A: Character Development-
“The Room Where it Happens,” the 28th song in the musical Hamilton, focuses on the private dinner that Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison attend and the feelings of Aaron Burr towards this. At dinner in 1790, they discuss Hamilton’s plans and eventually come to a compromise that gives Hamilton support for his financial plans to assume state debt and moves the US capital from New York to Washington D.C, which is closer to Jefferson’s hometown, Virginia. These two topics were separately a debate in Congress, so this compromise “[could] solve one problem with another” (Hamilton). Burr is jealous and envious of the power that Hamilton has and wants to be included in the plans that are made. Hamilton and Jefferson with Madison want different things but in general, they just want their ideas to get put into place with the government. With this, we can make inferences about the characters’ fears. Burr fears being left out of important decisions and decisions that he doesn’t approve of being made without him. Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison fear wrong decisions being made for the country.
This is one of the first songs where we see a wedge driven between Burr and Hamilton, and in the next song, “Schuyler Defeated” Burr switches political parties and wins Phillip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law’s, seat in the Senate. Burr does this because he wants more power, as we see in “The Room Where it Happens.” Some other interesting points that we can see in this song that indicate character development are Hamilton’s uncharacteristically brief responses in Hamilton and Burr’s back-and-forth at the beginning of the song. They seem to show that Hamilton has finally decided to take Burr’s advice to “talk less, smile more.” This is confirmed a bit later in the song. This, along with Hamilton cutting Burr off when he has to go to the dinner, shows that, as opposed to the beginning of the play, Hamilton now has more power than Burr. Hamilton now has more to lose and tries to refrain from speaking too much to ruin his legacy.
B: Connections to Historical Elements-
The song is centred around what is known as the Compromise of 1790. In general, the song does a very good job of explaining what happened at the private dinner, as well as how and why it happened, but historically, after attempts to move the capital south and Hamilton’s financial plan both went unresolved, Hamilton went to Thomas Jefferson for his input. Jefferson arranged a dinner for the two of them and Madison, who was also part of the decisions, to resolve the issues, which succeeded. The capital was moved to Washington D.C, close to Jefferson’s (and other early leaders’) homes, and Hamilton was able to put a plan into place that would help pay off the huge amount of debt that the country had accumulated during the American Revolution. The debt was the more significant issue, especially to Hamilton, as the location of the capital seemed like a more aesthetic issue rather than a decision that would actually impact the country, so he was able to use the location of the capital as a compromise point to get what he really wanted.
One thing I was confused about at the beginning of the song was the mention of “good old General Mercer.” Who was he and how does he relate to the song? I found that Hugh Mercer was a brigadier general that died in the Battle of Princeton in 1777. In 1799, Clermont Street was renamed to Mercer Street in honour of Hugh Mercer. Interestingly enough, the Compromise of 1790, the private dinner that the song is centred around, happened in… well, 1790, which is 9 years before the renaming of Clermont/Mercer Street. It seems like it was just a choice by Lin Manuel Miranda to include the Mercer legacy into this song, but throughout the musical, we can see how both Hamilton and Burr care a lot about their legacy. It’s something that they can discuss and we can see the similarity between them in this way, but when Hamilton cuts Burr off and leaves, we can see how they’re also different, and starting from this song, start to have very different legacies. From these three characters, we can see that people during the American Revolution, and even now, care about their reputation and their legacy.
“The Room Where it Happens” is a great example of how “Disparities in power alter the balance of relationships between individuals and between societies.” Burr is jealous of Hamilton’s power and sway in the government and from this point forward, there’s a change in their relationship. Like I mentioned above, in the next song “Schuyler Defeated,” Burr wins Hamilton’s father-in-law’s seat in the Senate, which upsets Hamilton, as he thought that Burr was being disloyal. Their relationship goes on a downward spiral from there, and as we know from the first song in the play, Burr eventually shoots Hamilton.
C: Guided Question-
In “The Room Where it Happens” we can see lots of information about the rights, privileges, and general information about the American revolution. The first quote I’ll analyze is “We want our leaders to save the day— But we don’t get a say in what they trade away” (Hamilton). This is very similar to the big idea, in the way that those with more power get more say in what decisions are made for the country. Burr is upset that he didn’t get a say in the compromise, and he is upset that the capital is moving. This is representative of the whole American Revolution because even though the US became a democracy, citizens, and even some leaders, still didn’t get full control over the laws that got made.
The second quote is “God help and forgive me, I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me” (Hamilton). The American Revolution was about moving away from the standards of England and building something new. Something new that is going to last into future generations. In this case, Hamilton was talking about making a new financial system that’s going to support the country, but it can be applied to the revolution as a whole, because in a way, the revolution itself was building something that’s going to outlive everyone who fought/had a part in it; the United States.
Finally, “When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game, but you don’t get a win unless you play in the game” (Hamilton). This is Hamilton telling Burr that if you take some risks and just go for it (got skin in the game and play in the game) then you’ll be able to get what you want (stay in the game and get a win). This relates to the revolution because it shows that a group of people that initiate things usually get what they want compared to those who sit around. In his song “Wait For It,” Aaron Burr is shown to wait for things to happen instead of taking action, and in this quote, Hamilton is criticizing Burr’s ways. He even goes to say “You get nothing if you… Wait for it, wait for it, wait!” which is a clear reference to Burr’s song. Hamilton gets what he wants out of the compromise because he takes action and gets things done. Similarly, the American Revolution would never have happened if no one took action and made it happen.
However, from Burr’s perspective, Hamilton is going too far to get what he wants. He is almost manipulating others and simply “[doing] what it takes to survive” as Angelica says later in “Burn” (Hamilton). It almost seems as if he doesn’t care about morals anymore and just does whatever he can.
“The Room Where It Happens,” like every other song in Hamilton, is wonderfully written and there are many more references and hidden meanings within the lyrics and the way the characters speak than I talk about above, but I wasn’t able to expand on each one and I probably wasn’t able to catch all of them either (though https://genius.com/Original-broadway-cast-of-hamilton-the-room-where-it-happens-lyrics helped me see a lot of them). I enjoy listing to this song so much and being able to dive deep and analyze it to see all of those hidden meanings was amazing!