Hamilton – An American Musical: The Facts Behind the Music Part 11: “What’d I Miss” and “Cabinet Battle #1”

Part eleven will cover the beginning of Act Two – songs twenty-four and twenty-five: “What’d I Miss” and “Cabinet Battle #1.”

“What’d I Miss” introduces us to Thomas Jefferson (who is the same actor who played Lafayette).  Aaron Burr opens Act II setting the scene for what is to come.  After singing about Hamilton, Burr sings, “Not so fast, someone came along to resist him,” which refers to Jefferson.  Then he sings, “You haven’t met him yet, you haven’t had the chance, ‘cause he’s been kickin’ ass as the ambassador to France.”  Jefferson was appointed a minister to Europe in 1784, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.  When Franklin returned to the U.S. the following year, Jefferson became the minister to France.  Jefferson returned to the U.S. in September 1789.[1]

When Jefferson comes out he sings, “France is following us to revolution….”  Jefferson was present in Paris when the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789, which is considered the start of the French Revolution.[2]  (Lafayette took command of the National Guard in Paris afterwards.)

Jefferson then sings, “I helped Lafayette draft a declaration….”  This declaration is known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  Jefferson was an influence behind it, and Lafayette introduced it to France’s National Assembly.  It was passed on August 26, 1789.[3]  This document later laid the foundation for France’s current constitution, as well as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When Jefferson returns home to Monticello (which he would have done in late November 1789), he finds a letter from George Washington and sings, “Sally be a lamb, darlin’, won’t cha open it?”  Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who accompanied Jefferson’s daughters to France in 1787 (at age fourteen), remained there for the entirety of Jefferson’s stay, and returned home with him.  Here in the musical Jefferson is asking her to open Washington’s letter for him.[4]  After the letter is opened Jefferson sings, “I am to be the Secretary of State, great, and that I’m already Senate-approved.  I just got home and now I’m headed up to New York.”  Jefferson was nominated as Secretary of State on September 25, 1789, and was confirmed on the following day.  A number of letters were exchanged between Jefferson and Washington regarding this Cabinet position.  Washington’s first letter to Jefferson was dated October 13th and acknowledged that Washington was unsure if Jefferson wanted the position, but wrote, “In the selection of characters to fill the important offices of Government in the United States I was naturally led to contemplate the talents and disposition which I knew you to possess and entertain for the Service of your Country.”  Jefferson apparently did not see this letter until December 11th, meaning when he opened it he would have already known of the appointment and approval by the Senate.  Jefferson responded on the 15th that he was “truly flattered by your nomination of me to the very dignified office of Secretary of state: for which permit me here to return you my humble thanks,” and stated that he would travel to New York in March.  He arrived in New York on March 21, 1790. [5]

Upon arrival in New York, Jefferson meets his friend James Madison, who sings, “Hamilton’s new financial plan is nothing less than government control.”  Hamilton’s financial plan, titled “Second Report on the Further Provision Necessary for Establishing Public Credit” was delivered to the Congress on December 13, 1790 and included a report on a national bank.[6]  On January 28, 1791, Hamilton also delivered a “Report on the Establishment of a Mint.”[7]  Jefferson would have already been in New York when these reports were presented.

The song ends with Jefferson asking, “So what did I miss?” and goes into “Cabinet Battle #1.”

After Washington introduces the battle, Jefferson opens with ‘‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less. These are wise words, enterprising men quote ‘em, don’t act surprised, you guys, cuz I wrote ‘em.”  He’s referring to the Declaration of Independence, of course.  Apparently never too modest, Jefferson then goes on to attack Hamilton’s financial plans.[8]

One of the big issues of Hamilton’s plan was the federal assumption of the war debts from the individual states.  Jefferson sings, “If New York’s in debt why should Virginia bear it?  Our debts are paid, I’m afraid, don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade.”  Many of the states still had massive war debts.  Part of Hamilton’s plan included the federal government taking on these debts from the states.  While Virginia and a couple of other southern states had paid off most of their debt, the issue wasn’t so black and white.  South Carolina, for example, had one of the highest war debts of the states. Hamilton’s plans would have freed all of the states from the burden of these debts while also strengthening the hand of the new federal government.

Besides being “an outrageous demand,” Jefferson says Hamilton’s plan is “too many damn pages for any man to understand.”  Jefferson believed Hamilton’s plan would give too much power to the federal government at the expense of the states.  As for the too many pages, you be the judge – the “Second Report” (mentioned above) ran about 15,000 words (or over 20 typed pages, single-spaced).  The Mint Report runs just as long.  His “Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit” runs over 16,000 words, and that doesn’t include eleven(!!!) appendices which include the financial considerations for parts of his plan.

Jefferson ends his part by signing, “Pray to God we never see Hamilton’s candidacy. Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky. Imagine what gonna happen when you try to tax our whisky.”  First, Jefferson is hoping Hamilton never becomes President.  Some astute observers might think that he couldn’t be President anyway, because he wasn’t born in the United States.  But the provision in the Constitution states, “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President” (emphasis mine).  Since Hamilton lived here at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, he could very well have been President.

As for the taxes on tea and whiskey, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act on May 10, 1773, and the colonists got “frisky” at the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773, when chests of British tea were dumped into Boston Harbor.[9]  And the Whiskey tax was introduced by Hamilton as part of the “Public Credit” report mentioned above.  That appendix, titled “An Act Repealing Duties Laid Upon Distilled Spirits Imported,” called for taxes on a number of alcoholic products, including whiskey.  (By the way, this act alone ran over 12,000 words.)

When Hamilton gets his turn in the battle, he goes back at Jefferson, and defends his plan.  He sings, “If we assume the debts, the union gets a new line of credit.” Besides new taxes (like the one on whiskey), Hamilton also believed the federal government could sell bonds to raise money.  As the federal government paid back foreign loans, they would be creating a line of credit enabling them to borrow more money if necessary in the future.

Hamilton continues singing at Jefferson calling him “Mr. Age of Enlightenment” and telling him, “Don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it.”  Hamilton is right – Jefferson didn’t fight in the war; in fact, he remained largely away from the fighting, except for one instance.  Let’s look into his time during the war years –

Jefferson served in the Second Continental Congress as a delegate from Virginia in 1775 and 1776.  He then went back to Virginia where he served in the Virginia House of Delegates for Albemarle County.  In this capacity, over the next few years, while the war raged in other parts, Jefferson assisting in framing the state constitution and revising the laws of Virginia.  In 1779 he was elected governor of Virginia.  During his term the British army, under Benedict Arnold, invaded Virginia in January 1781.  Jefferson fled Richmond (which he had recently made the new state capital), and the British burned the town to the ground.  As his term neared the end, he wrote to Washington, pleading for his assistance.  “Were it possible for this Circumstance to justify in you Excellency a determination to lend us your personal aid, it is evident from the universal voice that the presence of their beloved Countryman…that your appearance among them I say would restore full confidence of salvation and would render them equal to whatever is not impossible.”

Unbeknownst to Jefferson, the British were ordered to capture him and other members of Virginia’s government.  Jefferson was warned by a militiaman who rode through the night and arrived at Monticello at dawn.  Jefferson fled again, only minutes before the British arrived.  At Staunton, Virginia, where the State government reconvened after fleeing the British, an inquiry into Jefferson’s conduct as governor was held, centered largely on where the fault lay for the chaos surrounding the British invasion.  In the end, Jefferson was not condemned for his actions; the assembly believed Jefferson did not have it in his power to do much else.[10]

Jefferson’s wife died the following year, and Jefferson was “in a state of insensibility,” and he actually fainted, remaining “so long insensible” that the people surrounding him “feared he would never revive.”[11] Jefferson then disappeared from the public view, even as his country neared the end of its war with the British.  He remained in his room for three weeks.  The he rode on horseback around the mountain and through the woods on and around his property.  During this time, it appears he even contemplated suicide.  In October he wrote to his sister-in-law, “This miserable kind of existence is really too burthensome to be borne, and were it not for the infidelity of deserting the sacred charge left me [his daughter], I could not wish it’s continuance a moment. For what could it be wished? All my plans of comfort and happiness reversed by a single event….”   Despite these feelings, Jefferson was back into politics when he returned to Congress in 1783.

Getting back to the musical, Hamilton tells Jefferson, “We almost died in the trench.”  He’s referring to the attack on Yorktown in 1781 (which I covered in part 8 of this series).

When Washington finally breaks up the meeting (after Hamilton says Madison and Jefferson are “useless as two shits” and tells them, “Turn around, bend over, I’ll show you where my shoe fits.”), Jefferson and Madison remind Hamilton, “You don’t have the votes.” This refers to the votes needed in Congress to pass Hamilton’s financial plan.  When he meets with Washington, the President tells Hamilton, “You have to find a compromise.”  That compromise will be made in three songs time, in “The Room Where It Happens.”


The next part of this series, part twelve will cover four songs – “Take a Break,” “Say No to This,” “The Room Where It Happens,” and “Schuyler Defeated.”



[1] https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/paris
[2] Jefferson wrote in detail about the start of the Revolution in France in a letter to John Jay dated July 19, 1789.
[3] In a letter dated July 9, 1789, Lafayette wrote to Jefferson “To Morrow I present my bill of rights about the middle of the sitting. Be pleased to Consider it Again, and Make Your observations.”  The footnotes after the Declaration on this page offer some more insight into Jefferson’s role in forming the document.
[4] It is believed now (and was believed even at the time) that Jefferson raped Hemings, fathering at least six children by her.  She was never granted freedom by Jefferson.
[5] Especially notable were letters of October 13, 1789; November 30, 1789; December 15, 1789; January 21, 1790; and February 14, 1790.   Jefferson left France on September 28, 1789 and arrived in Norfolk, Virginia on November 23rd.
[6] See here for an introductory note to the report.  And yes, there was a First Report.
[7] An introductory note to that report can be found here.
[8] There were various parts to Hamilton’s plans.  Not all are mentioned here.
[9] Massachusetts wasn’t the only colony that had a tea party.  There were tea parties in New York (Manhattan) on April 22, 1774; Maryland (Annapolis) on October 19, 1774; and New Jersey (Greenwich) on December 22, 1774.
[10] Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012. Pages 137-142.
[11] Meacham, 146.


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

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