Hamilton – An American Musical: The Facts Behind the Music Part 6: “A Winter’s Ball,” “Helpless,” “Satisfied,” “The Story of Tonight (Reprise),” and “Wait For It”

“A Winter’s Ball” opens with Aaron Burr sounding quite jealous of Hamilton, before they start talking about the ladies.  In the song, Burr sings, “Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him” (him referring to Hamilton), and Hamilton quickly replies, “That’s true.”  I’m sorry, but it is not true. Researchers Michael Newton & Stephen Knott have traced the origins of the story to the book History of the Flag of the United States of America: And of the Naval and Yacht-club Signals, Seals, and Arms, and Principal National Songs of the United States, with a Chronicle of the Symbols, Standards, Banners, and Flags of Ancient and Modern Nations by George H. Preble, published in 1880.  In this book, Preble quotes the Journal of Captain Smythe, R.A., under the date of January 1780:

“Thirteen is a number peculiarly belonging to the rebels. A party of naval prisoners lately returned from Jersey say that the rations among the rebels are thirteen dried clams per day; that the titular Lord Stirling takes thirteen glasses of grog every morning, has thirteen enormous rum bunches on his nose, and that (when duly impregnated) he always makes thirteen attempts before he can walk; that Mr. Washington has thirteen toes to his feet (the extra ones having grown since the Declaration of Independence), and the same number of teeth in each jaw; that the Sachem Schuyler has a topknot of thirteen stiff hairs, which erect themselves on the crown of his head when he grows mad; that old Putnam had thirteen pounds of his posterior bit off in an encounter with a Connecticut bear (’twas then he lost the balance of his mind); that it takes thirteen Congress paper dollars to equal one penny sterling; that Polly Wayne was just thirteen hours in subduing Stony Point, and as many seconds in leaving it; that a well-organized rebel household has thirteen children, all of whom expect to be generals and members of the high and mighty Congress of the ‘ thirteen united States ‘ when they attain thirteen years; that Mrs. Washington has a mottled tomcat (which she calls in a complimentary way Hamilton) with thirteen yellow rings around his tail, and that his flaunting it suggested to the Congress the adoption of the same number of stripes for the rebel flag.”[1]

The entire piece is satirical in nature, making Mrs. Washington’s possession of tomcat named Hamilton unlikely.  Newton also pointed out (using dictionaries as references) that it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the word tomcat meant anything other than a male cat.

The next lines of the song – “1780 / A winter’s ball /And the Schuyler sisters are the envy of all” – isn’t exactly accurate.  Elizabeth Schuyler did arrive in Morristown in 1780, on February 2nd according to Ron Chernow.  Chernow notes, however, that Alexander had already met Eliza on his brief visit to Albany in 1777.  Back in Morristown, Eliza’s aunt and her husband, Dr. John Cochran, stayed at the home of Dr. Jabez Campfield.[2]  Eliza stayed with them, about a quarter of a mile from Jacob Ford’s home, where George Washington made his headquarters, and where Hamilton was staying.  Chernow wrote, “soon, Hamilton was a constant visitor at the two-story Campfield residence, spending every evening there.”[3]

Burr then sings, “Yo, if you can marry a sister, you’re rich, son,” and Hamilton replies, “Is it a question of if, Burr, or which one?”  In reality, of the Schuyler sisters, the men had only Eliza and Peggy to choose from.  Angelica eloped with John Church in 1777. Another sister, Cornelia, would have been 4 years old, and another sister, Catherine, wasn’t born until 1781.[4]  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s artistic license gives the Alexander-Angelica story more life.

“A Winter’s Ball” goes right into the next song, “Helpless.”  This is where Angelica introduces herself to Alexander.  Instead of keeping him for herself, she tells him, “I’m about to change your life,” and brings him over to Eliza.  After they meet Eliza sings, “One week later I’m writin’ a letter nightly / Now my life gets better, every letter that you write me.” Although Eliza destroyed her letters to Alexander (as we find out in a later song), he wrote at least nineteen letters to her between March and October of 1780.[5]

Angelica wants a piece of Alexander as well, and tells her sister, “I’m just sayin’, if you really loved me, you would share him.”  That isn’t far from the truth.  In a letter dated July 30, 1794, Angelica wrote to Eliza, “…if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while….”[6]  We don’t know if Angelica and Alexander ever had anything romantic going on, but Eliza surely did not want to share him.

In the following verse Eliza sings she’s “In the living room stressin’ / My father’s stone-faced / While you’re asking for his blessin’… I panic for a second, thinking ‘we’re through’ / But then he shakes your hand and says ‘Be true.’”  In reality, Hamilton received a letter from Philip Schuyler dated April 8, 1780, in which Alexander received permission to marry Eliza.

As the song comes to an end, the wedding march plays.  Alexander and Eliza were married at the Schuyler home in Albany on December 14, 1780. “Satisfied” then begins with John Laurens introducing Angelica at the wedding party – “Now everyone give it up for the maid of honor Angelica Schuyler!” Alexander wrote to Laurens on June 30, 1780 to let him know he had made the decision to marry.  “Have you not heard that I am on the point of becoming a benedict? I confess my sins. I am guilty. Next fall completes my doom. I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler.”  On September 16, 1780 Hamilton wrote again, wishing Laurens could be in “Albany to be witness to the final consummation.”  He had been taken prisoner by the British in South Carolina, and was on parole in Pennsylvania.

As for the “Satisfied” part of the song, Angelica wrote to Alexander on February 4, 1790, “I cannot be so easily satisfied.”  I assume those words formed the foundation for this song.

We see Hamilton and the boys get back together for some drinks in “The Story of Tonight (Reprise),” following “Satisfied.”  Hamilton’s friends playfully make fun of his taking up the ball and chain, and in between Mulligan and Lafayette singing, Laurens sings, “I’ve seen wonders great and small ‘Cause if the tomcat can get married There’s hope for our ass, after all!”  Interestingly, only Burr (who hasn’t shown up yet in this song) was married later than Hamilton.  Hercules Mulligan married Elizabeth Sanders in 1773; Lafayette married Adrienne de Noailles in 1774; and Laurens married Martha Weatherell Manning in 1776.  Burr was married in 1782 to Theodosia Bartow Prevost.[7]  There wasn’t hope for any of them….

When Burr does enter, he is mocked by Hamilton’s friends.  Hamilton says to Burr, “Ignore them. Congrats to you, Lieutenant Colonel.”  (Burr had received his lieutenant colonel commission on June 22, 1777.)  Laurens then gets personal with Burr, singing, “Well I heard you’ve got a special someone on the side, Burr.”  When the others get on Burr too, Hamilton says they should go, and tells Burr, “I wish you’d brought this girl with you tonight.”  Burr replies, “You’re very kind, but I’m afraid it’s unlawful, sir.”  The conversation follows:

Hamilton: “What do you mean?”

Burr: “She’s married.”

Hamilton: “I see.”

Burr: “She’s married to a British officer.”

Adultery was illegal during colonial times.  In fact, New York penal code today still defines adultery as a class B misdemeanor: “255.17 Adultery. A person is guilty of adultery when he engages in sexual intercourse with another person at a time when he has a living spouse, or the other person has a living spouse.”

Burr didn’t really have someone on the side; it was more like Burr was Theodosia’s side piece.  Theodosia married (James) Marcus Prevost on July 28, 1763.[8]  After the British captured Savannah, Georgia at the end of December 1778, Prevost was appointed lieutenant governor of Georgia (in mid-1779). Theodosia remained in the north.  In 1781, Prevost was sent to Jamaica, where he died sometime towards the end of the year of an illness. Burr and Theodosia would have been free to marry after Prevost’s death was recorded.

Hamilton doesn’t understand why Burr is being so secretive.  He sings, “If you love this woman, go get her! What are you waiting for?”  Burr only responds, “I’ll see you on the other side of the war.”

In the next song, “Wait For It,” Burr explains his philosophy.  First, though, he admits to adultery – “Theodosia writes me a letter every day / I’m keeping the bed warm while her husband is away.” Besides explaining his philosophy, Burr tells us a little about his family in this song.  I’ll break down the facts by line.

First: “My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher.” Burr’s grandfather was the famed preacher Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards was ordained a minister in 1727 and became one of the most well-known preachers in the colonies.  His published works were read widely, and include the sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  He also served as the President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton).

Then he says: “My mother was a genius.” His mother was Esther Edwards, the daughter of Jonathan, and was an educated woman.  She kept a diary from 1754 until 1757. (It was published in 1984.)

And finally, “My father commanded respect.”  Aaron Burr, Sr. also became a minister, in 1726 in Newark, NJ.  In 1746, he helped to found the College of New Jersey, and he became the second President of the College two years later.  It was during his tenure that the College moved from Elizabeth to Princeton, following the completion of Nassau Hall in 1756.  He and Esther married in 1752.

Burr then sings, “When they died they left no instructions just a legacy to protect.”  Burr’s parents died less than seven months apart, when Burr was only one and a half to two years old.  His father died on September 24, 1757; his mother on April 7, 1758.  Tragically, Burr’s grandfather, who had taken over the Presidency of the College in February 1758, following the death of his son-in-law, died the day before his mother.

And there you have the tragic Burr story.  By the end of the song, he sounds somewhat jealous, or even angry, that Hamilton, who doesn’t hesitate and has no restraint, has been so successful.  As their paths continue to cross, Burr doesn’t get any happier with Hamilton.

The next part of the series will cover the next four songs in the musical – “Stay Alive,” “Ten Duel Commandments,” “Meet Me Inside,” and “That Would Be Enough.”

[1] The quote can be found on page 264.
[2] The home sits on its original property, but was moved approximately one hundred feet away from its original location.  Today the house is known as the Dr. Jabez Campfield House or the Schuyler-Hamilton House, and it operates as a museum.
[3] Chernow, 129.
[4] Peggy also eloped, with Stephen Van Rensselaer in 1783.
[5] Hamilton continued writing to Eliza after they were married as well.  To see all of their letters to each other, see this link.
[6] Hamilton, Allan Mclane. The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton.  New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1910. Pages 259-260.
[8] Trinity Church marriage records.


Image credit: Alexander Hamilton, painted by John Trumbull. National Portrait Gallery

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