On Tuesday, the musical Hamilton was nominated for a record 16 Tony awards. And three weeks ago, its creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, won the Pulitzer Prize. And it’s all, of course, richly deserved — Hamilton is everything the critics say it is: Ben Brantley of the New York Times, for instance, suggested people “mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets.” Ideally though, they should get tickets for their children too as the show has also been credited with getting young people interested in American history. But one angle of the saga of Hamilton, both on-stage and off, that has not been commented on is how it shows the value of time off.
In fact, in March, before the most recent round of awards and accolades began, Miranda announced he was going to take some time for himself. “I’m going on vacation next week to my undisclosed location under the sea where I recharge,” he said in a YouTube video. The video is part of a series Miranda does called “Ham4Ham,” in which he performs and interacts with people waiting to get tickets to the show — it’s not enough that he entertains them for 2 hours and 45 minutes once they do get tickets! His vacation was certainly well-deserved. Since he opened the show Off Broadway at the Public Theater in February of last year, Hamilton has been performed over 400 times.
As the show’s description on Playbill puts it: “From bastard orphan to Washington’s right hand man, rebel to war hero, loving husband caught in the country’s first sex scandal to Treasury head who made an untrusting world believe in the American economy, Hamilton is an exploration of a political mastermind.”
But, in addition to all that, one element of the show I found particularly interesting given my exploration of all things sleep is how it depicts a crucial and apparently timeless facet of our political culture. Hamilton wasn’t just the subject of our country’s first sex scandal — he was perhaps also our first fully documented case — and the founding father — of political burnout.
Ron Chernow, the author of Alexander Hamilton, the biography on which the musical is based, depicts a man who never slowed down. “This intensely driven man,” Chernow writes, “always compensating for his deprived early years, had a mind that throbbed incessantly with new ideas. When it came to issues confronting America, he committed all the resources of his mind.” But how much better would his adopted country have been if he had given some time to his mind and his body to refuel before he hit a wall of burnout?
Miranda himself proved the value of taking time off since it was while taking a breather from his previous hit show that he happened to read the Chernow biography that Hamilton is based on. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was my first vacation from ‘In the Heights’ where I read this book,” he said on Charlie Rose in March. “It was literally the first time I had any time off from the show.”
Put another way, the inspiration for a musical about a man unable to give himself some time to recharge came to Miranda when he chose to give himself some time to recharge. And one of the biggest takeaways from the musical, for me, is this question: If the hard-driving Alexander Hamilton had given himself that time, how much better — and longer — would he have been able to serve the adopted country he loved so much?
The perpetual motion started early on, with Hamilton asking to be admitted to Princeton on an accelerated track. He was turned down, Chernow writes, likely because Princeton had allowed James Madison to finish on an accelerated schedule, during which he “worked himself into a state of nervous exhaustion.” When Madison finished his degree, according to Chernow, “he was still so debilitated from his intense studies that he feared for his health.”
So Hamilton wound up at King’s College (later renamed Columbia), where he rose at 6 a.m. every day and studied day and night. And this compulsion never let up. In the Revolutionary War, Hamilton rode on horseback “at a furious pace” along the Hudson delivering important messages from George Washington. Riding as many as 60 miles a day for five days straight, the trips took their toll on Hamilton. As he wrote to Washington in 1777, to explain a delay in his travels, “I have been detained here these two days by a fever and violent rheumatic pains throughout my body.” The frenzied pace continued after the war as Chernow writes, “At moments of supreme stress, Hamilton could screw himself up to an emotional pitch that was nearly feverish in intensity.”
At one point, Chernow tells how the chronically overstretched founder of our country’s first bank had to write to the Bank of the United States to admit “he did not know his account balance because he had lost his bank book.”
This theme of constant, ceaseless work — along with the inevitable consequences — comes through resoundingly in the musical as well. Again and again, Miranda presents a Hamilton who feels the pressure of all the work ahead of him. “And there’s a million things I haven’t done,” he sings, “but just you wait, just you wait.”
In the second act, as Hamilton is trying to get the Report on the Public Credit, his financial plan to establish government credit by full payment of government debt, through Congress, his wife Eliza and her sister Angelica urge him, in the song “Take a Break,” to get some rest. “Run away with us for the summer,” Eliza begs. “Let’s go upstate.” To which Hamilton replies: “I have to get my plan through Congress. I can’t stop until I get this plan through Congress.” The women tell him that “John Adams spends the summer with his family.” But Adams, Hamilton throws back, “doesn’t have a real job anyway.”
The sisters, in fact, are a counterpoint to Hamilton’s idea of a non-stop working existence. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” sings Eliza in “The Schuyler Sisters.” And in “That Would Be Enough,” she urges him to:
“Look at where you are
Look at where you started
The fact that you’re alive is a miracle
Just stay alive, that would be enough.”
There’s even a song entirely devoted to the theme of Hamilton working non-stop, called, appropriately, “Non-Stop.” “Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time?” asks Aaron Burr. To which the ensemble answers: “Every day you fight like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time. Are you running out of time?”
And, in a sense, he was. The sex scandal that would derail his career, and indirectly affect the decisions that led to his own premature death, was looming. Sleep deprivation had left Hamilton vulnerable to the plot, hatched by Maria Reynolds and her husband James, for Maria to seduce Hamilton and then blackmail him. In “Say No To This,” Miranda’s Hamilton is aware of this:
“I hadn’t slept in a week
I was weak, I was awake
You never seen a bastard orphan
More in need of a break
Longing for Angelica
Missing my wife
That’s when Miss Maria Reynolds walked into my life.”
And so begins an affair, and America’s first sex scandal — fueled by America’s first-recorded, and now sung — case of serious political burnout. (As Bill Clinton himself acknowledged: “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”)
“Like many people driven by their careers, he did not allow himself sufficient time for escape and relaxation,” Chernow writes, describing Hamilton as “a volatile personality encased inside a regimented existence.” Once the Reynolds affair was made public, Hamilton’s political opponents used it against him, making sure Hamilton was “distracted by the Reynolds probe.” “This sword of Damocles,” Chernow writes, “perpetually dangling above his head, may provide one explanation of why he never made a serious bid to succeed Washington as president.”
And the episode also laid the groundwork for his feud with Burr. “For fifteen years, Hamilton had tried to run down the sources of the lies told about him,” Chernow writes. “The effort had left him weary and dispirited, but he still could not shed the fantasy that, if only he went after slander with sufficient persistence, he could vanquish his detractors once and for all.” And it was this mood of lashing out, a habit he honed during the Reynolds scandal, that led to his duel with Burr.
There’s certainly no doubt that burnout among our political leaders has proved as enduring as Hamilton’s bank and other parts of his legacy. In fact, most of them actually brag about it. Our political campaigns constantly feature candidates presenting themselves as ceaselessly working – as if that’s a good thing. Ted Cruz used his sleep deprivation as a fundraising tool two weeks before he suspended his campaign (was his decision to nominate Carly Fiorina made in the brain fog of exhaustion?) In fact, we now know from mountains of recent science that sleep deprivation dulls our judgment, our decision-making, our creativity, our productivity — in short, pretty much every quality you want in a political leader.
And that’s no surprise: one recent scientific study showed that even moderate sleep deprivation can leave you with levels of cognitive impairment roughly equivalent to being legally drunk. And yet no political campaigns would feature a candidate saying, “vote for me, because I structure my life so that I make all my decisions while effectively drunk.” (Actually, that might explain a lot about this year’s race, but that’s a different post.) “No politician would smoke in front of a camera,” Dr. Till Roenneberg, a prominent sleep scientist in Germany, told me, “but all politicians clearly declare — and show it in their faces — how little they have slept. We know how important sleep is, but they convey to the world that sleep deprivation is good.” In fact, a recent McKinsey study shows how degraded our prefrontal cortex, which directs executive functioning, becomes when we’re sleep deprived.
And we actually do have evidence of how productive it is when a politician does recognize the creative powers of recharging. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was confronted with a problem every bit as pressing as Hamilton’s financial plan — how to give aid to Britain in the war without formally entering it. But, unlike Hamilton, Roosevelt did decide to go away. To think through the problem, he announced he was going to take ten-days to sail around the Caribbean on a navy ship.
And like Eliza, Eleanor was all for it. “I think of you sleeping and eating and I hope getting rest from the world,” she wrote him. Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins also saw the importance of what Roosevelt was doing. “I began to get the idea that he was refueling,” Hopkins later said, “the way he so often does when he seems to be resting and carefree.”
The result of that refueling was Roosevelt’s idea for the $ 50 billion Lend-Lease program, in which the U.S. would lend arms and supplies to Britain and be paid back in kind after the war. Would he have come up with the plan by continuing to work around the clock “as though he was running out of time?” Those around him certainly attributed the masterful plan to Roosevelt’s masterful use of his creative resources. “One can only say that FDR, a creative artist in politics, had put in his time on this cruise evolving the pattern of a masterpiece,” Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert Sherwood later wrote.
After Hillary Clinton stepped down as secretary of state in 2012 — having logged nearly 1 million miles flying to 112 different countries — she told the New York Times‘ Gail Collins. “I would like to see whether I can get untired.” What a great word — “untired.” Is she making room in the current campaign to regularly get herself untired?
In a Daily Show appearance in 2007, her husband talked about the wider consequences of political burnout! “I do believe sleep deprivation has a lot to do with some of the edginess of Washington today,” he said. “You have no idea how many Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate are chronically sleep-deprived.”
And if you thought politics was edgy in 2007, take a look at the headlines today as our politicians continue to push away a free and available resource — sleep and renewal — that can help them come up with more creative solutions to our many challenges.
Alexander Hamilton was only 49 years old when he died, in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr. What connection did his burnout have with his untimely death? When you find yourself walking to a duel at dawn — after you had lost your son in a duel three years earlier — it’s fair to ask if you’re mustering all the wisdom you’re capable of.
Like other burnout aficionados, Hamilton was selling himself short. Contrary to all our collective delusions, he was successful not because of his overwork and burnout, but in spite of them. And perhaps if he’d listened to Eliza’s advice to “take a break,” he’d have had more time to build the nation he was so devoted to.
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