Hamilton is being performed as American institutions are being convulsed by a collective identity crisis over how to reconcile the realities of the past with the ideals of the present. At its best, this crisis has led to the sort of vigorous public debate seen in South Carolina, whose state legislature voted in June to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of its Capitol. At its worst, the crisis has taken an Orwellian turn at elite universities, where the complexity of the American experience is being consigned to a fate even worse than the dustbin of history: annihilation by academic committee. Harvard Law School’s dean has appointed a committee to explore replacing the school’s seal because it incorporates the family crest of a slaveholder who endowed the University’s first professorship of law. At the same time, the heads of Harvard’s residential colleges unanimously agreed to abandon the medieval academic title “Master” because it had also been a slaver’s word. (Whether Harvard stops dispensing Master’s degrees remains to be seen.)
History is not a process of free association; nor can historical injustices be rectified by banishing offensive artifacts from view. History is a discipline—a gathering of evidence to reconstruct the past and a critical exploration of its contradictions and complexities. If there is a single unifying theme in American history, it is this nation’s ongoing struggle to live up to its founding ideals—a struggle that has played out on the battlefield, in the courtroom, in the political process, and in the shaping of popular sensibilities.
This is why Hamilton is so important. It both depicts and embodies the dynamism and synthesis at the heart of America’s founding. It does so primarily through an artistic medium, hip-hop, in which synthesis is an essential creative device. Hip-hop artists sample musical refrains, lyrics, and dialogue in their work, engaging in an ongoing discourse with musicians of the past while creating something new in the process.
The “dead white men” of the founding generation are portrayed as complex, imperfect individuals by a largely non-white cast. Color-blind casting this is not.To be sure, the intellectual, political, and constitutional synthesis at the heart of independence and nationhood ran far deeper than the sampling of a catchy hook here and there. But the rapid-fire lyrics of hip-hop in Hamilton manage to evoke the fast-and-furious pamphleteering through which ideas were disseminated during the founding period, as well as the long historic provenance of those ideas. Colonial appeals to principles such as political representation and due process of law were not fabricated from whole cloth, but derived from historic rights under the British Constitution dating back to Magna Carta. And after those rights were vindicated on the battlefield of revolution, Americans forged a new government rooted in historical experience, not in abstract philosophical principles.
The government framed in 1789 represents a synthesis of the best attributes of the British Constitution with political principles refined during the Enlightenment based on the lessons (both cautionary and salutary) of ancient and modern republics. The Constitution contained the mechanisms for further dynamism and synthesis as the American experiment continued. The amendment process established under Article V yielded the Bill of Rights, the abolition of slavery, and other attempts to create “a more perfect union” over successive generations.
The casting of Hamilton speaks to this dynamism. The “dead white men” of the founding generation are portrayed as complex, imperfect individuals by a largely non-white cast. Color-blind casting this is not. Race is conspicuous and salient, serving to underscore the paradoxes of a nation founded on ideals of liberty and equality but in which both were denied to vast segments of the population. But at the same time, the casting highlights the durability of those founding ideals.
Just as the new nation has reinvented itself over time, the protean cast reinvents itself between acts. Act One’s Marquis de Lafayette, that great friend of revolutionary America, becomes the Francophile Thomas Jefferson in Act Two. Revolutionary-era spy Hercules Mulligan becomes political tactician and theorist James Madison. And John Laurens, the abolitionist son of the prominent South Carolinian slave trader Henry Laurens, becomes Hamilton’s own young son. This is called “doubling” in the theater, and in this case, doubling works to personify the transfer of American ideals from war to peace, rebellion to governance.
Miranda’s musical composition is likewise highly suggestive of the synthesis of high and popular culture that occurred during the Revolution. The pamphlet battles of the imperial crisis are distilled into Purcellian counterpoint as the loyalist cleric Samuel Seabury and a teenage Alexander Hamilton confront each other (quite literally) in the bustling marketplace of revolutionary ideas. This single encounter, in which Seabury implores his listeners to throw themselves upon the King’s love and mercy, yields to the thundering outbreak of war. With New York Harbor under relentless siege, General Washington takes stock of his dwindling resources. Here, the guttural snarls of Missy Elliott’s hip-hop song “Lick Shots” (slang for “open fire”) punctuate the sound of heavy artillery. And as the British ultimately surrender at the Battle of Yorktown, a chorus sings snatches of the English drinking song “The World Turned Upside Down.”
This last musical quotation is no mere artistic flourish. By the 1830s, “The World Turned Upside Down” had become part of American apocrypha, as it was said that Lord Cornwallis’s troops grimly sang the song as their commander surrendered at Yorktown. While it is doubtful that this actually happened, the significance would not have been lost on earlier generations of Americans. The song’s title conveys the historical import of America’s victory of Britain, but the lyrics themselves (which were written during the English Civil Wars a century earlier) offer a cautionary tale of the excesses of revolution. The song laments the repression of Christmas celebrations by a puritanical parliament: “Command is given, we must obey, and quite forget old Christmas day:/ Kill a thousand men, or a Town regain, we will give thanks and praise amain.”
The American Revolution did not go the way of the English Revolution of the 1640s or, for that matter, most revolutions of the modern era. In America, appeals to ancient rights and liberties did not end in totalitarianism, zealotry, thoughtcrime, and repression. Rather, the American Revolution was founded in liberty and has tended toward liberty ever since. The expansion of the franchise, the emancipation of slaves, and the extension of civil rights to women and minorities have all been part of the process through which successive generations have tried to give force and meaning to the Spirit of ’76.
Hamilton is at its best when it addresses just how improbable it was that the American experiment survived its first few decades. The Confederation period before the election of the first president and the drafting of the Constitution barely get a passing mention. (A problematic number on Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 did not make it into the Broadway production.) But the Washington administration is treated with great sensitivity and insight, revealing the singularity of our first president’s leadership. Rap battles during Cabinet meetings signal the early emergence of sectional differences, the ticking political time bomb represented by slavery, and the precarious geopolitical position of the young republic as Britain and France warred in the Atlantic. “Winning was easy,” Washington tells Hamilton. “Governing’s harder.”
Hamilton’s treatment of the greatest scandal in Hamilton’s life is particularly ingenious. A prolific writer, Hamilton was mindful that future generations would judge him by what was written about him during his own lifetime, so he spared no ink in challenging his detractors. When a blackmail scheme surrounding his marital infidelities threatened to destroy his reputation, he did what any modern PR guru would recommend: He preempted his enemies by confessing the scandal, publishing details of the sordid episode in a pamphlet.
In the show, the pamphlet goes viral at a frenzied 142 beats per minute, the sort of dubstep rhythm one would hear at a drug-addled rave. Electronic percussion is layered with an orgy of taunts, mockery, and gasps of revulsion as a riveted public crisscrosses the stage, pamphlets in hand. And in the quiet personal heartbreak that follows, Hamilton’s betrayed wife sits alone on a dark stage, burning her husband’s love letters (a bit of creative license on Miranda’s part).
Hamilton succeeds in sending Americans back to their roots at a time when too many are quick to tear them up and cast them aside.Then there is the character of Aaron Burr, who represents the greatest interpretive challenge of all.The show represents Burr as Hamilton’s fratricidal twin—a man, like Hamilton, of boundless ambition but, unlike Hamilton, devoid of principle. Indeed, Burr’s own contemporaries barely knew what to make of him. His acquittal of treason in 1807 remains one of American history’s greatest what-ifs, yet he will forever be remembered as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton. But did he mean to do it? Leslie Odom’s Burr seems shocked when his bullet hits its mark. And did Hamilton intend to kill Burr? We will never know. Hamilton presents this ambiguity with great delicacy.
But Hamilton is art, not history. Miranda omits Hamilton’s final excruciating hours during which he pled for last rites from an Episcopal bishop, who doubted that his was a soul worthy of redemption. The bishop eventually relented, and one of Hamilton’s final acts was to forgive Burr.
Sticklers may bristle at the characterization of Lafayette as a champion of freedom, at the fudging of the young nation’s financial history, and at the compression of ideas and events over time. Nevertheless, Miranda’s masterwork captures in unlikely and innovative ways the electrifying synthesis that has animated American history since the Founding. To the extent that Hamilton succeeds in sending Americans back to their roots at a time when too many are quick to tear them up and cast them aside, this work of art accomplishes more than a formal work of history ever could.
Bernard Bailyn has written that history is a craft, “never a science, sometimes an art,” in that it demands that the historian balance the scholarly quest for objectivity with the subjective experience of memory. He described this challenge in the context of the study of the slave trade: “We can approach the subject objectively, impersonally, but only up to a point, beyond which we find ourselves emotionally involved. The whole story is still within living memory, and not only for people of African descent. We are all in some degree morally involved and must consider the relationship of history and memory.” Bailyn’s artful historian is mindful of this tension and responsive to it.
This approach is not representative of the more fashionable currents in American historiography that are responsible, at least in part, for the broader cultural crisis in which Hamilton appears. Over the course of recent decades, American scholars have attempted to transform the historian into a moral censor by conflating the craft of history with the experience of memory. By this account, it is not enough for the historian to attempt to reconstruct the past and understand it on its own terms. Rather, the historian has a moral responsibility to condemn the past and its role as the progenitor of present injustices. The historiographical focus turns from sweeping narratives, which are characterized as triumphalist or morally obtuse, to narrow accounts of disenfranchised peoples—subjects worthy of study to be sure, but not to the exclusion of all else.
Taken to the extreme, this approach compromises not only the study but the teaching of American history. If the “dead white men” of the founding era are written off as hypocrites, then studying their achievements is tantamount to whitewashing their irredeemable moral defects. As the writing and teaching of American history becomes more fragmentary and censorious, so too does the possibility of students achieving a genuine understanding of the nation’s past. It is little wonder, then, that campus protestors frequently fixate on artifacts, stripped of context, as symbols of ongoing injury: It is easy to view a symbol as a direct personal affront when one is ignorant of its multivalence and complexity.
Today’s controversies might be over the sheaves of wheat on Harvard Law School’s crest, the statue of the slavery-preaching politician and theorist John Calhoun on Yale University’s campus, and the openly racist Woodrow Wilson’s name on Princeton’s School of Public Policy. But it is only a matter of time before the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial come under fire as national celebrations of slaveholders. The crowning achievement of Hamilton is that it encourages the audience to treat the past not as a moral affront to the present, but as a challenge to it. It forces the audience to view the founding generation as neither heroes nor villains, but as individuals faced with formidable choices in transformative times. What is more, it dares the members of the audience to imagine how they will continue the story that began in 1776. The signal achievement of Hamilton is that it invites the audience to be part of the creative synthesis that the production represents.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Why Hamilton Matters
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.