Hamilton & the Notion of a Nation

Photo courtesy Joan Marcus/Shane Marshall Brown

As we enter 2016, the view across the Pacific borders on terrifying. As the presidential primaries loom, a vast swathe of the United States electorate has embraced the politics of demagogy. Supporters of Trump, Cruz and Carson cheer at each call for a ban on immigration, for war, for building walls and for registers of citizens. Seven years of centrist-progressive governance by President Obama has fed a reaction that dearly wants to turn back the clock to an America that is further sub-divided, more restrictive and less tolerant.

I take solace in a counter-vision of the history venerated by the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus, playing in the heart of New York City. This popular and celebrated take on America’s founding fathers is musically diverse, forward-looking and, yes, inclusive.

The name is Hamilton, the hip-hop Broadway musical about America’s First Treasury Secretary: Alexander Hamilton, “the ten dollar founding father without a father.”

Like many Hamilton acolytes, I’ve fallen in love with the show without ever having seen a performance. The Broadway phenomenon of the year, if not the decade, its tickets are sold out until late in 2016. I’ve fallen in love solely based on the soundtrack album. That may sound ludicrous — if you haven’t given Hamilton a shot. Dare you.

Triple-threat composer, lyricist and star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius rests in marshalling a dizzying array of modern musical styles to tell his story. Cabinet debates are conceived as rap battles; the independent Schulyer Sisters evoke a Destiny’s Child super-group; the scorned King of England communicates with Brit-Pop break-up ballads. The result could seem like an extended parody, but the intention is entirely earnest; the result is a musical about “America then told by America today.”

Hamilton’s celebration of diversity permeates beyond the mix of musical influences, and into the casting. Though a glance at any textbook or pastel portrait will confirm that, yes, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson et al were indeed old white men, Miranda’s leads are portrayed by African American & Hispanic performers. This is no affectation, but a statement of intent; a reminder not only of the radicalism of America’s founding fathers, but the nation’s immigrant heritage. Indeed, the show’s biggest applause-winner comes as Alexander Hamilton, a bastard from the Caribbean, and Lafayette, a Frenchman, confer before the Battle of Yorktown. “Immigrants,” they sing, “We get the job done.”

I want to believe that the audiences applauding that line night after night in the sold-out the Richard Rogers Theatre on Broadway better represent modern America than those filling auditoriums in Iowa to cheer the racist rhetoric of Donald Trump. Despite Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, his message is one driven by fear, not hope. When the Schulyer sisters, walking through New York circa 1775, sing “Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now”, it is not nostalgia, but a reminder that our time is full of even greater possibilities and potential.

Hamilton does not skirt over the contradictions and hypocrisies of America’s revolutionary era, though it takes care not to perpetuate them. Angelica and Eliza Schuyler speak to audiences with a conspiratorial abandon their age would not allow; in ‘Satisfied’, Angelica’s first meeting with Alexander is ‘rewound’ and retold from her perspective, whilst in ‘Burn’ Eliza historical silence is reconfigured as a savage act of agency, as she destroys all correspondence with her philandering husband. America’s ‘original sins’ of slavery and gun violence and highlighted, but left unresolved. Lauren’s quest to win freedom for America’s slaves, leading “the first black battalion” in revolution ends with the all-too-familiar refrain for Civil Rights advocates: “Not. Yet.” An immature and reflexive recourse to guns to settle disputes claim the lives of Alexander Hamilton and his nineteen year old son, a toll with no end in sight.

Yet whilst Alexander’s rash, self-aggrandising nature ultimately leads him to tragedy, what both man and musical venerate about all else is conviction. Hamilton’s counterpoint is his frenemy Aaron Burr, a man of similar intellect and ability who is content to “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for”, waiting to exploit opportunity rather than holding forth on what he believes. As Alexander sets out to write the Federalist Papers, a defence of the newly penned Constitution, he laments to Burr:

“We studied and we fought and we killed for the notion of a nation we now get to build. For once in you life take a stand with pride, I don’t understand why you stand to the side.”

What Burr finally does mimic Hamilton’s single-minded pursuit of what he wants, the object is power, not principle. Burr wants to be “in the room where it happens”, and will do and say anything — whether it being switching parties, changing policies and betraying his friends — to make it a reality. In Burr we see the distant ancestor of every slick politician of opportunity, pandering and promising with a view of the Presidential office as an end, not a means of improving the nation. I am reminded of flip-flops from the well-coifed Marco Rubio repudiating the very immigration legislation he co-authored, or of Donald Trump’s outright lies about Syrian refugees intakes and minority crime rates, aimed at galvanising his conservative base.

Burr’s vacuity is put into sharp relief by Miranda’s treatment of Thomas Jefferson, the show’s erstwhile villain and Alexander Hamilton’s most staunch ideological opponent. Whilst the show and Hamilton himself delight in pointing out the Enlightenment icon’s hypocrisies (the defence of slavery from the man who wrote “All men are created equal” being perhaps the most egregious), his convictions are not questioned. This very conviction sets up the show’s devastating climax, as Hamilton endorses Jefferson in the 1800 Presidential Race over his frenemy Aaron Burr, because: “Jefferson has beliefs — Burr has none.”

Yet this America is only possible because its Founders built a system which supports decision making via language and reason, rather than force. Hamilton’s policy disputes are articulated and settled with words (well, raps in Miranda’s universe). Bitter opponents Hamilton and Jefferson manage to compromise their way towards titanic policies like the establishment of a national bank; such achievements should shame a modern US Congress that instead opts for brinkmanship at every sign of discord. Words are the source of Hamilton’s power and his successes — and, by extension, America’s. Violence presages loss, and reflects back our failures.

For all the battles the enliven Hamilton’s War of Independence, the most revolutionary act on-stage  is a non-violent one: George Washington’s decision to give up his presidential power. “I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do,” croons the bewildered, foppish King George. It is a lesson that needs to be re-learned by rulers and former revolutionaries the world over, our Assads, Putins and Mugabes, who cannot conceive of leaving their people to fend for themselves. President Obama’s own eight years are coming to their end, and though the race to replace him has hardly been an edifying spectacle, it is nonetheless a reminder that American democracy is in more robust health than many of its contemporaries. This very retirement has also spurred Obama to take executive action on contentious issues such as climate change and, this week, gun control, liable to be deemed vote-losers in a general election by today’s multitude of Burrs.

For all the sound and fury that has accompanied the Republican debates and outbursts of Donald Trump, the United States conjured by Hamilton is still to be found in the work of government and ordinary citizens. It is the America that raises nearly half a million dollars to help Syrian refugees resettle in Michigan in response to a Humans of New York story (just as donors helped a young Alexander Hamilton pay his way to New York City over two centuries ago); an America unafraid of nuance and debate.

In this election year, certain to impact many billions of the world’s population who have no say in it, I am left to hope that there are still a majority who believe in Hamilton’s notion of a nation; where immigrants and outsiders are welcomed, and freedom is not only prized, but practised. Or, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: “Take a stand with pride. I don’t understand why you stand to the side.”


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