Hamilton, that musical about the “ten dollar founding father without a father” actually has a lot to say about the changing nature of fatherhood in the Anglo-American world of the late 1700s. The funny thing is, it does so least in places you might expect, and most cogently in what would seem like just a few throwaway lines. But as with so many historical interpretations and comments Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda found to insert in the musical, these are striking in how efficiently they cut to the heart of the matter.Interestingly enough, the song most explicitly about fatherhood seems Hamilton‘s most forced, offering perhaps the least insight. “Dear Theodosia,” sung near the end of Act I, offers a duet between Aaron Burr, singing to his baby daughter Theodosia, and Alexander Hamilton, singing to his son Philip. It provides necessary dramatic movement, putting Burr and Hamilton in parallel, showing their human commonalities as fathers wanting to do the best for their children. But not much beyond that. The song misses an opportunity with Burr, who was among the most progressive men of his generation in terms of his thoughts on female equality and the ways he sought to educate his daughter. Hamilton‘s really interesting contributions to the issue of 18th-century fatherhood come elsewhere, and more metaphorically.
In the eighteenth century, historians have argued, the Anglo-American conception of fatherhood was in transition from “patriarchy” to “paternalism.” In the former, men’s authority in the household was in theory based on Biblical authority, and his dependents (wife, children, other people in his household) were to obey him. In the latter, men’s authority in the household was to be based on bonds of affection. But the theoretical change in the nature of authority didn’t necessarily change “the facts on the ground,” as we like to say these days.
Hamilton captures that contradiction perfectly in You’ll Be Back, George III’s song in reaction to the American rebellion. Orchestrated in the style of a mid-1960s early British invasion song, George III sings of his love for his American colonial subjects — as a paternalistic father should. And yet, on what does his authority really rest? Let’s let George III explain:
I will send a fully armed battalion
to remind you of my love!
I will kill your friends and family to remind
you of my love.
And therein lay the paradox: whether based upon stern or loving authority, when push came to shove eighteenth-century fatherhood still necessitated force.
The United States, on the other hand, had the Father of the Nation, none other than George Washington. He also served as a fictive father for some of his officers and protégés, non more so than Alexander Hamilton. Multiple times in Hamilton, Washington offers Hamilton fatherly advice. Hamilton appreciates and listens — yet chafes when Washington calls him “son” as a diminutive. Washington also served as a father figure in his first administration, illustrated most comically when, as Washington calls Hamilton into the room to let him know that the president has chosen to retire, the Secretary of the Treasury blurts out, before even knowing why he’s there,
Sir, I don’t know what you heard,
But whatever it is, Jefferson started it.
As any father of multiple children must do, Washington must adjudicate disputes among his children. More than that, though, Washington, in telling Hamilton and the nation that it is time for him to move on, is also telling his fictive family (Hamilton and the nation) that they must live beyond him. It is a lesson in the relationship not only of fathers to sons, but also of the unique fatherly place that Washington holds in the American imagination.