Section A: Character Development
In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the song ‘Helpless’ involves three main characters: Eliza Schuyler, Angelica Schuyler, and Alexander Hamilton. The song itself is set in Angelica and Eliza’s father, Philip Schuyler’s, winter ball. A line by Aaron Burr from the song ‘A Winter’s Ball’ reveals that “the Schuyler sisters are the envy of all” at this event. One can infer that because of their wealth, every man wants a piece of them on this night. Angelica and Eliza get the pick of the lot and, in this song, Eliza chooses the low-income, highly-publicized man named Alexander Hamilton. With the help of her sister, Angelica, Eliza introduces herself to Hamilton and the two fall in love instantly. The remainder of this song takes us through the love story of Eliza and Alexander, from the beginning of the ball to the wedding. Angelica makes a few hints that she would have liked him for herself, but Alexander Hamilton had already asked for Philip Schuyler’s blessing to marry his middle-born child. Despite his unadmirable family background, Mr Schuyler agrees and the song ends with Alexander and Eliza acknowledging his financial state before the wedding.
In this song, Angelica and Eliza both want and fear almost the same things. They both want Hamilton by their side and fear his rejection or their father’s disapproval. Angelica, however, has a stronger want to see her sister satisfied and abandons her romantic interests for Eliza. Alexander Hamilton wanted to meet a woman of high status at the winter ball who he was attracted to. He feared being looked down on. In the end, only Angelica’s wants did not come true in this song.
Section B: Historical Events and Ideas
In this song, there are many lyrics that appear shallow at first but manage to tell its readers a lot about the time period the play Hamilton was set in. In reality, the winter ball never actually happened in real life, but the passages I’ve listed below can still say a lot about the societal normalities in America.
[We were at a revel with some rebels on a hot night]
This line can be rather confusing at first, considering the setting is still Philip Schuyler’s winter ball. Although the weather outside is considerably not warm, when Eliza says this she’s speaking about the plethora of romantic actions being made that evening and the pleasurable environment in the air. This line sets the scene and provides the viewers with the knowledge that the women in the revolution were regularly flirting with the rebels and that being a rebel might have been an attractive quality at the time.
[One week later // I’m writin’ a letter nightly // Now my life gets better, every letter that you write me]
This line, said by Eliza Schuyler, refers to the love letters sent between Eliza and Alexander before they were married. As Alexander was still travelling through the thirteen colonies at the time, the two mainly communicated through hand-written letters. Some lines from these letters give great insight to how people spoke and referred to their significant others during the American Revolution. When signing off one letter, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Adieu My Dear lovely amiable girl. Heaven preserve you and shower its choicest blessings upon you. Love me I conjure you.” This is obviously different than the kind of language people use today.
Full letter available here: https://time.com/4690730/alexander-hamilton-elizabeth-schuyler-collection-documents-manuscripts-letters/
[Two weeks later in the living room stressing // My father stone-faced while you’re asking for his blessing]
As the song progresses through Alexander and Eliza’s relationship, this line is a great example of the stress Alexander Hamilton would have gone through asking Eliza’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. At the time, Hamilton didn’t have any money and his family background was near to the lowest class. Had he lived in Britain, Philip Schuyler would have certainly told Hamilton to stay away from his daughter, but this is America. In America, the standards were different. Rich or poor, it just mattered that you loved each other. In real life, it happened similarly to in the play. Despite the changing standards, Philip Schuyler’s quick agreement was a surprise for the Schuyler sisters. Perhaps it was because of Alexander Hamilton’s growing publicity or perhaps it was because Philip saw how in love with Alexander Eliza was, regardless, the unlikely start to their marriage is seen fully in this song.
The song “Helpless” most connects to the idea that emerging ideas and ideologies profoundly influence societies and events. This is because, as previously mentioned, the relationship between Eliza and Alexander would not have ever happened if they were in Britain. The strict social class structure was a common theme seen in most societies at the time, but in America, ideologies were changing. Marriages such as Eliza and Alexander’s or even Aaron and Theodosia Burr were, for the first time in history, possible. In that way, new ideas can influence events and throughout the course of American history, the entirety of society.
Section C: Guided Question
essential to the understanding of the people
[Tryin’ to catch your eye from the side of the ballroom]
This line helps the song explain a lot about the values of the people during the revolution. The women had more choice in their marriage than they did in Britain or anywhere else in the world, but the man still had to be the one to ask them. In this line, Eliza’s moving around the ballroom by herself to ensure she can stay in the view of Alexander, hoping if he sees her he’ll want to converse. This says a lot about how the man had to play a dominant role in a relationship during the American Revolution and how men had more choice in their partner than women did.
[I’ve been livin’ without a family since I was a child // My father left, my mother died, I grew up buckwild]
This line is said by Alexander Hamilton in the end of the song. In his days after moving to mainland America, his life was unique and based on chance much of the time but during his time living in the Caribbean these lyrics provides a lot of insight for what life was like on the islands. Many people didn’t live the lap of luxury Eliza did and were left with one parent or worse, orphaned. Often times during this time period, people had to raise themselves.
[In New York, you can be a new man]
Of all the lines in Hamilton, “In New York, you can be a new man” is among the most repeated. The statement, although brief, gives the most information of any in the whole song. In New York, there was a lot of ideological change in the air. Everywhere else in the world, you were stuck with the income and social status you were born with. In New York especially, a person could come and live the “American dream”. Anyone could do anything in New York and be someone new.
The American Revolution was an essential part of history that defined America’s place in the world and inspired a new political ideology we still see emerging in some nations today, freedom. The lives of everyone in the Thirteen Colonies were changed drastically and the song ‘Helpless’ does an excellent job portraying the new romantic freedom in America. Through a close look at the lyrics, there’s a lot more to this song than meets the eye.