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18 February, 2018

A Short Defense of the Musical Hamilton

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I am a fan of the musical Hamilton. My willingness to acclaim its merits is quite shameless, actually. This may strike some readers as odd, and perhaps strangely arbitrary. One of Hamilton’s main selling points is its casting of Hispanic and black leads to play historical figures who were in reality lily-white. As with the casting, so with the rest of the production. The entire play is an attempt to translate the events of the American revolution into the idiom of 21st century “inner city” America. But isn’t this just political correctness doing its thing? How can I celebrate this musical on the one hand while turning my nose down on most all attempts to “modernize” Shakespeare with 21st century settings, clothing, gender-swaps, and so forth, on the other?

My answer has to do with a distinction I see between history and heritage.

As a teenager I was a member of a small Mormon congregation in southern Minnesota. Every year, around the last week of November, this congregation would create a special display that would draw hundreds of people to our church house. We hosted what we described as “the largest nativity collection in Minnesota.” A living, breathing nativity scene would meet guests in the foyer (we would all take part—I once role-played a shepherd for several hours), but that was just an introduction to the real treat: hundreds and hundreds of little nativity scenes gathered from all over the world were displayed in the various rooms and halls of the church. Some were carved of wood, others of jade, and others from more ordinary stones. Some were welded from metal. Some were cast in plastic moulds. Each was unique. They all had a baby Jesus, of course, and a mother Mary, father Joseph, and so forth. But no two Marys looked alike. A close look at the scenes would show that each reflected the place that created it: the Peruvian nativity included a llama to witness the Christ-child’s birth, the scene from Kerala was ringed with palm trees, and the beautiful set from Japan showcased a Mary who was quite clearly Japanese. My favorite of the bunch was a small set from somewhere in Polynesia. It was long enough ago that I don’t quite remember the exact island it came from (in those days I lacked the knowledge to appreciate the distinction between objects made in Christchurch and in Apia anyway), but I remember the warmth that radiated out from this carefully carved Pacific rendition of the Christmas story.

I suppose it would be quite easy to pull the plug on all of this nonsense and fault each of those nativities as historical heresies. Christ was not born on a Pacific isle. No llamas were present to hear his first cries. His mother was not Japanese. But this objection rather misses the point. The story of Jesus Christ’s birth heralds glad tidings for all mankind. It claims to be the opening saga of the salvation and exaltation of every man, woman, and child who ever has or ever will live on the Earth. The Christmas story is not just a historical account—it is part of the Christian heritage, and this heritage is freely given, meant to be claimed by any living being with hope in Christ. Where they come from or what they look like does not matter. The story belongs to them. Each of those beautiful little nativity scenes was an affirmation of this truth. Christ may not have been Mexican, or Swedish, or Tahitian, but his message is no less meaningful to the people living in those countries than it was the Jews of the first millennium. These scenes testify a simple faith: this story is also our story!

The Christian story is not the only shared one.

The men who fought and died in the American revolution did so not only for themselves, but also for their posterity—indeed for the broader human race, whom they believed would be blessed by their vanguard fight for liberty. They justified their attempt at independence in radically universal language:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
These are powerful things to claim—claims worth dying for. Yet the hope of those who signed that Declaration was not just that men would die for the vision it contains, but that men would live for it. Live we have. And with us lives this vision. The revolution waged to secure the future of these ideals has become a part of the common heritage of the American people. All Americans—no matter their sex, age, or race—have claim to this heritage. It exists to benefit us all.

Like those nativity scenes, Hamilton is an affirmation. “This story is also our story. We too claim these values.” It is true, the leading lights of the American revolution were not black or Hispanic. But if you have even the teeniest belief that the principles they fought for are as valuable to black and Hispanic Americans as they are to the rest of the country, then you must support this musical's aims. For the play is correct: the story is their story. This is America. The story belongs to all of us.

6 comments:

Brett said...

I had not thought about it that way. Thank you for this piece.

Unknown said...

It's a good defense, but I don't agree with this
"The men who fought and died in the American revolution did so not only for themselves, but also for their posterity—indeed for the broader human race, whom they believed would be blessed by their vanguard fight for liberty."

They fought for their posterity, as the Declaration says, but not for the whole human race, that's a very modern take on what our country is about. The founders, and reasonably the soldiers as well, were White Nationalists. They not only didn't want non-whites to be citizens, many didn't want non-British people in their country.

It seems to be common for every modern ideologue to claim that the Founders really believed in their ideology. The American Revolutionaries certainly were not fighting for the modern Diverse Americans.

T. Greer said...

You underestimate just how diverse the America of the founding really was. E pluribus unum is not a fresh idea.

This diversity extended to politics. The leaders of the revolution of 1776 were not a unitary bunch. If "nationalist," many were not American nationalists, but Massachusetts nationalists, Virginia nationalists, and so forth. Even other white men were too diverse for them (which is another way of saying that race was not the most salient category for many). Some were--or like Hamilton and Washington, through the war would become--nationalists of the first order. But even a nationalist commitment to the American project led to different positions on things like immigration. Some of the Declaration signers would go on to welcome immigrants of "non-British" descent (in any case, the Middle states were so thoroughly non-British already that it was a bit of a moot point). Some, like Hamilton, tried to restrict the franchise and keep those folks out. This is probably my biggest criticism of the play actually--it turns Hamilton into an immigration hero, when in life he was associated with the Alien acts. Tom Jefferson and his boys were the folks in favor of letting the huddles masses of Europe into the country.

In any case, this is all besides your main point. Your argument rests on a false dichotomy. Creating a free country for their posterity was not, in their eyes, something separate from fighting for the human race. They did them both. You cannot read their pamphlets, correspondence, and public addresses and escape the universalism of their rhetoric. They believed their revolution was one of the great breaks in human history--one of those moments that would change the face of mankind forever. They would be creating, for the first time in history, a rationally designed government affirmed by the people at large.

T. Greer said...

Just to give you a flavor of this sort of talk, here is how Thomas Paine opens Common Sense:

The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested.

Here is Madison in Federalist 14:

"To this manly spirit, posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favor of private rights and public happiness. Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. "

And so on and so forth. They conceptualized the Revolution as a guide to the tyrannized all over the Earth. Some, like Paine and many Jeffersonian Republicans, were happy to have the tyrannized come to America itself. Others merely wished to lead by example. Henry Clay's South America speeches are an excellent example of this type of thinking, one generation down the line. But in all cases (well, at least until Calhoun and the positive good slavery types started to emerge in the 1830s) the notion that liberty, property, and life itself were inalienable rights of every man on the Earth, no matter their color or creed, was sacrosanct. The revolution was fought for many material things. But it was also fought because of this idea. It is an idea that deserves to be cherished, treasured, and shared to all Americans--and to be frank, all non-Americans as well. If that means retelling the story of the American revolution with hip-hop beats, why not?

Unknown said...

My bad, I guess when I read you I went a little fast. I kind of assumed you were talking about immigration, since that's what I'm used to seeing in mainstream publications. I can see how the Founding Fathers wanted their own country but also hoped for nationalism and democracy for all peoples.

xcalibur said...

The American Revolutionary War was fought for the principles of the Enlightenment, which are universal in nature. The US was an experiment, testing the hypothesis: Can a representative Republic, based on Enlightenment principles such as rights and social contract, succeed in the real world? Well over 200 years later, I believe the results are in. In spite of many shortcomings and challenges, the answer is yes. The Constitution still stands, and the ideals it represents are a standard of proper government in the West and elsewhere.

The Founding Fathers deserve credit and recognition for this. Also, applying current ideological trends (in this case, identity politics and the moral panic over white nationalism & fascism) to the early modern period is very anachronistic.