I’m sitting here thinking, “What does one write on Independence Day when one is rather disappointed in the direction one’s country is headed?” Thousands of babies are being slaughtered, we just had the largest mass shooting in US history, there’s a systematized rejection of gender and acceptance of child abuse … the list goes on and on, and our presidential candidates aren’t making things look any better. I wonder if this is something like how Hamilton felt facing the election of 1800.
Except I’m not sure which of our current candidates is Burr in this analogy and which is Jefferson. I’m probably just going to not vote at all (side note: for some reason I’ve always felt uncomfortable with/guilty for voting, even though my church doesn’t teach against it. Weird, huh?).
Anyway, this isn’t going to be a depressing post! We’re celebrating Independence Day, and I’m quite certain the best way to do that this year is listening to the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. It’s on Amazon Prime, Spotify, YouTube — you have no excuse not to listen. Nor any excuse not to think about what you’re listening to.
Hamilton didn’t win 11 out of the record-breaking 16 Tony nominations just because it’s a run-away hit with a unique musical approach. The catchiest music couldn’t have sustained this level of success without a story that resonates deeply with fans. One of the many fantastic things about Hamilton is that it presents the founding father’s as real people. They’re not glorified by rose-eyed historical glasses or torn to shreds by an opposing historical perspective trying to vilify them. They’re just real men with a vision for the future and the necessary skills and commitment to found a country that is now celebrating its 240th birthday. Not too shabby a legacy. So what does that mean for us, real people today who have the chance to influence the course of history?
A More Accurate Picture of America’s Ethnic Landscape
The only reason I would ever advocate casting with race in mind is for the purpose of historical or cultural accuracy. Now I’m re-thinking even that. A racially diverse cast works perfectly for Hamilton — America of today telling the story of America’s founding. And even though the individual characters’ casting doesn’t match the race of their historical counterparts, a racially diverse group working together to found our country is more accurate than most people think. Peter Salem (hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill), Prince Whipple (who fought alongside Washington), James Armistead (the double-spy who may have “won the revolutionary war”), Wentworth Cheswell (who rode to say “the British are coming” at the same time as Paul Revere) — they were all black, along with many other key figures in America’s founding.
Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Angelica Schuyler, says that the most beautiful thing about Hamilton is that “it’s told by such a diverse cast with a such diverse styles of music. … We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own” (quote from Times article “Why History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton’s Diversity“).
One of the lines in Hamilton is “history has its eyes on me/you.” The founders knew what they were doing was going to make a mark on history, but this phrase can also be true of us today. Every generation has the potential to make its mark on history. Will future Americans look back on us and see a group of people who wouldn’t stand for white-washing of their history any more? or will they see us as complicit in maintaining the accepted historic narrative that all blacks were slaves and all whites were oppressors, even if that means marginalizing blacks who held influential positions at key points in American history?
Redefining The Moral Climate of Our Nation
One of the things Alexander Hamilton is known for is being involved in our country’s first political sex scandal. Perhaps this is one reason he was so often overlooked — he didn’t fit the squeaky-clean mold of a founding father that was popular in history books until very recently (now we seem to be going the other direction, trying to dig up as much dirt as possible on everyone. No one’s ever accused the human race of being balanced, have they?).
In a post-Clinton age it seems strange to us that when Hamilton’s affair came out the immediate reaction was “Well, he’s never gon’ be President now” (though I’m sure in more historically accurate language). The idea of someone who cheated on his wife and openly confessed it becoming president was unimaginable. Hamilton himself down-played the seriousness of the affair, concentrating on proving he was a virtuous man innocent of the financial crimes he was accused of. Or, as he says in the play, “I have not committed treason, and sullied my good name.” He even wrote that he believed his wife “will approve, that even at so great an expence, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name, which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public too will I trust excuse the confession” (read the full text of Hamilton’s Reynold’s Pamphlet here).
Committed treason he did not, but sully his good name Hamilton certainly did. “Hamilton’s reputation was in tatters,” an article from the Smithsonian says, “Talk of further political office effectively ceased.” Now, 219 years later, can you even imagine living in nation that expects moral behavior from its politicians? Or where the politicians themselves take responsibility for their own behavior? Hamilton was so worried about the possibility of a stain on his reputation that he confessed to an affair. And even though he did down-play its severity in light of the other charges, he still said of the affair, “I bow to the just censure which it merits. I have paid pretty severely for the folly and can never recollect it without disgust and self condemnation.”
It is one of my favorite things about the play Hamilton that Hamilton takes responsibility for the affair, acknowledging that he should have said “no to this.” It doesn’t absolve Maria Reynolds of her role in seducing a married man, but there’s “No Slut Shaming in Hamilton” either (<- that blog post is what prompted me to listen to Hamilton for the first time). Today, we don’t expect people in the public eye to even take responsibility, much less to hold themselves to a certain standard of morality. We’re scandal-hungry and ready to offer judgement on celebrity short-comings, but we don’t expect anything better. Perhaps this trend will continue until there’s no longer any such thing as a socially accepted moral standard, but I hope not. And when history turns its eyes back on us, will they see a generation sliding farther into cultural decay, or one that took a stand and said, “We expect better things of our role-models and leaders”?
There are plenty of other moral, social, and political issues we could discuss. If history’s eyes really are on America today, what would you like to see change for the better in our generation? financial disparity between rich and poor? the foster care system? environmental issues? whether or not to forfeit our second amendment rights? Please share your thoughts in the comments (bonus points for using Hamilton quotes)!