Actions

Work Header

"I have never been satisfied": Hamilton Through an Asexual Lens

Work Text:

The beginnings of this essay originated sometime in late April of 2016, when I finally bought into the then-growing hype and listened to the Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Recording (OCR). Like many listeners, I found myself drawn in by the compelling characters, the fast-paced storytelling, and the hard-hitting themes that resonated globally. Many of us, if not most, saw a little of ourselves reflected back at us when we listened (or watched, for those fortunate few) to Alexander Hamilton writing (and rapping) his way to glory and then back into obscurity. I was no different, and at first pinned my sense of connection with the character down to the obvious -- he was a writer, possessed by the fear of failure, aware of the ever-tightening noose of death and inevitability, and self-destructive to the extreme. For a time, that was explanation enough. But as I rotated continuously through the OCR, the ring of familiarity Hamilton held for me only grew. Browsing fandom brought up the former points, wherein people connected to Hamilton’s struggle, but I felt an absence.

Shelving this feeling, I began to write fanfiction, for the enjoyment of myself and a small circle of friends, after becoming thoroughly exhausted with the ins and outs of fandom life years prior. It was then that I began to see certain patterns emerging, certain familiar patterns. Any fan will tell you that there is a fine line between interpretation and outright projection, and I believed I fell into the latter category, but brushed it off, since I never planned on entering fandom in any meaningful way. Encounters with other Hamilton fans, particularly asexual fans, wavered my confidence in this assertion. When I hesitantly shared my thoughts, expecting at worst judgement and at best the casual nonchalance of mere tolerance, I was shocked to be on the receiving end of not only intense positivity and support, but also the resounding refrain of “I knew there was a reason why I connected to this character, and now it makes sense”. If nothing else, I want this work to exist to serve as a compilation of thoughts held over countless chat forums and in-person discussions, for those people to return to and read should they ever feel the desire.

As perhaps an important disclaimer, it should be noted that this is, at it’s core, an interpretation of text. I am neither American nor particularly well-versed in American history, and this work completely disregards any and all historical figures and events as they really occurred. I am not trying to convince you that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was asexual. In all honesty, I would find it difficult to locate a stronger example of allosexuality if I tried. Nor am I trying to convince you that Hamilton, as he was written and presented in the musical, was intended to be an asexual character. I have seen Hamilton compared to a Shakespearean History (the citation here escapes me), where the actual facts and character accuracy are perhaps less important than the emotions and themes they convey. For my purposes, I will be treating the musical much the same way as I would any Shakespearean work, focusing my arguments on the text (specifically language and performance as heard in the OCR) and not the events that inspired them, or evidence of sexuality or relationships not explicitly stated in the text. I also do not claim to be any sort of asexual scholar -- what is about to be presented is purely based on my own analysis, with input from asexual-spectrum friends. This is a fanwork, non-fictional thought it may be, and I claim no academic ability or credentials despite the fact that I have modelled this somewhat in the form of an academic essay. The first and only purpose of this work is to explain my perception of Hamilton through an asexual lens, and to share the resulting conclusions for the sake of fan interest.

The Premise

Logically, the best way to prove my point would be to provide some counter argument that could feasibly take on the existing historical precedent, canon precedent (though this will be addressed) and widely accepted fan theories (fanon) of Hamilton’s promiscuity and sexual appetite. The issue here is that I cannot do that. You cannot argue that something does not exist, and asexuality, in the most simplified terms, is the absence of sexual attraction. It is impossible to prove. This will be a recurring theme throughout this essay: I cannot tell you that these things are true, because they are not, in the sense that they were not intended. That does not, however, necessarily mean that they cannot be true in an analytical sense, in the same way scholars can claim Romeo and Juliet were both the truest of loves and a cautionary tale of youthful infatuation, with neither being necessarily untrue.

However, I will bring up Hamilton’s driving force in the musical, and indeed the driving force of the musical itself -- his ambition. References to Hamilton’s non-stop workaholic tendencies are too numerous to cite here in their entirety. In Hurricane , we learn that the entire reason for his being in America lies in his refusal to bow to his circumstances -- he “wrote [his] way out”. His enmity with Burr begins when Burr advises him to curb his form of expressing his ambition, to “talk less, smile more”, and his friendship with the Revolutionary Set begins with an introductory round of posturing and self-aggrandizing, ending with the Set encouraging Hamilton in his ambitions, outright contradicting Burr in Farmer Refuted in order to allow Hamilton to say his piece. Hamilton’s first relationships in the work are made or broken on his ambition.

Indeed, it is ambition that leads him to accept being Washington’s aide, to choosing the war and later the political world over his family and home life, repeatedly. First off-screen after That Would Be Enough , where he returns at Washington’s request despite Eliza’s heartfelt attempts to persuade him to be fulfilled with family life, then again in Non-Stop where he refuses both Schuyler Sisters’ appeals to stay and instead heeds Washington’s call to be Secretary of the Treasury, and finally during Take a Break , where he chooses to stay and work rather than risk his job and vacation with his family. The latter will be discussed in more detail later on in my discussion of Say No to This .   

If there is an argument to be made here, it is that Hamilton’s ambition possesses him far more than sexual desire, and is far more integral to his character. On that one assumption, I can begin to construct further arguments.

I am more than willing to die -- a brief discussion on toxic masculinity

To understand where Hamilton’s ambition comes from, and the form it takes in him, we have to explore what little we know about his past. We know he and his mother were abandoned by his father, his mother died soon after, and Hamilton narrowly escaped destitution by working, and later writing his way off of the island where he lived.

It is perhaps unsurprising that after being abandoned to such a helpless, passive role in his own life, Hamilton would seek to literally fight his way to the top. He regularly engages in violent or disruptive behavior in situations where he feels threatened, such as when the Princeton bursar “looked at [him] like [he was] stupid”. It is for this reason that Burr’s advice of, “Talk less, smile more” immediately distances the two, and why Hamilton is almost immediately attracted to the Revolutionary Set as they take turns amping up their own prowess in a round-table exercise of masculine team-building as they critique the British.  

Furthermore Washington provide us with some interesting insight on the subject. Coded as a father-figure (would-be, at least) and an authority figure to Hamilton, his words carry substantial weight. In Right Hand Man , he is able to read Hamilton with pointed accuracy. He pinpoints Hamilton’s obsession with fighting and dying gloriously in battle, and once Hamilton has himself admitted this to be true, Washington sternly informs him that “dying is easy … living is harder”. He dismantles Hamilton’s perceptions of what it means to be successful in battle, and I would argue, what it means to be successful as a man, successfully changing Hamilton’s mind from his earlier derision at the idea of being a secretary to accepting a similar position under Washington. It is important to note that Washington is without contest a flawed character, even in the context in which I am discussing him now -- in History Has Its Eyes on You, he tells Hamilton that he “made every mistake” as a young man in battle, and is doing his best to ensure Hamilton can learn the dangers -- not only to himself but to the war effort -- of pursuing single-minded and short-term goals such as martyrdom and glory. Failures aside, or perhaps because of them, if the musical has an ideal depiction of masculinity, I would argue that it is Washington, therefore we can observe the dissonance between his and Hamilton’s values to argue for the unhealthy and ultimately dangerous posturing Hamilton undertakes.

Washington’s confession is important -- it follows after a significant falling out between the two men, the culmination of a long-building tension. The argument in Meet Me Inside has many possible reasons, but for my purposes, I will focus on the most textually obvious. Hamilton desires a command in order to “fly above his station after the war”, but then almost immediately refutes this idea by refuting Washington’s warnings and asserting that he is ”more than willing to die”. His ambition, at this point, is less centered on a desire for political legacy and more for any sort of valuable legacy he can get his hands on, and his fury with Washington resides in large part in the fact that he believes Washington does not think him strong or capable enough to succeed, which leads to Hamilton’s assertion that he is “willing” to do anything, including die, to succeed in a command post, not realizing yet that true success does not involve dying in a blaze of glory.

In That Would Be Enough , Hamilton is highly resistant to Eliza’s assertion that they “don’t need a legacy, [they] don’t need money”, as her family-oriented definition of ambition and success clashes directly with Hamilton’s difficult upbringing, and the values that have carried him to where he is. With intense self-deprecation, he asks her if she would “relish being a poor man’s wife, unable to provide for your life”, indicating a deeper sense of what Hamilton views surrounding his masculinity are. He is only secure in his self-image if he is able to step into the role of provider, I would argue this is to ensure that he never again returns to his humble beginnings, and indicates a deeper trauma not addressed directly in the musical. Hamilton’s identity and his ambition are tightly linked, each feeding and influencing the other.

How this construction of identity would factor into his life will be discussed below.

It’s a bit of a posture, it’s a bit of a stance -- on Helpless/Satisfied

Removing any and all historical context, the sole examples of Hamilton’s interaction with women in Act One resides in the Helpless/Satisfied narrative, and for this purpose, I will spend some time on these songs in detail.

First, I want to address some key lines in A Winter’s Ball, which ties into Helpless as part of this timeline. Both these lines are uttered by Burr, which lends a bit of difficulty to their interpretation. Burr is a somewhat difficult character to reckon with, in that he is not held within the narrative structure. For example, in Your Obedient Servant, he is clearly a character participating in the narrative. In The World Was Wide Enough he exists in something of an in-between space, monologuing (narrating) the experience to the audience while it happens (or, presumably, Burr the Narrator relives it) but doing so in the present tense, e.g “I strike [Hamilton] right between his ribs”, but then shifting into a retrospective narration later in the song, e.g “I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me”. This makes it difficult to determine which area he occupies in A Winter’s Ball, as he switches from present tense, stating he and Hamilton are “reliable with the ladies”, but then switching to past tense, saying women “delighted and distracted” Hamilton. For my purposes, I will conflate Burr the Narrator and Burr the Character, as I posit that both maintain a fundamental misunderstanding of Hamilton’s character. In the official Genius lyric annotations, LMM states that the “looks, proximity to power” line is referring to Burr listing the reasons why he and Hamilton are getting attention now -- they are in military uniform and at a party with members of high society.

However, considering that this line comes directly after Burr’s assertion that “there are so many [ladies] to deflower”, I posit a different interpretation: “looks, proximity to power” refers not to the men, but the women, and their usefulness, particularly to penniless Hamilton, in climbing the social ladder. The women are beautiful, yes, but most importantly, they are close to power, likely through their fathers, and a union with any of them would provide an increase in status. Hamilton corroborates this reading when he cheekily asks Burr if it’s really a question of “if” he can seduce a Schuyler Sister, or of “which one” he will choose when he does. The women, for Hamilton, are a means to a political and socioeconomic end, not particularly a sexual one, as this statement is said in response to Burr’s assertion that “if [Hamilton] can marry a [Schuyler] sister, [he’s] rich”. Again we see ambition rising to the top of Hamilton’s priorities, not sexual motivation.

Next, consider Burr’s statement that women “delighted and distracted” Hamilton, to the extent that “Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him”. Now, I will fully admit that the analysis of the tomcat line goes slightly outside of my firm parameters of refusing to engage with historical context. In Hamilton: the Revolution , LMM states that this line was most likely a fabrication by John Adams, but that he enjoyed the idea of Hamilton owing the appellation. While this prime example of posturing would only help my argument, for the sake of consistency, I will attempt to argue it without the help of the “Hamiltome”. The validity of the line is perhaps less important to my argument than the eager way with which Hamilton responds. His assertion of “that’s true” immediately following Burr’s reveal of the line suggests not only pride at this indicate of sexual appetite but also a startling eagerness to support the claim, to convince the audience that it is unarguably true.

Yet it is in this eagerness that speaks to me of a certain artifice. After all, the entire point of A Winter’s Ball is that these are young men trying to find their way in the world, boasting about their prowess in war and love, and like many youthful exclamations, their words should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, in the context of the musical, we do not see how Burr is particularly “reliable with the ladies”, since he spends his time either pining after or married to Theodosia, and yet he puts himself on Hamilton’s level with this assertion. If anything, this line seems like self-aggrandizing posturing on both character’s counts, without even taking into consideration that Burr as a character seems to possess a very flawed understanding of Hamilton as a character already, e.g his assumptions that Hamilton is always seeking to outpace and outmaneuver him at every turn, rather than realizing Hamilton is driven forward by nothing more or less than his own goals, disregarding others often to his own detriment.

This leads us to Helpless, wherein Alex achieves his goal of securing a place in the Schuyler family . Now, on a surface level, this song plays out much the way one would expect. Love at first sight, whirlwind romance culminating in a heartwarming wedding scene, fade to black. However, there are a few deviations from the expected story. First of all, Eliza claims Hamilton first. She is the first one to see him, when he “walked in and [her] heart went boom”, and she also expresses verbal claim over him when she tells Angelica “this one’s [hers]”. I am positing that Eliza provides Hamilton with what he needs most: a way to construct the identity expected of a high society gentleman to advance after the war is done. Whether or not he wants the trappings of such a life is, ultimately, irrelevant. We already know Hamilton is not one to throw away his shot. Taking this position, it is perhaps unsurprising that after a mere two weeks of interaction, and that mainly held over correspondance, Hamilton asks for Eliza’s hand.

This is not to claim that Hamilton felt no affection for Eliza. Indeed, I firmly believe that in Helpless we see a genuine connection, particularly when Hamilton shares the painful details of his past and upbringing. This is the only time Hamilton mentions his family to another character, and I do not think it is unreasonable to assume that this very personal, painful topic comes up in response to Hamilton feeling genuine affection for Eliza, and the possibility of a family, which he has not had in roughly a decade. I would argue that this is one of the few moments where we catch a glimpse of Hamilton as he exists beneath the posturing -- “I’ve been living without a family since I was a child” provides an interesting echo to his nervous, eager assertion in My Shot that he’s “never had a group of friends before, but [he promises] that [he’ll] make [them] proud”. There is a definite desire for affection and human connection in Hamilton, but it is one he rarely reveals, especially in the presence of others, and only in times of great emotional heights. This, to me, does not read like a suave ladies man reeling in a prize -- that may be Hamilton’s intention, but he shows his hand with these little emotional insights. This is valuable to my argument because it reveals cracks in Burr’s earlier assumption of Hamilton’s “reliable with the ladies” status. In fact, despite the posturing seen in A Winter’s Ball , Hamilton is remarkably passive in his interactions with the Schuyler Sisters, being passed from Angelica to Eliza with little comment. This is particularly interesting when considering his earlier words: “Is is a question of if, Burr, or which one?” This line denotes an active role, in which Hamilton will not only be charming his way into the hearts of all the Schuyler Sisters, but of having his pick of the lot once this has been accomplished. Instead, we see the exact opposite occurring, which leads me into my Satisfied section.

To begin, Angelica does not for a moment consider that either she or Eliza will be rejected by the dashing young man both have set their eyes on. This is important to note, I think, due to the fact that it contributes to the erosion of Hamilton’s previously proclaimed promiscuous identity. Whether or not Hamilton is “reliable with the ladies” is irrelevant in Helpless/Satisfied because the ladies are reliable with him. While Eliza is the first to verbally express her claim over Hamilton, Angelica sees him first, and actively pursues him, stopping him from climbing the scaffolding with Washington in Helpless (this staging and all others are taken from clips from an OBC performance) at which point Hamilton allows himself to be pulled back into the party. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter , LMM says that Satisfied portrays Angelica as “the smartest person in the room”, and this is easily verified by looking at this lyrics. Angelica is not only able to read Hamilton’s intentions, but to direct said intentions in a way to benefit her sister, who is already enamored.

Now, I would like to take a look at what Angelica actually sees when she looks at Hamilton. Aside from the physical details both she and Eliza take note of -- e.g “look at those eyes” and “handsome, boy does he know it” which, again, flip the script of expectations, since Hamilton does not once comment on the physical appearance of either sister -- Angelica pins Hamilton’s motivations immediately, noting his charm and flirtation as “a bit of a posture, it’s a bit of a dance”, and that “he’s penniless, he’s flying by the seat of his pants”. So, what exactly does this tell us? Angelica, quick-witted and if not immune to Hamilton’s charms, then certainly possessing the ability to see through them, acknowledges that Hamilton’s motivations here are, to a degree, purely about advancing his social status. While that “doesn’t mean [she wants] him any less”, she also recognizes that handing him off to her younger sister may have less disastrous social implications. In this way, Angelica confirms two things for this paper: one, that ambition is always Hamilton’s first priority, even in romantic contexts, and two, his posturing to fit into this world is obvious to a keen eye.  

As a brief aside, analyzing the line, “I have never been satisfied” may seem a bit on the nose, given the content of this paper, but the line itself is orchestrated to be both sexual innuendo and a comment on Hamilton’s ambition, which serves my purposes perfectly, as it links back to my earlier foundational argument that it is Hamilton’s ambition that drives him. He is doing the expected thing, being charming and flirtatious with an attractive, rich woman, but Hamilton is already predicting, rightly so if unwittingly, that the life he is pursuing will never fulfill him in the way that he wishes, and that his efforts to fit into a prescribed identity will end catastrophically.

This concept arises again at the end of the act, when Hamilton abandons his family to go work for Washington physically tearing his arms from the Schuylers’ grip as they try to hold him back from the scaffolding where Washington stands. Eliza asks him, “What would be enough to be satisfied?” and the answer is not her, or their newborn child, or even Angelica. Hamilton’s answer is to climb the scaffolding to claim the portion of his identity he wanted all along -- political legacy, changing the world in meaningful ways. His family, I would argue, while affectionately held, were in many ways a necessary means to this end. In Satisfied , Angelica predicts Hamilton “will never be satisfied”, and this foreshadowing follows us into Act Two.  

There’s trouble in the air, you can smell it -- On Act Two

Take a Break is the only scene we have of the entire Hamilton family together, providing us a brief glimpse into their interactions. Though short in that regard, we receive some very telling details. First, Hamilton is writing letters and working through what we later learn is Phillip’s ninth birthday, and has to be repeatedly called by Eliza in order to attend dinner. In fact, Eliza is the one who tells the audience, and reminds Hamilton, what day it is. This sets up a skewed dynamic wherein Hamilton, though he seems genuinely fond of his wife and child, appears to be quite the distant father figure, a particularly painful realization when one considers his relationship to his own father was strained at best. Though it is Phillip’s birthday, he is the one trying to make Hamilton proud with his poem, and it becomes clear when Hamilton tells Eliza that Phillip is “pretty great”, in an almost surprised tone, that he does not seem to spend much time at home at all. From this, we can see that Hamilton’s motivations have not changed since the first act, and he remains focused on his political goals even when begged to do otherwise. He assuages Eliza’s first attempt to take a family vacation by saying he will “try to get away”, though as we later see when Angelica arrives and also tries to convince him, this line was clearly meant less as a promise and more as an attempt to pacify Eliza.

However, even if taken to mean Hamilton genuinely desired to try and get away, his phrasing suggests that he is coming at the idea from a place where work is in the primary position of priority, with family coming afterwards -- only if work allows can family then be tended to. On a more personal marital notes, Eliza tempts Hamilton by mentioning “the lake [she knows] in a nearby park” where they can both go “when the night gets dark”, only to be met with the aforementioned platitude. The innuendo on Eliza’s line is difficult to miss, and yet Hamilton denies it almost outright, one of few clear-cut examples we receive in the musical of Alex sidestepping a sexual situation instead of allowing himself to be led. I would argue this situation occurs because, for once, romantic or sexual entanglement is not running parallel to possibilities for ambition and advancement.

Hamilton seems torn between wanting to fill a stereotypically masculine head-of-house role by being successful and providing for his family, and being unable to dredge up the ability to meet his family’s emotional needs at the same time, possibly due to his own complex family history. This emotional disconnect leads to Hamilton choosing work over family for the final, disastrous time. In Say No to This, he seems to be suffering from this choice, indicating he aches for his family’s emotional support when he says he is “longing for Angelica, missing [his] wife” and yet he does not seem to express regret at not following them on their vacation, despite acknowledging that he is “in need of a break” he seems unable to indulge this need in any meaningful way, suggesting a lack of ability not only towards the emotional needs or his family but also of his own, for the sake of his ambitions. And yet this refusal to address his emotional needs leads him to his career-ending mistake in Say No to This.  

The entire purpose of the song is that Hamilton does not know how to say no to this situation, to Maria. The reasons why are debatable. He is alone, exhausted, and without any support systems now that his family is gone. Maria’s pursuit of him, at Reynold’s behest, and the fact that she is the one to physically approach him is a heart-wrenching echo of the Schuyler’s pursuit of him in the first act, particularly Angelica, who approached him physically and guided him to Eliza. It is also possible that, in Maria, Hamilton sees a kindred spirit. While we do not receive much information about Hamilton’s past, we know he was poor, and helpless enough to fight tooth and nail to find a better situation. Maria, tormented by an abusive husband and at the end of her rope herself, must draw empathy from him. This does not, of course, excuse Hamilton engaging in the affair, and the fact that Maria is the one to physically approach him is meaningless insofar as his own moral failings here, but the purpose of this paper is not to pass that particular judgement, especially since the song is likely highly skewed anyways by Hamilton’s perspective.

Once again, we see Hamilton being led into romantic or sexual entanglements by the other party, rather than instigating. In fact, Hamilton’s hesitance and disorientation in Say No to This is about as far from “reliable with the ladies” as it would be possible to get. After Reynolds confronts and blackmails him, Hamilton asks himself, horrified, “How could I do this?” With utter self-disgust and horror, and even as Maria comes to him again, he repeatedly asserts to her, “I don’t want you”. Yet he continues the affair, despite the shame and regret he clearly feels. His assertion to Reynolds that “nobody needs to know” is said in such a broken tone in the OCR, indicating to me not only shame and regret but almost disbelief, that he has fallen into this situation.

The writing of the Reynolds’ Pamphlet represents, I think, an innate disconnect in Hamilton’s brain regarding the seriousness of his actions in his perception versus the perception of society. In his mind, the concept of embezzling government funds is far worse than a mere sex scandal. More than anything else in this musical, I would argue this ill-advised assumption reveals more to us of Hamilton’s motivations than anything else. Indeed, in The Reynold’s Pamphlet, beneath Jefferson’s taunts, Hamilton can be heard, increasingly desperate, reminding the crowd that “at least [he] was honest with the money”. This, combined with his apparent shock that his plan to “overwhelm [society] with honesty” ended disastrously, as well as his assumption that Angelica would understand his motivations here, all lend themselves to Hamilton possessing a very different worldview than the rest of the characters. Having an affair, cheating on his wife, straining his family ties, were nowhere near as dire to him as the thought of being believed to have taken what he did not work for, or being remembered as an embezzeler and a thief. In this case, as in many aforementioned examples, sex was the last thing on Hamilton’s mind, and he paid a dear price for it.

Anyway, all this to say -- Conclusion

It is likely fairly clear at this point that none of my arguments directly supported Hamilton being asexual. That, of course, is because proving or disproving was not the point of this exercise. I sought here to dismantle the canon basis of common assumptions and fanon that often lend themselves to readings of Hamilton as sex-driven. There is no right or wrong way to interpret a fictional character, and ultimately, this essay will likely not convince those who are set in their own assumptions, much in the same way that many of the arguments I have seen in my year and a half as a Hamilton fan have not convinced me. I hope that this essay will be, if nothing else, an intriguing read, and serve for a brief time to allow the reader to entertain a different reading of a character they hold in high esteem. It is worth noting that this is far from a comprehensive look at this topic, and that I employed a great deal of simplification in certain parts in order to ensure easier reading. This is, at best, a jumping-off point for what would in all likelihood be a complex and detailed discussion. This was an exercise in possibility, in the power of text, and the power of interpretation, and in the importance of ruminating on what we think and why we think it, rather than whether or not it is unarguably true.