Your Obedient Servant is the 43rd song in the musical Hamilton, coming right after The Election of 1800 and before Best of Wives and best of Women. The song details the process of multiple letters of correspondence between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, based on the results of the election of 1800.
My song’s contribution to the plot of Hamilton is a subtle but gargantuan turning point for Burr’s character. In the song The Election of 1800 We see that Hamilton endorses Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr, which in the musical ends up being one of the biggest reasons for Jefferson’s victory. Hamilton’s justification for why Burr should not be the president, and subsequently why Jefferson – his political nemesis – should, is that “Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none.”
In “Your Obedient Servant”, the song starts off with Burr questioning Hamilton’s reasoning. Right off the bat, we can tell that he is angry, based on factors such as the minor, dramatic key of the music, Burr’s sinister tone, the way he spits words out rather than saying them in his regular flow, and his way of addressing Hamilton. With words like bastard and whore’s son (rather than “son of a whore”, which is used in the rest of the musical) finally used as insults rather than just a statement of his birth status. Burr then repeats his dramatic refrain of “The room where it happens” ending with “You’ve kept me from the room where it happens, for the last time.”
Nevertheless, in true Burr fashion, he decides to stay relatively calm. He begins his letter to Hamilton, starting with “Dear Alexander….” The significance of that line alone is overlooked. Burr is willing to stay calm and attempt to make peace with Hamilton. He addresses him by his first name; a familiar term. The only people who call Hamilton Alexander in the musical ae people he’s close to, interestingly Burr is never addressed as Aaron.
After Burr addresses “Alexander” he explains his feelings. Burr explains to Hamilton that he feels like Hamilton is responsible for most of the failure that he has faced in his life. He states that he is angry at Hamilton for calling him “amoral, a dangerous disgrace” and that “If you’ve got something to say, name a time and place, face to face” Basically demanding that no more comments be made about him that he deems untrue. Burr signs off the letter with “I have the honor to be, your obedient servant, A. Burr.”
Hamilton’s response is immediate. “Mr. Vice-President”, is how his letter begins. This alone immediately cuts off any amount of familiarity. This formal response shows how Hamilton feels about the situation. He goes on to explain that he believes he was right in stating that Burr was untrustworthy, saying that he is not the reason for that, and that “No one knows what you believe.” Adding that anything he said came directly from his heart. Hamilton writes that “I don’t wanna fight, but I won’t apologize for doing what’s right.” and then concludes the letter in an overly drawn out manner. Repeating the title of the song; “I have the honor to be, your obedient servant, A. Ham”
Burr writes back warning Hamilton that he should “answer for the accusations I lay at your feet, or prepare to bleed good man” and yet Hamilton refuses. Saying that Burr stands only for himself, which is a callback to his line in Aaron Burr sir “If you stand for nothing Burr, What’ll you fall for?” and that he won’t apologize because it’s true.
At this moment, we see the most important part of the song. Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel- the duel that will later end his life-and Hamilton agrees. The song ends with the two of them signing off in unison, with Burr jumping in at the last second to be the last to sign his name. To get the last word.
Though the course of the musical we see that Hamilton’s character is non-stop, he’s quick to the punch. He accepts these emotions and they fuel his actions. Burr on the other hand has two main mantras, “Talk less, smile more” and “Wait for it”. He is more reserved in his actions, waiting for an acceptable time, watching, staying neutral. This song is important for both of them because this is where we see a change. Burr starts off the song willing to make peace, and he warns Hamilton of possible consequences if he refuses to agree with him. Hamilton plows ahead, stuck on standing for what he believes to be right, and what he sees as the truth. This is where Burr finally drops the ‘wait for it’ mentality. He challenges Hamilton to a duel. Remember, this is the same Burr who said that “Duels are dumb and immature.” In Ten duel commandments.
“Then stand Alexander, Weehawken, dawn. Guns drawn.”
“You’re on.” It’s subtle, but if you listen to the track, you will notice that Hamilton misses a beat here. He hesitates. He waits for it. He agrees, but this is where you can see a shift. The shift that will result in Burr firing, and Hamilton throwing away his shot.
This song is important because it is the buildup for The world was wide enough. This is the climax point, the point of no return, in the story’s plot.
This song is based off a series of letters between Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton. Burr’s incentive in real life was a letter between Dr. Charles D Cooper and Philip Schuyler (Hamilton’s father in law) in which Cooper stated things such as:
“I assert that Gen. Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.”
“For really sir, I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”
These statements were the real driving force behind Burr’s anger at Hamilton, and why he felt that Hamilton was one of the biggest reasons for his loss of the presidency.
If you are interested in reading their full correspondence, please click here:
Another connection is Burr’s line “Weehawken, Dawn” Which states the historically accurate time and place where not one but two Hamiltons were shot and eventually killed. Alexander, and his son Philip. Hamilton Avenue is still in Weehawken, New Jersey, and with it is the Hamilton death rock, which marks the place where he was shot.
Another connection to the song, that people often have trouble believing is the accuracy of the title. “I have the honor to be, your obedient servant…” Was the actual format used to sign off the letters between Burr and Hamilton. Both in real life and in the musical it’s kind of ironic to have this almost prissy level of formality closing off these fairly hostile messages. In the musical, Lin Manuel-Miranda uses this to his advantage, and it ends up being one of the last parts of the musical that the audience could potentially laugh at, as it is tears and regret from there on out. In reality, we don’t know if the lyric was taken or meant in the same sarcastic way as it is portrayed in the musical, but it is an interesting choice of words.
The socials curriculum Big idea that I believe fits most with this song is:
Disparities in power alter the balance between individuals and between societies
During this song, and throughout the entire musical, we see Burr and Hamilton struggling for power. Hamilton is always a step above Burr and this song is a perfect example of a possible result of that situation. Burr’s constant distaste of Hamilton’s success finally tips him over the edge when Hamilton tries to throw Burr’s career under the bus in his endeavors. Once Hamilton makes it personal, Burr steps up to defend himself, and when he finally does this, he does it with such ferocity that Hamilton ends up dead.
Their entire relationship and tentative friendship from the first act dies in between Schuyler defeated and Your obedient servant. And all of it is because of the disparity in power between the two of them.
“I will not equivocate on my opinion, I have always worn it on my sleeve.”
To equivocate, is to avoid committing oneself to something. Burr’s equivocating is the main reason that Hamilton does not trust him. Hamilton flat out refuses, in this line, to agree with Burr, or to compromise. This line is important because of its bluntness. This line, and this sentiment is what will eventually get Hamilton killed.
“I don’t wanna fight, but I won’t apologize for doing what’s right.”
Burr and Hamilton have different views on what is right in this conversation, Neither of them want to harm the other, but they both have too much pride, too much hubris, to allow either of them to step down. In Schuyler defeated, we receive foreshadowing for this when Burr says “I swear your pride will be the death of us all.” Their pride doesn’t allow them to step back, and though it eventually causes Hamilton to throw away his shot, It doesn’t stop Burr. They might have had other motives to begin with, but their pride is what is holding them back from waiting, from saying no to this.
“You’ve kept me from the room where it happens, for the last time.”
Burr is done with waiting, and this is where we see him finally step up to defend himself. He wants to be in the room where it happens, and Hamilton has stopped him one too many times. This is a specific metaphor for the entire play. Hamilton prevents Burr from succeeding multiple times and Burr finally has had it. This is where Burr changes, where he finally stops waiting and does something.
I really enjoy and appreciate this song because of all this hidden meaning. With just a first listen, it is extremely difficult to pick up on this, but even then, I’m a sucker for a dramatic song. In Hamilton, we see many different antagonists come and go, and this is the origin of a new one, that without the foreshadowing at the beginning of the play, might not have been expected. But even with the foreshadowing of “I’m the damn fool that shot him” We see the end of a Burr’s character arc. Regret over what he did. This song is one of the most powerful examples of character development that we see in the entire musical, which is rare because it is so late into the story. Burr is a round; dynamic character and he is one of my favourites in the musical. Your Obedient Servant is brilliantly passive aggressive and is an extremely impressive song in its simplicity.