22 Hamilton Lyrics, Explained

Walter McBride/Getty Images
Walter McBride/Getty Images

After centuries of being best known as that guy who was killed by Aaron Burr in a duel, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical, Hamilton, brought the achievements of the "10-dollar founding father" front and center—and rewrote what we think we know about history. The musical's lyrics are packed with references that made our inner history nerds rejoice. Ahead of a movie version of the show featuring the original version of the cast hitting Disney Plus on July 3, we explain some lyrics below—make sure to read and listen along! (And these explanations are just the beginning; you can find more over at Genius.)

1. From the Song “Alexander Hamilton”

John Laurens
The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By 14, they placed him in charge of a
Trading charter

Thomas Jefferson
And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted
Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up...

James Madison
Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

Aaron Burr
Well, the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland …

Early life was not easy for Alexander Hamilton. Born on the West Indies island of Nevis in either 1755 or ‘57, his father was a Scottish trader named James, and his mother, Rachel Fawcett Lavine, was married to someone else at the time (though they were separated). Hamilton's father abandoned them when he was a baby; at some point, his mother moved the family to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. When Rachel died of a fever in 1768, Hamilton and his older brother went to live with a relative, Pyer Lytton.

At just 14, Hamilton became a clerk at the import-export firm Beekman and Cruger, where he handled the money, charted routes for ships, and tracked goods (which, unfortunately, included slaves; his abolitionist leanings later in life were probably influenced by what he saw). He must have been good at it: According to Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (which inspired Miranda’s show), at one point, proprietor Nicholas Cruger had to return to New York for health reasons, and left Hamilton in charge for five months.

Alexander HamiltonGraphicaArtis/Getty Images

After Lytton died by suicide in 1769, Hamilton—but not his brother—went to live with merchant Thomas Stevens (who some have suggested is Hamilton’s real father, based on Hamilton’s resemblance to Stevens’s son Edward).

In 1772, a hurricane hit; Hamilton wrote an account of the event in a letter to his father and was persuaded by an older friend, Henry Knox, to send it to the Royal Danish American Gazette. It was published, anonymously, in the October 3 issue. In response to the letter, residents of St. Croix took up a collection to send Hamilton—who was previously self-educated—to America for more schooling.

2. From the Song “My Shot”

Laurens
But we’ll never be truly free
Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me
You and I. Do or die. Wait till I sally in
On a stallion with the first black battalion…

Like Hamilton, John Laurens served as an aide-de-camp to Washington (a position initially obtained for him by his father). The London-educated Laurens was an abolitionist, and in 1778, he came up with a radical—and controversial—idea: Recruit enslaved people to the patriots' cause, then free them when their service was done. Though the Continental Congress considered his plan, it ultimately rejected the idea.

Later, Laurens would participate in a duel against Charles Lee, a general who, embarrassingly, retreated at the Battle of Monmouth against General George Washington’s orders, then proceeded to badmouth both Laurens and Washington. The duel is outlined in the musical's “Ten Duel Commandments.” (Hamilton served as Laurens's second and, after Laurens hit Lee in the side, convinced them not to go a second round.) Laurens was killed in August 1782 in a skirmish with British soldiers in South Carolina.

3. From the Song “The Schuyler Sisters”

Angelica Schuyler
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson … I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!

Not a throwaway line! After Angelica Schuyler (Hamilton's soon-to-be sister-in-law) eloped with John Barker Church, a British entrepreneur, in 1777, the couple settled in Boston. When the revolution was over, they moved abroad, and Angelica was eventually introduced to Jefferson in Paris in 1787. The two became friends, and exchanged letters in which Jefferson expressed his affection and respect for her. But it’s doubtful that they discussed politics: The future president didn’t think it was an appropriate topic for women, writing in one letter that “the tender breasts of ladies were not formed for political convulsion…” (An exception? Abigail Adams, who Jefferson relied on for political news.)

4. From the Song “Farmer Refuted”

Samuel Seabury
“Hear ye, hear ye! My name is Samuel Seabury, and I present ‘Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress!’”

Samuel Seabury was a rector (soon to become the first American Anglican bishop) and a Loyalist living in New York City who actually did write an essay titled “Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress” under the pen name “A.W. Farmer.” Soon after, he wrote “The Congress Canvassed or an Examination into the Conduct of the Delegates at Their Grand Convention.” Hamilton responded to Seabury’s writings with some essays of his own: First, “A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress” (which he signed “A Friend to America”), and when Seabury hit back with yet another essay, Hamilton penned “ The Farmer Refuted.” Seabury was eventually captured by patriots and thrown in prison.

5. From the Song “Right Hand Man”

Hamilton
Let’s take a stand with the stamina God has granted us.
Hamilton won’t abandon ship,
Yo, let’s steal their cannons.

Two years after Hamilton arrived in New York, war broke out, and the future founding father (who, as a 14-year-old, had written “I wish there was a War”) quickly joined a militia. In August 1775, under orders from Continental Army Artillery captain John Lamb, Hamilton’s company and other infantrymen tried to seize 24 cannons from the British stronghold at the southern tip of Manhattan, where they drew British fire (they ended up with 21 of them in spite of being fired upon by a 32-gun broadside). “I was engaged in hauling off one of the cannons, when Mister Hamilton came up and gave me his musket to hold and he took hold of the rope,” Hercules Mulligan later recalled, continuing:

“Hamilton [got] away with the cannon. I left his musket in the Battery and retreated. As he was returning, I met him and he asked for his piece. I told him where I had left it and he went for it, notwithstanding the firing continued, with as much concern as if the [British warship Asia] had not been there.”

Afterward, Hamilton was offered jobs by both a Lord Stirling and Major General Nathanael Greene, but declined both posts and instead took a job as Captain of an artillery unit. He served in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, after which he was promoted by Washington to lieutenant-colonel and joined Washington’s “military family” as an aide-de-camp, where he earned the nickname “The Little Lion.” As in Hamilton, Washington spurned Hamilton’s many requests for field command.

6. From the Song “A Winter’s Ball”

Burr
Ladies! … There are so many to deflower
… Looks! Proximity to power …
They delighted and distracted him.
Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him!

Hamilton
That’s true.

Well, maybe. We don’t have any word from Martha herself on the subject, but according to Mount Vernon’s website, secondary sources say she named a male cat at Washington’s Morristown, New Jersey, headquarters after Hamilton, as “a way of teasing him, for his roving eye and romantic escapades, in other words, for acting the part of a tomcat.”

7. From the Song “Helpless”

Eliza
Laughin’ at my sister, cuz she wants to form a harem.

Angelica
I’m just sayin’, if you really loved me, you would share him.

Eliza
Ha!

Angelica and Hamilton met in 1780, three years after Angelica had married Church—but they were apparently flirtatious. As Chernow writes, "the attraction between Hamilton and Angelica was so potent and obvious that many people assumed they were lovers. At the very least, theirs was a friendship of unusual ardor, and it seems plausible that Hamilton would have proposed to Angelica, not Eliza, if the older sister had been available. Angelica was more Hamilton’s counterpart than Eliza."

The line in Hamilton is a reference to a letter Angelica sent to Eliza, in which she said she loved Hamilton "very much and, if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while."

8. From the Song “Wait for It”

Burr
My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher …
My mother was a genius
My father commanded respect
When they died they left no instructions
Just a legacy to protect

Fire and brimstone preacher, indeed: Aaron Burr’s grandfather was none other than Jonathan Edwards, who wrote the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Aaron ButtHulton Archive/Getty Images

Burr’s parents, meanwhile, died when he was very young. Aaron Burr, Sr. was the second president of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. (Still, he was its first significant one: His predecessor died the same year he took office.) He married Esther Edwards in 1752. Esther, 15 years his junior, kept a daily journal from the time she was 9 and began learning Latin with her new husband shortly after they were married. Burr Sr. died in 1757, and Esther died of smallpox in April 1758, leaving Burr, then 2, and his older sister Sarah, 4, orphans.

9. From the Song “Guns and Ships”

Lafayette
I go to France for more funds
I come back with more
Guns
And ships
And so the balance shifts

Washington
We rendezvous with Rochambeau, consolidate their gifts

Lafayette
We can end this war at Yorktown, cut them off at sea ...

Marquis de Lafayette was just 19 when he traveled to the United States. He was so hungry for glory (and probably also for revenge—his father was killed by the British in the Seven Years War) that he came up with a scheme to evade his disapproving family and abandon his pregnant wife to help the American cause. Once in America, he served for free, hustled for his troops by securing provisions from civilians, and returned to France in part to convince Louis XVI to send money and, yes, guns and ships.

The first meeting of Washington and Lafayette.Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The ships, under the command of Comte de Rochambeau, were instrumental in defeating the British at Yorktown: By keeping British ships from the harbor there, General Charles Cornwallis and his troops were unable to escape by sea, and American troops blocked their escape by land. After the Americans captured two key defensive positions (more on Hamilton’s role on that in a moment) and surrounded Yorktown, the patriots bombarded the British troops for three weeks until Cornwallis finally surrendered.

Lafayette really was, as Miranda writes, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” When he came back to tour the United States in 1824 and ‘25, “he was just embraced by the whole country,” Sarah Vowell, author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, told Mental Floss in 2015. “Two-thirds of the population of New York City came to meet his ship, and every night there was a party in his honor. He was just so beloved by literally everyone.”

10. From the Song “Yorktown (World Turned Upside Down)”

Hamilton
How did we know that this plan would work?
We had a spy on the inside. That’s right,
Hercules Mulligan!

Mulligan
A tailor spyin’ on the British government!
I take their measurements, information and
then I smuggle it!

Hercules Mulligan was a tailor and one of Hamilton’s first friends when he arrived in New York; Hamilton even lived with Mulligan's family when he was attending King's College (now Columbia University). Mulligan's clients at his shop included Tories and Brits, and he eavesdropped to get military intel. He would then place messages in packages with clothing and give them to his enslaved man, Cato. Mulligan put a stop to Cato's trips after he was captured, beaten, and questioned by the British for his numerous trips out of the city; Cato gave up nothing, and afterward, Mulligan used other methods to get his messages to Washington. According to Stephen F. Knott in his book Secret and Sanctioned, Mulligan warned the general in April 1777 that British General William Howe intended to go to Delaware; in 1781, he may have also tipped the patriots off to a British plot to kidnap Washington as he traveled to meet with the Comte de Rochambeau. Based on that information, Washington changed his travel route and successfully met with Rochambeau.

Yorktown was also where Hamilton finally got the field command he had wanted for so long. Though he had resigned as aide-de-camp after being accused of disrespect by Washington, Hamilton came to Yorktown and led the attack on a fortification called Redoubt 10, a key British defensive position. As Miranda writes in “Yorktown,” the American troops did, indeed, storm the fort with bayonets—gunfire would have given away their position—using the code word Rochambeau . They took the redoubt in just 10 minutes, with nine men killed and 31 wounded. (Compare that to the French, who captured Redoubt 9 with their weapons fully loaded: 77 soldiers were wounded, and 15 were killed.)

11. From the Song “Non-Stop”

Hamilton
Gentlemen of the jury, I’m curious, bear with me.
Are you aware that we’re making hist’ry?
This is the first murder trial of our brand new nation ...

Burr
Hamilton, sit down.
Our client Levi Weeks is innocent.

At the end of 1799, a young Quaker woman named Elma Sands disappeared; her body was found in a well less than two weeks later (in 1800). Levi Weeks, a carpenter and boarder at Sands’s cousin’s boarding house, was accused of killing her. Burr and Hamilton—at that point already enemies—teamed up to defend him, along with another lawyer named Brockholst Livingston. It was the new nation’s first murder trial, and the best documented of its time.

As Paul Collins recounts in his book Duel with the Devil, both Hamilton and Burr had dealings with Levi’s brother, carpenter Ezra Weeks: He was building Hamilton’s country estate, The Grange, and was constructing the wooden piping for Burr’s Manhattan Company, which supplied water to homes in the city. Ezra had also provided the supplies for the well in which Sands’s body was found, which was owned by the Manhattan Company.

Levi Weeks’s guilt was pretty much assumed, and prosecutor Cadwallader D. Colden lined up a long slate of witnesses to put together a circumstantial case that had Weeks promising to marry Sands, then cruelly murdering her and dumping her body in the well. But Colden was no match for Burr and Hamilton, who managed to establish that Sands had been having an affair with her cousin’s husband. Using medical experts, they even cast doubt on the assumption that Sands had been murdered, and instead put forth a theory that she had died by suicide. The prosecution failed to make their case, and it took the jury five minutes to find Weeks not guilty.

Despite their theory, though, it was likely that Sands was murdered—just not by Weeks. Unbeknownst to the attorneys, or those at the boardinghouse, one of the boarders, Richard Croucher, was mentally ill and had a violent past. After he was banished from the United States following the rape of his 13-year-old stepdaughter, Croucher returned to London, where he was eventually executed for a terrible crime.

12. From the Song “Say No to This”

Maria Reynolds
I know you are a man of honor,
I’m so sorry to bother you at home
but I don’t know where to go, and I came here
all alone…

My husband’s doin’ me wrong
beatin’ me, cheatin’ me, mistreatin’ me...
Suddenly he’s up and gone.
I don’t have the means to go on.

Yes, Alexander Hamilton was, in fact, involved in the first sex scandal in American politics. In the summer of 1791, the Secretary of Treasury was living in Philadelphia when a 23-year-old named Maria Reynolds showed up at his house. Maria claimed that her abusive husband had abandoned her and left her destitute; she asked Hamilton for help getting to relatives in New York, and he agreed. He told her he’d come to her house with the money and when he arrived, she took him to a bedroom, where, in Hamilton’s words, “Some conversation ensued, from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable … After this I had frequent meetings with her, most of them at my own house; Mrs. Hamilton with her children being absent on a visit to her father.”

Maria’s husband, James, found out about the affair that December. Rather than work it out in a duel, James, a con man, decided he wanted money. In a letter to Hamilton, he wrote (sic throughout):

“I have this preposial to make to you. give me the Sum Of thousand dollars and I will leve the town and take my daughter with me … and leve her to Yourself to do for her as you thing proper. I hope you wont think my request is in a view of making Me Satisfaction for the injury done me. for there is nothing that you Can do will compensate for it.”

The affair continued. At some point, Maria likely became an accomplice in her husband’s scheme; she would write to Hamilton when her husband was away, pleading with him to come visit her. Then, James would write to Hamilton, requesting small sums of cash. Hamilton complied, eventually shelling out more than $1000.

Then, in November, James—who had been working a scheme to buy the pension and back-pay claims of soldiers—landed in jail for committing forgery. When Hamilton refused to help him, James reached out to the Federalist’s Democratic-Republican rivals. Congressmen James Monroe (not James Madison, as it is in Hamilton, probably for simplicity's sake), Frederick Muhlenberg, and Abraham Venable spoke with both James and Maria, revealing Hamilton’s affair with Maria, implicating him in James’s plan, and accusing him of giving James insider tips on government securities. Maria even gave them letters that Hamilton had written to her.

When the congressmen confronted Hamilton in December 1792, he readily admitted to the affair, and produced documents to show he was innocent of James’s other accusations:

"One or more of the gentlemen … were struck with so much conviction, before I had gotten through the communication, that they delicately urged me to discontinue it as unnecessary. I insisted upon going through the whole … The result was a full and unequivocal acknowledgment on the part of the three gentlemen of perfect satisfaction with the explanation, and expressions of regret at the trouble and embarrassment which had been occasioned to me."

Muhlenberg and Venable, he noted, were exceedingly sensible; Monroe was "more cold but entirely explicit."

The congressmen agreed to keep what they knew about Hamilton’s affair with Maria a secret. But Monroe didn’t quite keep his promise: He made copies of the letters Maria had given to him and sent them to Thomas Jefferson. According to Smithsonian, John Beckley, Republican clerk of the House of Representatives, may have made a copy.

Then, in 1796, Hamilton penned an essay that attacked Jefferson’s private life. He would come to regret it.

In June 1797, Republican muckraker James Thomson Callender published The History of the United States for 1796, which not only discussed the details of Hamilton’s affair but also published letters from Reynolds to Hamilton. Hamilton, by this time no longer Secretary of the Treasury, blamed Jefferson and Monroe for the reveal (though, according to Smithsonian, it was probably Beckley who did the honors).

Hamilton accused Monroe of impugning his character and challenged him to a duel—but Burr interceded, and the duel never went down. (Fun fact: Burr also served as Maria Reynolds’s divorce attorney.)

In August 1797, Hamilton printed his own pamphlet in response, which discussed the affair in detail. In drafts, it was referred to as "The Reynolds Pamphlet," but when the 95-page missive was published, he called it “Observations on Certain Documents contained in Nos. V. and VI. of The History of the United States for the Year 1796, in which the Charge of Speculation against Alexander Hamilton, late Secretary of the Treasury, is fully refuted. Written by himself.” It ruined his reputation, destroyed his political power for a time—“never gonna be president now,” as Jefferson and Madison sing in “The Reynolds Pamphlet”—and publicly humiliated Eliza. "Art thou a wife?” the press asked. “See him, whom thou has chosen for the partner of this life, lolling in the lap of a harlot!!"

13. From the Song “The Room Where It Happens”

Burr
Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room.
Diametric’ly opposed, foes.
They emerge with a compromise, having
opened doors that were
Previously closed,
Bros.
The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power,
a system he can shape however he wants.
The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital.

And here’s the pièce de résistance:
No one else was in
the room where it
happened.

One of the most important parts of Hamilton’s funding bill was assumption. Under his plan, the federal government would assume state’s debts—which totaled about $25 million—giving the new nation a strong line of credit overseas. But on June 2, 1790, the House of Representatives passed Hamilton’s funding bill, minus assumption.

At the same time, there was squabbling over the site of the U.S. capital. Sixteen sites—the majority of them in the North—had been suggested, and Southerners like James Madison were worried about how that Northern influence would impact Southern states. But it appeared that Congress would likely choose a central location, like Pennsylvania.

Between the two issues, things in Congress were getting contentious. According to Jefferson, the Northern states had threatened “secession and dissolution.” So when Jefferson ran into Hamilton outside of Washington’s residence in June, he saw an opportunity. The normally dapper Hamilton looked “somber, haggard, and dejected … even his dress uncouth and neglected,” Jefferson recalled later, and, “in despair … walked me backwards and forwards before the President's door for half an hour” discussing the necessity of assumption and intimating that if it didn’t pass, he’d probably have to resign.

Thomas JeffersonHulton Archive/Getty Images

Jefferson told Hamilton that he “was really a stranger to the whole subject” (not true—according to Chernow, he’d been following the debate and had written to fellow Virginian George Mason about the need for a compromise). Still he “proposed to him ... to dine with me the next day, and I would invite another friend or two, bring them into conference together, and I thought it impossible that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by some mutual sacrifices of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the Union.”

Jefferson did, in fact, arrange an intimate dinner party, which took place between June 14 and 20, 1790 and included Hamilton, Madison, and maybe two other people. In the discussions, Jefferson said, “It was observed, I forget by which of them, that as the [debt assumption] pill would be a bitter one to the Southern states, something should be done to soothe them; and the removal of the seat of government to the [Potomac] was a just measure, and would probably be a popular one with them, and would be a proper one to follow the assumption.” So Hamilton agreed to support Virginia’s bid for the capital in return for James Madison whipping votes for his assumption plan.

On July 10, the Residence Act—which designated Philadelphia the temporary capital for a decade while a permanent site was chosen along the Potomac, a deal that had been prearranged—passed. A couple of weeks later, the assumption bill also passed (but only narrowly). Madison did not vote in favor of assumption, but had whipped enough votes for it to pass anyway.

Though it seems that the compromise was well in motion by the time Jefferson hosted his dinner party—and there’s some controversy about his account of how it went down—history nonetheless dubbed the deal brokered there the “dinner table bargain.”

14. From the Song “One Last Time”

Washington
I need you to draft an address.

Pick up a pen, start writing.
I wanna talk about what I have learned.
The hard-won wisdom I have earned…

One last time
the people will hear from me
one last time
and if we get this right
we’re gonna teach ‘em how to say goodbye.
You and I—

Washington began contemplating a farewell address toward the end of his first term as president, and asked James Madison for help. Madison delivered a draft in June 1792, but the document was put aside when Washington agreed to serve another term. When he decided not to seek a third term as president, Washington then turned to Hamilton to draft the rest of the address. Jefferson described the end result to William Johnson in 1823:

“When, at the end of his second term, his Valedictory came out, Mr. Madison recognized in it several passages of his draught, several others, we were both satisfied, were from the pen of Hamilton, and others from that of the President himself. These he probably put into the hands of Hamilton to form into a whole, and hence it may all appear in Hamilton's hand-writing, as if it were all of his composition.”

Madison himself wrote to Jefferson that same month, saying of his statements to Johnson that,

“If there be any circumstantial inaccuracy, it is in imputing to him [Washington] more agency in composing the document than he probably had. Taking for granted that it was drawn up by Hamilton, the best conjecture is that the General put into his hands his own letter to me suggesting his general ideas, with the paper prepared by me in conformity with them; and if he varied the draught of Hamilton at all, it was by a few verbal or qualifying amendments only."

Though written by several hands, the ideas were Washington’s. The farewell address laid out his political philosophy, which he hoped would serve to guide the young United States going forward. It's still discussed in history classes today.

15. From the Song “I Know Him”

King George
John Adams?
I know him. That can’t be.
That’s that little guy who spoke to me all those years ago.
What was it, eighty-five?
That poor man, they’re gonna eat him alive!

On June 1, 1785, John Adams—serving as United States Minister Plenipotentiary to Britain—was received by George III, former ruler of the American Colonies. Adams wrote, memorized, and rehearsed a speech for the occasion, then painstakingly recounted his remarks, and King George’s response, in a letter to Secretary of State John Jay.

According to his letter to Jay, Adams told George III in part that “the appointment of a Minister from the United States to your Majesty’s Court, will form an Epocha in the History of England & of America. I think myself more fortunate than all my fellow Citizens in having the distinguished Honor to be the first to stand in your Majesty’s royal Presence in a diplomatic Character.” To which George, according to Adams, responded:

“I wish you Sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late Contest, but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the Duty which I owed to my People. I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the Separation, but the Separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the Friendship of the United States as an independent Power. . . let the Circumstances of Language; Religion and Blood have their natural and full Effect.”

When Washington left office, Adams, a Federalist—then Vice President—ran for commander in chief. Because of how elections worked back then (and we’ll get to that more in a minute) his Vice Presidential candidate, Thomas Pinckney, was also running for president. They were opposed by Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Hamilton was no fan of Adams and schemed to get Pinckney elected, but he ultimately failed. Adams received the most votes, with Jefferson as the runner up, and they became president and vice president. Adams, however, was not popular—not even within his own party—and would only serve a single term as president.

16. From the Song “The Adams Administration”

Burr
How does Hamilton, the short-tempered,
protean creator of the Coast Guard,
Founder of the New York Post

It’s true: As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton convinced Congress to authorize what was alternately called a system of cutters, Revenue Service, and Revenue-Marine in 1790 to enforce customs laws. (It wouldn’t officially be called the Coast Guard until 1915.) One year later, he founded the New-York Evening Post using donations from investors; the paper would eventually become the New York Post.

17. From the Song “Blow Us All Away”

Alexander Hamilton
Alright. So this is what you’re gonna do:
Stand there like a man until Eacker is in front of you.
When the time comes, fire your weapon in the air.
This will put an end to the whole affair.

Philip Hamilton
But what if he decides to shoot? Then I’m a goner.

Alexander Hamilton
No. He’ll follow suit if he’s truly a man of honor.

After a 27-year-old Republican lawyer named George Eacker insulted Alexander Hamilton in a Fourth of July speech, Hamilton’s oldest son, Philip, and a friend named Price confronted Eacker at the theater in November 1801. According to the New-York Evening Post (a paper Hamilton created, remember, so there’s probably a bias here), the pair “began in levity a conversation” about Eacker’s remarks. Eacker asked Hamilton to go to the lobby; Price followed, and Eacker called the youths “damned rascals.”

“A little scuffle ensued,” the Post noted, and the trio left the theater and went to a pub:

“An explanation was then demanded, which of them the offensive expression was meant for; after a little hesitation, it was declared to be intended for each. Eacker then said, as they parted, ‘I expect to hear from you;’ and they replied, ‘You shall;’ and challenges followed.”

Price and Eacker dueled first, the Sunday after the incident; after exchanging four shots, their seconds worked it out, and both walked away. On Monday, Eacker and Philip faced off, using pistols supplied by Philip’s uncle, (Angelica's husband) John Barker Church (these were the same pistols that Hamilton would use when facing off with Burr less than three years later). According to Chernow, Hamilton advised Philip to wait until Eacker had fired, then instructed him to shoot into the air. This maneuver, called a delope, would abort the duel.

Though Hamilton seems to imply that Philip raised his arm in the air to shoot—and that Eacker fired before the pair reached the customary 10 paces—that’s not supported by the historical record: According to an account published in the American Citizen just days after the duel, both men walked 10 paces, turned to face each other, and, on the command to fire … did nothing but stare at each other. Finally, Eacker raised his pistol, Philip did the same, and Eacker fired. He hit Philip, who then also fired, probably a reaction to being shot; his bullet hit the ground. Philip was rowed across the Hudson and suffered for a day before he died.

But the American Citizen’s recounting of the duel suggests that there might have been rumors that Eacker fired early—and the writer certainly believed that William Coleman, the author of the Post’s story on the event, implied that was what happened:

“‘Murdered in a duel!’ O Shame! Shame, Mr. Coleman. In a strict legal sense the act may be termed ‘murder:’ but your words convey another meaning. The idea of Mr. Hamilton’s being ‘murdered in a duel’ imports, as mentioned by you, that Mr. Eacker, available himself of an undue advantage, shot Mr. Hamilton while unprepared.”

Whatever happened in the actual duel, Philip’s death devastated his family. “Never did I see a man so completely overwhelmed with grief,” lawyer Robert Troup wrote of Hamilton. Philip’s sister, Angelica, had been extremely close to her older brother; after his death, she suffered from a breakdown and never recovered. According to Chernow, she lived until 73 but was “consigned to an eternal childhood [and] often did not recognize her family members … she sang songs that she had on the piano in duets with her father, and she always talked of her dead brother as if he were still alive.”

18. From the Song “The Election of 1800”

Madison
It’s a tie! ….

Jefferson
It’s up to the delegates!….

Jefferson/Madison
It’s up to Hamilton!

….

Hamilton
Yo.
The people are asking to hear my voice ...
For the country is facing a difficult choice.
… And if you were to ask me who I’d promote ...
Jefferson has my vote.

Before there were hanging chads, or the stolen election of 1824, there was the election of 1800. These days, you elect a presidential ticket—a president and a vice president together. But in the early days of our nation, presidential elections worked a little differently: While the candidates might have chosen to say they were running for president or vice president, the Constitution made no such distinction. The person to receive the most electoral votes would be president; the runner-up would be vice president. Which is why, in 1796, the president, Adams, and the vice president, Jefferson, belonged to different political parties. And in 1800, when Jefferson and Burr received the same amount of electoral votes—73 apiece—they tied for president. The decision was up to the House of Representatives, which was largely Federalist.

Jefferson wrote to Burr, and intimated that if he accepted the vice presidency, he would be given greater responsibilities. Burr seemed to agree to this. But when the Federalists—who were in favor of a large, centralized government—appeared to come to the conclusion that they would back Burr, Burr decided he would fight for the top office, and allegedly told several Republican congressmen so.

Hamilton, meanwhile, urged his fellow Federalists to pick Jefferson. “In a choice of Evils let them take the least,” he wrote to Harrison Grey Otis, a Massachusetts congressman, when it became clear that the two candidates were tied. “Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”

The politicians voted 35 times over the course of five days in February 1801 trying to make a decision. On the 36th vote, Jefferson was elected. The fact that Burr didn’t withdraw his name from the presidential race would have long-lasting effects on their relationship; Jefferson even blocked Burr's re-nomination for vice president in 1804. That same year, the 12th Amendment was passed to provide separate electoral votes for president and VP.

19. From the Song “Your Obedient Servant”

Burr
Now you call me “amoral,”
A “dangerous disgrace,”
If you’ve got something to say
Name a time and place
Face to face

I have the honor to be Your Obedient Servant
A dot Burr

Though some might believe it was events of the election of 1800 that led Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel, it was actually the New York Gubernatorial election of 1804 that pushed Burr over the edge. Though Burr was still the Vice President of the United States, he knew he wouldn’t be on the ticket the next go-around. So the one-time Federalist turned Democratic-Republican decided to run for Governor of New York as an independent. When his fellow Federalists discussed voting for Burr to fracture the Republican party, Hamilton forcefully spoke out against the candidate—and although his campaign against Burr probably didn’t have much effect, Burr still lost the general election to Morgan Lewis in April 1804.

That same month, at a dinner party, Hamilton made some disparaging remarks against Burr. Charles Cooper, a Republican who had been in attendance at the party, recounted the “despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr” to Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler (a former Senator whose seat had been taken by Burr in 1791) in an April 23 letter. “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,” he wrote. “Oliver Phelps, when in this city, on his way to Canandaigua, stated, that Gen. Hamilton, and about one hundred federalists in New-York, would not vote for Mr. Burr.”

Burr didn’t find out about the letter, which was published in the Albany Register, until June 1804. He promptly wrote to Hamilton: “You must perceive, sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.”

Two days later, Hamilton wrote back, saying that Burr’s charges weren’t specific enough to warrant a confirmation or a denial:

“I stand ready to avow or disavow promptly and explicitly any precise or definite opinion which I may be charged with having declared of any gentleman. More than this cannot fitly be expected from me; and especially it cannot be reasonably expected that I shall enter into an explanation upon a basis so vague as that which you have adopted.”

This back and forth went on for a bit, and then Hamilton’s friend Nathaniel Pendleton and Burr’s friend William Van Ness stepped in to try to sort things out. But neither Burr nor Hamilton would bend, and they agreed to meet on the dueling field at dawn on July 11, 1804.

20. From the Song “Best of Wives and Best of Women”

Eliza
Alexander, come back to sleep.

Hamilton
I have an early meeting out of town. …
I just need to write something down.

Here, Miranda might have Hamilton writing his “Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr,” in which Hamilton expressed his reluctance to duel on religious and moral grounds (Hamilton had rediscovered religion after Philip died; before this one, he had participated in a number of duels). “I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity,” Hamilton wrote, “to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire—and thus giving a double opportunity to Col Burr to pause and to reflect.”

He enclosed the statement with his will and some other papers, which were delivered by Pendleton after his death. The statement was printed in the New-York Evening Post on July 16, 1804.

Hamilton also penned a letter to his wife that night; he wrote two before the duel, one on July 4 (“This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career,” he began, ending with “Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me. Ever yours”) and one at 10 p.m. on July 10 (which dealt with his first cousin, Ann Mitchell).

21. From the Song “The World Was Wide Enough”

Burr
I strike him right between his ribs
I walk towards him, but I am ushered away
They row him back across the Hudson
I get a drink

I hear wailing in the streets
Somebody tells me, “You’d better hide.”

....

When Alexander aimed
At the sky
He may have been the first one to die
But I’m the one who paid for it

I survived, but I paid for it.

In Hamilton, Burr sings that during the duel, the former Secretary of the Treasury "was wearing his glasses ... Why? If not to take deadly aim?" According to Chernow, in the moments before the duel began, Hamilton halted the proceedings, saying “Stop. In certain states of the light one requires glasses.” He took sightings in different directions with the pistol, then put his glasses on and repeated his actions, and finally announced he was ready. (Burr didn’t know that Hamilton intended to throw away his shot, and, as Miranda suggests, was probably pretty unnerved by all that aiming.) Nathaniel Pendleton, Hamilton's second, asked if they were ready, and when they replied in the affirmative, he said “present,” and the men lifted their pistols.

What happened next is up for some debate. Pendleton said that Burr shot first, and that Hamilton’s returned fire was merely a consequence of being shot, but both Burr and his second, William Van Ness, maintained that Hamilton had fired first. When Pendleton returned to the Weehawken not long after, he found the bullet fired by Hamilton’s gun in a tree branch 12 feet off the ground, 4 feet to the side of where Burr had been standing.

Shortly after the duel, Van Ness and Pendleton released a joint statement on the proceedings:

“The pistols were discharged within a few seconds of each other and the fire of Col: Burr took effect; Genl Hamilton almost instantly fell. Col: Burr then advanced toward Genl H——n with a manner and gesture that appeared to Genl Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret, but without Speaking turned about & withdrew. Being urged from the field by his friend as has been subsequently stated, with a view to prevent his being recognised by the Surgeon and Bargemen who were then approaching.”

Hamilton knew exactly what had happened to him. According to David Hosack, the Hamilton family doctor, “I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendleton ... He had at that instant just strength to say, ‘This is a mortal wound, Doctor.’” He died the next day.

Burr did, indeed, pay for his part in the duel. Rather than reviving his political career, the duel destroyed it. Wanted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, he fled south to the capital, where he served the rest of his term as Vice President. In 1807, he was charged with treason for attempting to seize land in Louisiana and Mexico with the goal of creating an independent republic. He was acquitted later that year and headed to Europe, ending up penniless in Paris. In 1812, he made his way back to the States—and to Manhattan, where he took up law again. The next year, he lost his only surviving child, a daughter named Theodosia (after her mother, who had died of stomach cancer in 1794) when the ship she was traveling on disappeared at sea. Burr was understandably devastated. In 1833, he remarried, then quickly divorced.

When Burr was in his seventies, he returned to the dueling ground where he had felled Hamilton. Chernow writes that Burr recalled that “‘he heard the ball whistle among the branches and saw the severed twig above his head’":

"Burr thus corroborated that Hamilton had honored his pledge and fired way off the mark. In other words, Burr knew that Hamilton had squandered his shot before he returned fire. He shot to kill … The most likely scenario is that Hamilton had fired first, but only to show Burr that he was throwing away his shot. How else could he have shown Burr his intentions?”

Burr died in 1836. He was 80 years old. The title for this song comes from something Burr that Burr himself reportedly said: “Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

22. From the Song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”

Eliza
I stop wasting time on tears.
I live another fifty years.

I establish the first private orphanage in
New York City.

I help to raise hundreds of children.
I get to see them growing up.
In their eyes I see you, Alexander.

The man who created our national bank apparently wasn’t great with money: When he died in 1804, he left his family without much to live on. Eliza survived thanks to a small inheritance from her father, who died later that year, and with the help of Hamilton supporters. But her lack of funds didn’t stop her from doing incredible things: She collected and preserved her husband’s papers, took in homeless children, and helped to create orphanages in Washington, D.C. and New York City (an organization that still exists today).

Eliza HamiltonWikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Eliza never forgave James Monroe for his role in exposing Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds—not even when he called on her late in both their lives and asked to bury the hatchet. When she died in 1854 at the age of 97, she was laid to rest near her husband and her sister Angelica at Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Oral History: In 1985, Mr. Snuffleupagus Shocked Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

On November 8, 1971, during the third-season premiere of Sesame Street, Aloysius Snuffleupagus was introduced to the world and proved immediately indispensable: Lacking a watering pot, Big Bird was delighted to see the massive, lumbering creature use his trunk to tend to his garden. The two became fast friends.

No one else, however, could be absolutely certain that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually existed.

Time and again, “Snuffy” would shuffle into the frame, just missing the adult residents of Sesame Street. Big Bird would try to convince them his pal was real. They’d humor him, but never really believed it.

So it went for 14 years, until the show’s producers began to hear of a growing concern among viewers: In the wake of news reports about child abuse cases, Big Bird’s implausible eyewitness testimony about his oversized friend might have real-life consequences. If adults were ignoring Sesame Street's biggest star, would kids feel like they wouldn't be heard, either?

The solution? Get rid of the ambiguity and let Snuffy loose. Three decades after his coming-out party, Mental Floss spoke with the writers, producers, and performers who had the delicate, important task of restoring Big Bird’s credibility and resolving his droopy-eyed friend’s identity crisis.

I. The elephant in the room

Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street was just two years old when Jim Henson decided he wanted to incorporate a massive presence on the show: A puppet that required two men to operate. Dubbed Mr. Snuffleupagus, the character debuted in 1971. News media described him as a “large and friendly monster resembling an anteater.” Then-executive producer Dulcy Singer and writer Tony Geiss agreed he would be Big Bird’s not-quite-real friend—a reflection of the wandering imaginations of the show’s preschool-aged audience.

Norman Stiles (Writer/Head Writer, 1971-1995): The character was kind of a collaboration between [executive producer] Jon Stone and Jim Henson. I think the initial idea was really to be ambiguous in the sense that, well, Big Bird says he’s real and the audience sees him and yet he always manages to not be there when the other people were there—so is he real or isn’t he real? The whole idea was to not really answer that, but to leave it as an open question.

Emilio Delgado (“Luis,” 1971-2017): It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have. Big Bird was the only one who could see him. When adults came around, he would be talking about Snuffy this, and Snuffy that. We’d just say, "Yeah, sure, OK." We didn’t believe him.

Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer, 2005-2016): There was a lot of humor to be mined from the issue. We never explained whether he was imaginary or not. Kids were able to see him, but adults couldn’t. You never really knew—was he imaginary? Playing with that question was a lot of fun; kind of a healthy ambiguity.

Stiles: You really had to believe that it was just terrible coincidences and quirks of Snuffy’s own personality that made it so that he just wasn’t there when Big Bird wanted him to be there to introduce him to his friends.

Delgado: Jerry Nelson originally did the voice and was inside the puppet, in the front. Bryant Young was in the rear. Boy, did we get jokes out of that.

Parente: He’s one of the tougher puppets to operate. Just the massive size of him requires certain [camera] blocking. It’s very physical, and very warm inside his belly. It’s only so long the performers can go through takes before they stop and need to be fanned off before they can start again.

Delgado: Later, Jerry stopped doing it. Maybe his back was bothering him. That’s when Marty took it over.

II. Identity crisis

2004 Sesame Workshop

“Marty” is Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer who assumed the front end and voice of Mr. Snuffleupagus in 1981. For the first 10 years, the character had been a proverbial one-joke pony (or elephant), catching sight of adults and getting so excited he somehow wound up missing them. This would continue for several more years, which eventually began to wear on the nerves of both Robinson and Caroll Spinney, the actor who has portrayed Big Bird since his inception in 1969. Robinson was especially vocal about Snuffy not being a figment of his friend's imagination.

Martin P. Robinson (via Still Gaming: Lee & Zee Show Podcast, 2009): He was never imaginary. I say that a lot. And I say it with great strength of conviction. He was my character, he was never imaginary; he just had bad timing. He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year. So he was a good, real friend to Bird; it’s just that no one else ever took the time to actually meet him.

Delgado: How long can you play a joke out? As performers, as Muppeteers, as artists, you can only carry a story so far before you have to do something else with it. They probably felt that’s what was happening.

Robinson: Those scripts just got so old. Caroll and I would look at the scripts and say, "Oh, lord, this one again."

Delgado: The adults would play along, knowing he didn’t exist. At the same time, I liked the idea of Marty saying, "OK, he just happened to be there at the wrong time." People were barely missing him.

The actors’ desire to play off a new dynamic was soon joined by a more pressing, potentially catastrophic issue. In the early 1980s, news programs like 60 Minutes were reporting on troubling statistics involving child abuse both at home and in daycare centers. If Big Bird—ostensibly the show’s stand-in for the 6-year-old viewing audience—was being brushed aside when trying to convince people Snuffleupagus was real, there was the chance children might not be convinced adults would believe them if they came forward with more troubling claims.

Stiles: We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse, and what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.

Michael Davis (Author, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street): I remember having my own internal conversations about Snuffy. My kids were in daycare and there were a lot of those stories about what was happening in daycare, a lot of those stories about children being abducted and kids on the back of the milk cartons and all of that. It became kind of a national focus, sometimes bordering on a mania.

Parente: All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on. The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?

Delgado: It was a very serious consideration. It was something that could happen in their lives, and the [Children’s Television] Workshop was very attuned to things like that.

The CTW—now Sesame Workshop—is the organization comprised of researchers, psychologists, and freelance child experts who generate and evaluate the show’s themes and messages to make sure they’re going to be understood. Revealing Snuffleupagus required a concentrated effort to make certain Sesame Street’s writers and producers were communicating the idea effectively.

Parente: The process has been pretty much the same all these years. We look to experts in childhood development and that helps guide us—what’s the best way to address what we want to address? That’s the model Sesame was founded on, with writers, producers, educators, and researchers all working together.

Davis: I do think that the result from Sesame Street was a smart one because Big Bird, as a character, is a projection of a 6-year-old. So to have a situation where the 6-year-old’s eyewitness reports are being doubted so deeply and ridiculed ... They are kind mocking him a little bit and rolling their eyes at him.

Parente: It’s rare a children’s show is grounded in the real world. Much of our competition is in the animated world, where fantastical things happen. This is a real neighborhood. We think of it as kids coming to a play date with real friends, and it requires a real investment in how you tell a story.

Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): The writers took a real-world concern and asked themselves, "Are we helping or hurting kids by keeping Snuffy in the imaginary closet, and do we have a moral imperative to respond to a real issue by changing something about the show?"

Stiles: We wanted kids to know that grownups will believe them, but we wanted to preserve the fun that we were having, so I proposed that we have some of the grownups believe Big Bird, and that was the first step.

For the show’s 16th season in 1984 to 1985, producers laid the groundwork for the eventual reveal by depicting Big Bird as knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, with a handful of adults taking him at his word even with Snuffy still at large.

Robinson: They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary, that he knew the difference and was very clear about it. And once they got that from Bird, they said, "Okay, you know the difference. If you say Snuffy is real, then he’s real and we’d love to meet him, whenever the timing is right." And the other half of the adults said, "What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus."

Stiles: That changed the dynamic between the grownups ... Now, Big Bird wasn’t alone. He had grownups believing him, and we had a new dynamic where the grownups who believed him would now actually try to see Snuffy. That went on, I think, for about a year. I don’t remember the exact combination of conversations, but we finally decided, alright, let’s move. Just creatively, this has run its course.

III. The reveal

The show’s 17th season premiere aired on November 18, 1985. As promised, Big Bird made arrangements to introduce Snuffy to the adults on Sesame Street by telling them he’d yell out a secret word (“Food!”) when they were ready. Unfortunately, Snuffy is too nervous to remain idle, and Big Bird has a few false alarms that make the adults even more dubious.

Rubin: Watching this now, I’m 60 years old, sitting on the edge of my chair, going, "Oh, God, don’t go away! Stay there! Wait!"

Stiles: [Our goal] was to do what we had always done before, which was, "If you stay here, he’ll be here."

Robinson: They did it in one show ... I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, "I saw him!"

In a somewhat bizarre non-sequitur, talk show host Phil Donahue appears to pick up his broken toaster from Luis’s Fix-It Shop and begins to engage characters on the merits of Big Bird’s preferred code word.

Davis: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that bimodal audience that they always talked about and writing something that would be appealing to adults as much as it would be to kids. Having Phil Donahue being the protagonist kind of making fun of himself and his show was hilarious.

Parente: There are plenty of studies that prove kids get more of the educational value when there’s co-viewing going on, so things like Donahue and other celebrities are by design. When you have a parent viewing with their child, they can ask questions and spawn a conversation.

After some protracted teasing of the audience—Snuffy can’t seem to stay put—the entire cast meets Snuffy and stares at him in awe.

Robinson: He’s starting to peel off and Elmo actually grabs onto his trunk and holds him down. There was a shot when they actually pinned Elmo onto the trunk, and I’m whipping him around in the air like a pinwheel. But it held him up just long enough so that the cast actually showed up, and saw him there. And so, one by one, down the line, it was this line of shocked faces. And they all came up and shook hands with him.

Delgado: We were all amazed that this giant elephant-looking thing was actually real. You get a big reaction from everybody, and everybody was very happy Big Bird had been telling the truth all along. He was very happy people believed him.

Stiles: Big Bird [said] "Well, now what do you have to say?" You know, that was really his moment, and I just loved giving him the opportunity to say that.

Rubin: It was incredibly respectful of a child. The conversation did not diminish Big Bird, it wasn’t dismissive or pandering. It’s how you hope a conversation with someone wishing to be heard would go.

Delgado: It was kind of a big party. And Big Bird has a child’s mind, so he was satisfied. Like, "See, I told you he was real!"

Near the end of the episode, cast member Bob McGrath makes a pointed comment: “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.”

Rubin: It was so honest. Some parents get caught up in authoritarian mode and don’t have the flexibility to retract, recant, or acknowledge a kid’s reality. He was the collective voice of parents—"Sorry, we should’ve listened."

Parente: [A line like that] is exactly what we look to the child experts for, bringing in or soliciting experts to weigh in on specific dialogue to get it right. Simplicity is key, particularly with kids. It’s not about making it flowery with jokes, not doing it in the form of song. Songs are great, but often lyrical messaging is not necessarily the best takeaway. When it’s simple and straightforward, that’s when you have your best chance.

IV. Aftermath

Sesame Workshop

In 1985, Sesame Street was averaging 10 million viewers a week, making any pivotal episode hugely influential with its young audience. Later that year, they depicted the characters of Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Susan (Loretta Long) adopting a child. Coupled with acknowledging the real-life death of cast member Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in 1982, Snuffy’s status as a real Sesame citizen was part of the show’s overall evolution from teaching the alphabet to imparting life lessons.

Davis: I think it was a really smart thing for them to eliminate that as a possibility for the viewer and to say that even as outrageous as the claim sounded at first, here was this real-life big woolly mammoth of a friend that they just had not yet met. I give them a lot of credit for changing with the times and I remember some people saying, "Oh, it was politically correct," but it’s not that at all. It’s more that society changes and the way that we view things changes and Sesame Street has successfully negotiated those waters through the years.

Snuffy got topical again in 1992, when the show decided to depict his parents going through a divorce. Unlike his big reveal, this one didn’t go so well.

Parente: It was the first time in history we ever taped an episode and then didn't air it.

Stiles: He had kind of this family going and it helped that we had this family. There weren’t any other puppet families that we had, so I think it was a natural choice.

Delgado: He got a little sister later on.

Davis: It is interesting that they choose to have Snuffy’s parents get divorced because that character, he’s a little bit of a downer. He’s got a little Eeyore about him.

Parente: We knew enough to put it through the rigors of testing before it would air. And it was a lovely episode, but we found kids were upset after watching it. They were just not familiar with what divorce was.

Delgado: Kids freaked out.

Stiles: The shows weren’t necessarily for the child who’s watching whose parents are divorced, although that was part of it. It was, I think, more so that children would understand if they meet other children whose parents are divorced … The whole thing is difficult, because you’re opening up this can of worms for children who may not have even thought of the possibility that their parents might get divorced. Now all of a sudden, they walk into the kitchen and see their parents arguing about something and they go, "Uh-oh."

Parente: Snuffy’s family was going through it in real time, right in the midst of the crisis. We learned if we can see the characters after coming through divorce, it’s a better way of approaching it.

Despite the hiccup, Snuffy has remained a high-profile and viable member of the Sesame gang for well over 40 years. Most recently, he’s been spotted on Twitter, where he follows just one account: Big Bird’s.

Parente: One of my favorite things is to see people meet Snuffy for the first time. He’s bigger than life. He takes your breath away.

Davis: Sesame Street at its finest moments always found a way to include humor and to use it to help smooth things along and to help it go down in a way that was acceptable. You can’t give enough credit to the writers for brilliantly finding a way to make things funny for people who drink from sippy cups and people who drink from martini glasses.

Parente: We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention. What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.

Delgado: It's definitely one of the biggest things to happen on the show.

Parente: The appeal of Snuffy is that he’s Big Bird’s best friend. People love Big Bird, so he benefits by association: "If that’s Big Bird’s friend, he’s my friend, too."

This story has been updated for 2020.