a writer. If you’re a grizzled vet who’s been around the (writer’s) block more times than you’d admit, let this be a gentle reminder about how you wield the power of your pen.
Writing as a Survival Tool
In the opening lines of “Hurricane,” Hamilton narrates how the titular storm laid waste to his hometown. How did the seventeen-year-old rise from this picture of devastation? Incessantly, he sings: “I wrote my way out.” This refrain sums up the power of writing to transcend unhappy conditions, and to carve a path towards greatness.
Rather than be overwhelmed by destitution—Hamilton had already gone through a whirlwind of family tragedy even before the hurricane struck—the young Alexander used his pen to craft a story of endurance and reinvention.
The 1772 letter that Hamilton wrote to his father is a prime example of his writing skills propelling him to new heights. In the letter, young Alexander “wrote everything down far as [he] could see,” eloquently describing the wrath of the storm. The letter was eventually published in a local newspaper, and such was the impact of Hamilton’s words that his countrymen took up a collection that allowed him to board a ship bound for New York.
Upon arriving in the colonies, Hamilton would gain further renown thanks to his skill with a quill. The songs “Right Hand Man” and “Stay Alive” tell us that he was entrusted with writing General Washington’s correspondence. It is hard to imagine that Hamilton would have achieved his future success—as military commander, lawyer, and Treasury Secretary—had he refused to grab the opportunity presented by Washington.
Lesson learned: never underestimate the potential of writing as a survival tool.
Sadly, even in our present time, writing is seldom regarded as a viable means of earning a living. With the advent of stay-at-home jobs and the convenience of technology, the time has come to recognize writing as an instrument that can improve one’s lot in life. Is it any wonder that there is a deluge of job openings for content writers and editors nowadays? Find multiple platforms that suit your writing profile, and be as prolific as you can with the outputs you submit.
And while you’re at it, listen to the advice of people who edit said outputs! Far too often, our initial reaction towards editors is to be hard-headed, Hamilton-style. Before you even think of challenging them to a duel, remember that their intention is to help you hone your skills and refine your work. If you can embrace the feedback of your editors, you’ll enjoy smooth sailing in your career and the writing profession will keep you afloat.
Writing as a Weapon
Here’s another reality check, though: writing can be employed for devious purposes as well. Writing can be used to pick a fight, to attack one’s reputation, or to serve as evidence of some crime committed. Hamilton, of course, had to learn this the hard way. As a matter of fact, the song “Hurricane” serves as a meditation of sorts as he contemplates his counterattack against foes that have weaponized writing.
The character of Thomas Jefferson did this quite masterfully. In the verbal wars fought between him and Hamilton, Jefferson invoked written texts in his arguments. First, he insults Hamilton’s financial plan in “Cabinet Battle #1” with the quip, “It’s too many damn pages for any man to understand.” Then, in “Cabinet Battle #2,” he reminds President Washington about the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, so that he can argue in favor of sending aid to France.
Jefferson, though, could only inflict real damage on Hamilton after Washington stepped down as President. In the song “We Know,” Jefferson confronts Hamilton with an allegation of financial crime. Hamilton laughs off their accusation, and reveals that the only crime he committed was adultery(!).
Once his opponents leave, though, Hamilton realizes the true gravity of the situation: he has just armed his nemesis with high-caliber ammunition that could kill his future aspirations and ruin his legacy.
As such, Hamilton’s line of thinking in “Hurricane” is clear. If writing helped him survive before, it will save him once again. He then writes the infamous “Reynolds pamphlet,” where he proactively admits to having an affair. Unfortunately, the Reynolds pamphlet was no life vessel; on the contrary, his reputation sank and his marriage to Eliza hit rock bottom. Much to the delight of Jefferson and his allies, the pamphlet became a device of Hamilton’s own destruction.
Any writer can fall into the trap that ensnared Hamilton. Our writing can blow up right in our faces if we make poor decisions in terms of what should be said, when and how it should be said, and what should be left out.
The key here (and the kite, if you’re a fan of Ben Franklin) is perspective. Before you click “Publish,” take a step back and visualize your work from your audience’s point of view. Are you unfairly criticizing someone, perhaps giving them the business without due consideration? Will your text tarnish identities and compromise relationships? How will it impact your own brand?
If you do publish your own Reynolds pamphlet, keep in mind that writing goes both ways. As I emphasized in the previous section, you can use writing to save yourself. Heck, if major news outlets can publish honest admissions about the occasional erratum, so can you. As long as you’re willing to acknowledge that you wrote something offensive or inaccurate, you can check your writer’s ego at the door and publish a piece that will rectify your mistake.
Like I said earlier, you don’t need to be a Treasury Secretary to heed this advice. This precautionary tale of prudence goes for everyone—from journalists to Hollywood actors, from adolescents on social media to politicians on Capitol Hill.
Writing as an Act of Creation
Instead of destruction, the power of writing should be harnessed for innovation. Writing has the potential to change minds, transform systems, and build relationships. In the song “My Shot,” Hamilton emphasizes this point as he declares his mission statement: “I’m passionately smashing every expectation/Every action’s an act of creation.”
It’s just too bad that he lacked the restraint to consistently do this, as evidenced by the Reynolds pamphlet fiasco. As such, the character that best exemplifies the creative capacity of writing is not Hamilton, but Washington.
In the song “One Last Time,” while Hamilton dwelled on the prospect of attacking the newly resigned Jefferson, Washington thought only of imparting wisdom to his fellow citizens in his farewell address. Even as he stepped down from the highest office in the land, Washington was resolved to create a better tomorrow for America.
Of course, Hamilton’s own creations are no less impressive. In “Hurricane,” he reflects: “I wrote about the Constitution and defended it well”—a reference to his work on the monumental Federalist Papers. Hamilton then follows that up with: “And in the face of ignorance and resistance/I wrote financial systems into existence.”
Indeed, with the sheer will of his writing, Hamilton facilitated the creation of financial institutions—such as a central bank and the national debt—that helped transform the United States into an economic superpower.
But the most important creation in the entire musical is also its main theme: legacy. Hamilton illustrates how our written works become our lasting mark in this world—a tangible imprint to be read by future generations. However, while there’s no question that Alexander Hamilton made an impact with his writing, the musical also begs the question of how we should remember him. It is this very question of legacy that should be firmly instilled in the mind of every writer.
Why? In the digital age that we live in, every word that we write can be published and reproduced with astounding efficiency. This means that our words can also be misconstrued and misrepresented faster than you can say “Weehawken.”
Because we have no control over “who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” the least we can do is to discern our true motivation for what we are writing. Do we mean to get ahead by attacking others? Or do we want to progress by making an honest living and spawning innovations?
At the end of the day, you can choose to write with the right intention. Instead of stacking ammunition to verbally destroy others, focus on uplifting your condition and laying the groundwork for a better world. Realize the power of writing, and do not throw away your shot at creating a positive impact. With every work that you publish, aim not to bring others down; rather, let your target be to see them rise up. Now that’s a legacy worth building.
One Last Time… What Is Writing?
Legacy, of course, is on Hamilton’s mind in the climactic duel. With breathless delivery, he offers one final reflection: “What is a legacy?/It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see/I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.”
Very clever, Mr. Miranda. I’ve got some analogies of my own, if you don’t mind. Since I am neither a horticulturist nor a musician, I’ll stick to writing and its three faces.
It’s a survival tool.
It’s a weapon.
It’s an act of creation.
And if there’s one thing I learned from that morose song “Hurricane,” it’s this: as far as writing goes, Hamilton always had the power in his hands to make the right decision.
Three centuries later, so do we. Now that’s a choice you wouldn’t want to skip.