Musical Correctness: “One Stroke and You’ve Consumed My Waking Days”

Source: Wikipedia

And here is Ilse Stolte’s first blog post for the MA course Late Modern English Letters:

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical on Alexander Hamilton’s life (1757-1804) – aptly named Hamilton – a lot is said (or sung) about letters. One song in particular – namely, Take a Break – partially focusses on the relationship between Hamilton and his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church, and the letters they write to each other. Their relationship in the musical is a complicated one; Angelica and Alexander fall in love at first sight, but they are unable to marry and Alexander marries Angelica’s sister Elizabeth instead. However, their love for each other does not die away and during their lives, they write each other many letters.

One verse of the song Take a Break focusses on an opening formula used by Hamilton to Angelica and how that betrays his feelings towards her:

In a letter I received from you two weeks ago

I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase

It changed the meaning, did you intend this

One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days, it says

My dearest Angelica

With a comma after dearest, you’ve written

My dearest, Angelica

The musical is, of course, a dramatisation of history, and creative liberties have been taken. For instance, when they met in real life, Angelica was already married, whereas in the musical she is not. So, how accurate is this portrayal according to the actual letters Hamilton wrote to her? We might not be able to know for sure if their relationship went beyond being family and friends. However, by looking at their real letters, we can see if they did enjoy such a close relationship.

On the website Founders Online, all the surviving papers of the US Founding Fathers have been transcribed in collaboration with the University of Virginia Press. Amongst these papers, Hamilton’s papers can be found as well, including fifteen letters he wrote to Angelica from 1785 to 1800. In these letters, the closeness of their relationship is evident. For example, in his letter to her written on 3 August 1785, he calls her “one great source of happiness”.

However, to see how close they were, you do not even need to look at the letters themselves; the opening and closing formulas show that Hamilton felt a lot of love and respect for Angelica.

In the letters, Hamilton addresses Angelica as “My Dear Friend”, “My Dear Sister” and “My Dear Angelica”. In only fourletters, does he use these as a traditional opening formula at the beginning of the letter; in most of the letters, their closeness is shown by Hamilton imbedding these opening formulas into the first sentence of the letter itself. For example:

It is an eternity Dear Angelica since either your sister or myself have received a single line from you.

In the letters, it is clear from his opening (and even closing) formulas and the language and the topics of the letters themselves that Hamilton very much cared about Angelica, but whether there was something more between them than mere friendship and kinship remains a question to me.


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