“The Room Where It Happens” (among my favorites of the musical) actually takes us back a year from the previous two songs. It begins with Burr asking Hamilton, “Did ya hear the news about good old General Mercer?” When Hamilton responds in the negative, Burr tells him, “You know Clermont Street? They renamed it after him. The Mercer legacy is secure.” Hugh Mercer was a Scotsman who settled in Pennsylvania. During the Revolution he was a general in the Continental Army. At the Battle of Princeton (in New Jersey) on January 3, 1777, Mercer was wounded and attempted to surrender to the British. Instead of treating him as a prisoner, the British soldiers stabbed him multiple times with their bayonets, and also beat him over the head and face with the butt end of their muskets. He lingered for nine days before dying. (Hence the line, “And all he had to do was die.”) Mercer Street is located in one of the oldest areas of New York City. It runs about one mile, from Canal Street in the south to East 8th Street in the north, parallel to Broadway. It was initially called First Street prior to 1797, and then renamed Clermont Street. It was renamed for Mercer in 1799, so in reality Burr and Hamilton wouldn’t be discussing the name-change in 1790.
After Burr asks Hamilton, “How you gonna get your debt plan through?” and asks for details, Hamilton dismisses Burr by saying, “I’m sorry Burr I’ve gotta go, decisions are happening over dinner.” I briefly discussed the debt plan in part eleven of this series. This dinner happened at the house Jefferson rented at 57 Maiden Lane in New York. (That building no longer stands, but there is a bronze plaque on the current building marking the “site of the former residence of Thomas Jefferson.”)
Burr then sings, “Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room diametrically opposed, foes. They emerge with a compromise, having opened doors that were previously closed, bros.” Congress was debating the Assumption Bill (Hamilton’s debt plan) and the Residence Bill (where the nation’s capital should be located permanently) simultaneously. Jefferson, in a letter to James Monroe dated June 20, 1790, wrote that these were “two of the most irritating questions that ever can be raised among them” in Congress. Of the Assumption Bill Jefferson predicted that it was “probable that unless they can be reconciled by some plan of compromise, there will be no funding bill agreed to, our credit…will burst and vanish, and the states separate to take care everyone of itself.” He told Monroe, “This prospect appears probable to some well informed and well-disposed minds.” Jefferson wrote to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. (who married his daughter) on the same day in similar terms admitting that a compromise must be reached – “The assumption must be admitted, but in so qualified a form as to divest it of it’s injustice.”
As for the Residence Bill, Congress was debating moving the capital from New York to Philadelphia. The delegations from the southern states were not pleased that the capital would remain in the north. For his part, Jefferson wrote Monroe, “If this plan of compromise does not take place, I fear one infinitely worse, an unqualified assumption and the perpetual residence on the Delaware.” In other words, Jefferson believed that if a compromise was not worked out, Hamilton’s debt plan would be pushed through without question and the capital would be permanently moved to Philadelphia (or some other place on or near the Delaware River in Pennsylvania or New Jersey).
Jefferson wrote his idea of a proposal to Monroe and Randolph which included “assuming to the creditors of every state a sum exactly proportioned to the contributions of the state: so that the state will on the whole neither gain nor lose” while also “fixing the temporary residence for 12. or 15 years at Philadelphia, and that at the end of that time it shall stand ipso facto and without further declaration transferred to Georgetown.”
It was around the same time of these letters, with both bills about to collapse, sending the new nation into chaos, that the dinner between the two Virginians – Jefferson and Madison – and an immigrant – Hamilton – took place at 57 Maiden Lane in New York City. Why were these three men alone involved in such a potentially nation-changing debate? Well, “Thomas claims” a number of things in the musical. His account of the meeting was probably written in 1792 (though maybe as late as 1794).
- First: “Alexander was on Washington’s doorstep one day in distress and disarray.”
Jefferson really wrote, “The assumption of the state debts in 1790. was a supplementary measure in Hamilton’s fiscal system. When attempted in the House of Representatives it failed. This threw Hamilton himself and a number of members into deep dismay. Going to the President’s one day I met Hamilton as I approached the door. His look was sombre, haggard, and dejected beyond description. Even his dress uncouth and neglected.”
- Next: “Alexander said, ‘I’ve nowhere else to turn,’ and basically begged me to join the fray.”
Jefferson wrote, “He asked to speak with me. We stood in the street near the door….He added his wish that I would interest my friends from the South, who were those most opposed to it.”
- Then: “I approached Madison and said, ‘I know you hate him, but let’s hear what he has to say.’”
Jefferson wrote: “On considering the situation of things I thought the first step towards some conciliation of views would be to bring Mr. Madison and Colo. Hamilton to a friendly discussion of the subject.”
- And finally: “Well, I arranged the meeting, I arranged the menu, the venue, the seating.”
Jefferson wrote, “I immediately wrote to each to come and dine with me the next day, mentioning that we should be alone, that the object was to find some temperament for the present fever, and that I was persuaded that men of sound heads and honest views needed nothing more than explanation and mutual understanding to enable them to unite in some measures which might enable us to get along. They came.”
Madison, who was the only man among the three actually in the Congress, opposed Hamilton’s plan, but wanted the capital in Virginia. Burr sings, “Madison is grappling with the fact that not ev’ry issue can be settled by committee.” After being invited to dine with Jefferson and Hamilton, Madison responds “with Virginian insight,” “Maybe we can solve one problem with another and win a victory for the Southerners,” and says he’ll “propose the Potomac” for the capital and “see how it goes.” Again we turn to Jefferson, who wrote that Madison suggested “that the question should be again brought before the house by way of amendment from the Senate, that tho’ he would not vote for it, nor entirely withdraw his opposition, yet he should not be strenuous, but leave it to it’s fate.” Jefferson then wrote that should assumption pass, “the pill would be a bitter one to the Southern states,” and so it was suggested by one of the three men that “something should be done to soothe them; that the removal of the seat of government to the Patowmac was a just measure, and would probably be a popular one with them, and would be a proper one to follow the assumption.”
In order to make the compromise happen, Madison spoke with the three men in Congress who represented the districts where the new capital would be located. Other Congressmen were likewise persuaded to switch their votes in favor of the Assumption Bill. But the move to the Potomac wouldn’t happen unless Hamilton did some wrangling as well. Jefferson believed that Hamilton spoke with Robert Morris of Pennsylvania and “obtained the vote of that state, on agreeing to an intermediate residence at Philadelphia.”
Burr then asks Alexander, “What did they say to you to get you to sell New York City down the river?” The Compromise of 1790 moved the capital from New York City to Philadelphia, temporarily, and then to the Potomac on the Maryland-Virginia border. In the end, whether or not the men knew at the time that “it doesn’t matter where you put the U.S. capital” because the financial center of power would remain in the north (“We’ll have the banks; we’re in the same spot”), it appears Jefferson figured it out by the time he wrote this account, for he said of the compromise,
“It was unjust, in itself oppressive to the states, and was acquiesced in merely from a fear of disunion, while our government was still in it’s most infant state. It enabled Hamilton so to strengthen himself by corrupt services to many, that he could afterwards carry his bank scheme, and every measure he proposed in defiance of all opposition…which has since been able to give laws and to change the political complexion of the government of the US.”
And if poor old Aaron Burr had been in that room where it happened, would the compromise have turned out differently? Or would he still be waiting for it, whatever it is? As we see in the next song, “Schuyler Defeated,” Burr was continuing his political climb regardless.
Philip Hamilton opens the song saying that he sees in the paper that his grandfather, “War hero Philip Schuyler loses senate seat to young upstart Aaron Burr.” Schuyler, Eliza’s father, and Philip’s namesake, was a war hero, serving as a major in the French and Indian War and as a General during the Revolutionary War. Burr, however, was not a young upstart. At thirty-five (in 1791), he had already served in the State Assembly (1784-1785) and, more recently, as the State Attorney General (1789-1791), before he won the U.S. Senate seat. He served in the Senate until 1797 (when Schuyler took back the Senate seat).
When Hamilton approaches Burr he asks, “Burr, since when are you a Democratic-Republican?” Burr had mostly been allied with the Anti-Federalists from the beginning, and the Democratic-Republicans were the post-Constitution reincarnation of the Anti-Federalists. They were initially formed by Jefferson and Madison in opposition to Hamilton’s policies. So when Hamilton sings, “You changed parties to run against my father-in-law,” that’s not entirely accurate.
The song ends on a Biblical note when Burr warns Hamilton, “I swear your pride will be the death of us all. Beware, it goeth before the fall.” Proverbs 16:18 reads: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
That fall won’t come in part fourteen, which will cover “Cabinet Battle #2” and “Washington On Your Side,” but Hamilton’s life will start falling apart soon after.