In the fashion of a cultural revolution, a new generation of Zinnified activists are cleansing the nation of all things perceived as “racist” or just not “anti-racist” enough. Schools are being renamed, classic brands are being cancelled, and statues all over the nation are being toppled.
There is one holdout, however: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about the American Founding, “Hamilton.” A recording of the musical premiered on Disney Plus on July 3.
There is much today’s anti-America rioters have to object to in the hit musical. It is patriotic and aspirational. Even worse, “Hamilton” upholds 1776 over 1619 as our true founding.
It also glorifies two slave holders: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Further, instead of burning the American flag, the musical has the audacity to wave Betsy Ross’ flag on stage.
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A Right to Equality
Perhaps most audacious is the musical’s antiquated notion that America was founded on the ideal of equality. According to Nicole Hannah-Jones, leader of the 1619 Project, when Jefferson wrote that “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, he was lying.
Miranda’s portrayal of the words falls more in line with Abraham Lincoln, who said the promise of equality was a proposition, something that needed to be acted upon. This was made clear when one of the lead female characters, Angelica Schuyler, sings,
I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine
So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane
You want a revolution? I want a revelation
So listen to my declaration:
‘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!
Angelica’s song is a recognition that equality wasn’t a reality, but an ideal. This is an important theme throughout the musical. The fact that equality did not extend to slaves is mentioned often in the play. One character states, “[B]ut we’ll never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.”
In the musical, the clear reality that equality had not yet been attained is not overlooked, but it also does not overshadow the huge strides towards equality that the American founding did make. One of the biggest themes in the play is how Alexander Hamilton was able to rise from obscurity to be one of the most powerful men in the country, something that would have been nearly impossible to do in Britain’s class-based society.
A Right to Freedom and Self Government
The antagonist in the first half of the musical is King George III. He is indignant that his subjects would dare rebel. He believes he has a divine right to rule. He sings, “You’ll be back, soon you’ll see. You’ll remember that you belong to me.” He then calls the colonists in America his “sweet, submissive subjects.”
In “The Story of Tonight,” Hamilton and his friends sing the words, “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away.” This is a reference to John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government,” which argues individuals have certain rights prior to joining a political community, and they take these rights with them into any social compact they make. These inalienable rights are to life, liberty, and property.
It is when these rights are infringed that a people have a right to rebel. This was the philosophy of the Sons of Liberty who threw the British tea into the Boston Harbor. As Hamilton asked, “Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?” Later he sings, “Essentially, they tax us relentlessly… He ain’t ever gonna set his descendants free So there will be a revolution in this century.”
The musical portrays an entire generation that longed for self-determination. They desired to act freely and independently, to decide their own fate, to make their own government.
One of Miranda’s most powerful songs is about the Federalist Papers, documents written by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay defending the new Constitution. In Federalist 1, Hamilton famously writes, “[It] seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
It is often forgotten now that Republicanism was out of vogue in the 18th century. The republics of Greece and Rome had proven to be disasters. Instead, absolute monarchies were the flavor of the century.
The American experiment was truly that: an experiment. An extended republic, one with a strong central government, clear separation of powers, a bicameral legislature, a federal system, and true accountability to the people, was tried for the first time.
For the first time in history, an entirely new form of government was created based on reason instead of force and on the principle that men have the capacity for self-government. Are we to erase this revolutionary discovery and the men who made it from our history because these same men were imperfect?
Imperfect People Who Still Did Great Things
Miranda provides the flesh and bones often missing from portrayals of the Founding Fathers. The Founders are neither portrayed as fairy tale characters chopping down cherry trees or stilted, flawless John Trumbull portraits.
Neither is the audience so thoroughly drenched in the characters’ flaws and compromises that the men as they actually were get lost. Yes, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, and Miranda rightly points this out. In one of the Cabinet battles, Hamilton expertly derides Jefferson for his hypocrisy. Calling him “Mr. Age of Enlightenment,” Hamilton states,
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey, neighbor
Your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor.
‘We plant seeds in the South. We create.’
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting.
Miranda shows the men of the founding generation, including Jefferson as they were, flawed, complicated, and despite that capable of greatness. We are reminded over and over that Jefferson penned the Declaration with its revolutionary principles. It is right to blame Jefferson for owning slaves, but it is wrong not to give him credit for writing the words that would eventually lead to their emancipation.
The audience’s first introduction to George Washington isn’t at the pinnacle of success, either. He might be the “model of a modern major general,” but he is also the general who was losing a seemingly unwinnable war.
As the song states, the Continental Army was out numbered, outgunned, and outplanned. The colonists were fighting the most powerful nation on earth. Victory was not inevitable. Washington was having trouble getting supplies from Congress, he couldn’t hold onto his men, and there was a great deal of infighting among the military leadership. All of this only shows what fortitude Washington demonstrated in the long fight for independence.
In one of the most touching songs of the musical, Washington sings, “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.” At the time of the Founding, the peaceful transition of power was a novelty. As King George expresses in one song, “George Washington’s yielding power and stepping away, is that true? I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.”
Washington is known for having said, “The peaceful transfer of power is what will separate our country from every other country in the world.” He was correct, and much of the world has followed America’s lead, saving countless lives that would have been lost to civil wars.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is right: we have no control over who tells our story. Those telling Washington’s story today tell it devoid of context, nuance, or grace. To them, he was solely an enslaver. He must be cancelled.
In Hamilton’s last song, however, he calls America a great unfinished symphony. Most Americans today agree that America is still yet to be perfected. We still endure repercussions from America’s original sins: slavery and segregation. Yet finishing or repairing a masterpiece is completely different than claiming that a thing was never a masterpiece and now deserves destruction. The two different approaches cannot be reconciled.