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Home » Perils of Posterity: Alexander Hamilton and a Sex Scandal: Doug Ambrose at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Perils of Posterity: Alexander Hamilton and a Sex Scandal: Doug Ambrose at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Doug Ambrose – TRANSCRIPT

We are in an Alexander Hamilton moment. Not only do we have the musical that you all – I hope, have heard of. That little showdown in New York. But to show that we are really in that moment, he has a bobblehead. And I didn’t even bring this, this was hanging out in the green room, so he is everywhere. But I want to talk about an episode from Hamilton’s life that is at the center of the musical. And one that many of you have heard about, which is this first great sex scandal in American history, – the Reynolds affair.

And what I am fascinated by, about the Reynolds affair, is the way in which it sort of works on two levels that we as historians or students of history, or people who want to think historically work with. First, is the universal transhistorical way in which, just basic human emotions and actions, allow us to sort of meet people from the past in a very intimate, familiar way. This doesn’t need any historical context. This is Maria Reynolds on the left, and that’s Alexander Hamilton — Lin Manuel Miranda portraying Alexander Hamilton. Here it is.

This is the lust, the betrayal, the heartbreak of Eliza. And if you know the musical, she sings this beautiful song called “Burn”, where she talks about he broke her heart, he broke her heart. And again, this is something where we just empathize without even thinking. There’s the person done wrong, there’s the man who broke his vows. There’s the spouse who strayed.

That doesn’t require us to think historically. It allows, it requires us to think as human beings. Right? That we empathize with this tragic thing. This, which is the Reynolds Pamphlet. It’s not called the Reynolds Pamphlet, but Observation of Certain Documents. This requires to exercise our historical imagination.

And there’s nothing, someways, more difficult to do because one thing is that when we encounter people from the past, even from the recent past, since this is only a couple hundred years ago, they baffled us. Had they behaved in ways that don’t seem logical to us. They proceed upon assumptions, and pre-perception, and world view, and beliefs, and fears, that are foreign to us. And it’s what we need to do, students of history, is imagine a different world that is operating on different principles. And that’s what this is about, because this bizarre thing, this pamphlet.

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