Hamilton Rocks The Future Of History


Can one musical save our past and future?
After years of waiting, I finally saw Hamilton last week in Los Angeles. My wife and I were absolutely spellbound the whole time – dumbfounded masses of quivering goosebumps dripping with tears and snot, gasping for air as certain moments punched us right in the soul. I recommend it.

Me seeing Hamilton
Setting aside for a moment the brilliant writing, acting, singing, choreography, and everything else that makes this possibly the best thing to come out of Broadway ever, I want to talk about the greatest non-Hamilton thing I love about Hamilton: it’s sparking an interest in history that goes well beyond the musical. 

My mission with this blog has always been to bring the personalities of historical figures to life through their lesser-known stories, and I relish the way Hamilton excels in its similar mission. By humanizing these characters from American history text books and showing them with relatable emotions and struggles (and killer rhymes), Hamilton doesn't just make history palatable, like cherry-flavored medicine – it makes it enthralling, addictive. Hamilton is a gateway drug to real history.

I’m seeing young history fans passionately discussing John Laurens and Lafayette with the same devotion I remember kids talking about Han Solo and Boba Fett. People who never cared about history are starting to care, and they're becoming new audiences for people who always cared about history. Like the 15-year-old author of this Tumblr, rattling off 39 historical inaccuracies in Hamilton:

This kid is insane, man.
The Hamilton drug is psychoactive, and its effects may be permanent if we're lucky. Hamilton brainwashes the next generation into valuing recently abandoned American ideals like hard work, integrity, perseverance, intelligence, intellectual curiosity, loyalty, love, compromise, and forgiveness, at the same time it condemns vices like pride and infidelity.

It used to go without question that these were American ideals – universal human ideals even. But in a world turned upside down, we could use a reminder that certain values are coveted and others are dangerous, especially in leaders. Hamilton fans who seek out Alexander's nonstop writing may find this illuminating quote about the danger of demagogues:
from Yale Professor and author Joanne Freeman's Twitter
Hamilton's influence could not have come at a better time. When the leader of the country compares a Confederate general to George Washington, Hamilton reminds people what George Washington actually believed in. When the role immigrants played in building the United States is minimized to further a nationalist agendaHamilton shows what an absurd misrepresentation that is of our history. 

When we’re told we must build a wall around this country to make it great, Hamilton breaks through the fourth wall to reveal that America’s greatness comes from enlightenment thinking and ideals of the human spirit that have no borders.

from Hamilton: The Revolution
I can’t help but think of another Lin-Manuel Miranda project, Moana, which my daughter is absolutely obsessed with. (It’s like her Hamilton.) In a beautiful moment along her hero’s journey Moana is asked, “Do you know who you are?” The song seems like a companion piece to Hamilton, not just as a question for Moana or Alexander to answer but also for the young nation: America, do you know who you are? 

We’re still asking that question two centuries later. Moana learned her ancestors were voyagers, and that applies to Americans too – we were geographic and intellectual voyagers, using the lessons of the past to chart an unknown course forward. Because, like Hamilton, there are still a million things we haven’t done. We haven’t put a person on Mars yet. We've made substantial progress but we have yet to achieve true equality. We’ve never even impeached and removed a president from office. These are just examples. 

Hamilton didn’t make history cool. (History has always been cool.) But Hamilton made more people interested in the truth about the past and its applications to the present. As it expands to more locations and punches more theatergoers in the soul, its influence will only grow. That could be a damn good thing for the future.

We'll just have to wait for it.

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2 comments:

  1. I got here from a Hamilton Facebook fan group. As an American History buff, I feel the same way about the musical being a gateway drug to American History. Hopefully they will learn what the founders really believed, which doesn't map neatly onto our current political spectrum, either "liberal" or "conservative."

    Hamilton of all the founders would be appalled at how we've abandoned any attempt at fiscal responsibility, since he didn't think debt was wonderful in itself, but could be a useful instrument IF CONTROLLED and paid off. It's typically been the Democrats who've blithely dismissed that restriction, and the previous administration certainly did.

    All the founders would be appalled at how we've exchanged liberty and reliance upon local community for giving a behemoth bureaucracy the power to manage our lives in minute detail. It was Madison who said "It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood." And that's where we are, and have been since Woodrow Wilson. And Hamilton would agree.

    All the founders were nationalists - they wanted America to be different from Europe and they were proud of that. The Left's constant seeking after the approval of international organizations as well as its arrogant authoritarianism would also appall them.

    Hamilton was a law and order guy, more so than many founders. He hated mobs. He was frightened by and disgusted by the French Revolution, whose regime was the ancestor of the USSR, Castro, the Khmer Rouge, Mao, Maduro, the Weathermen, and various other revolutionaries of the 60s. The current iteration of those mobs is antifa.

    Nobody wants to build a wall "around" America. Some people want to build a wall on our southern border to control unchecked illegal entry. Almost everyone wants immigration of people who follow the rules and bring contributions to the nation, like Mirands's and my parents. Those people have been treated with contempt by those who encourage illegal immigration to get votes. Legal immigrants of all colors tend to be entrepreneurs, and tend to vote for the people who are most likely to encourage and support them, and that's not the bureaucracy-mongers who encourage dependency.

    I discovered the passage you quoted about "little arts of popularity" around 2012, which I thought described Obama very well, and I was disturbed the voters fell for his corrupt Chicago Way machine politics, which were developed in NYC by Burr, an early member of the Tammany society, and was one of the reasons Hamilton tried to thwart Burr's ascendency. Those Democratic machines have run Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia for many decades. It used to run NYC, the direct descendant of Burr's approach to politics. It looks like we're reverting to that again with DeBlasio.

    People from all corners of the globe want to come here because America is different from their home countries. They believe in American exceptionalism as the founders did. The Anglosphere and Western Civilization ideas of governance based on liberty aren't racial - anyone who thinks they are doesn't get the founders or he people who are trying to put individual liberty and voluntary community back in the driver's seat. Identity politics based on favors from authoritarian leaders comes from the old world.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to share your opinions. I've written before about how it's impossible to confidently say what someone who lived 200 years ago would think about modern issues, and I tried to focus to how the founders and Hamilton the musical remind us of *American* and not conservative or liberal ideals. It should not be taken as an attack on any party when I praise things like hard work, honesty, and reading. If I had to guess, I'd say Alexander Hamilton would be appalled by lots of things today, including how some people got so far without ever being challenged to a duel.

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