I held out for as long as I could. My resistance was sustained chiefly by a stubborn contrarianism that resists as many trends as possible, particularly those that can be credibly connected to New York City, Washington, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.
But in the end I succumbed: I’m now a Hamilton fan.
The record-setting musical isn’t my typical taste in music, as you could probably deduce from simply looking at me. But the creativity, cleverness, and humor of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics combined with the undeniable talent of the performers, and the surprisingly strong historical work behind the musical won me over.
So for the past month I’ve been listening to Hamilton more or less non-stop while at work, while doing dishes or cooking, and while working on other writing projects. I may also have spent the better part of an hour on a recent date with my wife telling her about the musical and making her listen to a few of my favorite songs. (If you’re wondering: They were “Aaron Burr, Sir,” “You’ll Be Back,” “Non-Stop,” and “Cabinet Battle #1.”)
There’s been no shortage of commentary on Miranda’s remarkable work and I’d particularly recommend Alissa Wilkinson’s two pieces on it to you. Christine Perrin’s piece on how Hamilton is teaching us to love poetry again is also excellent.
The point I want to focus on, however, is how Hamilton approaches the question of patriotism in the United States and specifically how it justifies its patriotism. Much has, rightly, been made of the group’s minority cast and how it deconstructs ideas of American identity. (My wife laughed out loud when I told her the only white cast member was George III.) What I find particularly interesting about it though is how it allows us to take a very different approach to the question of patriotism, race, and the founding.
Race and the American Founding
Depending on the African-American writer you’re reading, America is either a great nation that has failed to live up to its ideals (MLK, most famously in his “I Have a Dream” speech) or it is a practically demonic nation that is, at its deepest roots, built upon a hatred for black people and marked by a willingness to use black people in any way that will promote the wealth of white Americans. Malcolm X exemplified this mentality when he said that black people didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on them. Marcus Garvey would fit this school as well, as would the Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates, I think.
For the first school, the problem isn’t with the American project but simply with the specific failings of white Americans to live up to the aspirations of that project. The latter school, in contrast, does not think America has failed, but has instead succeeded in the sense that America has done precisely what it was intended to do: Make white people rich through the systematic abuse of black people and other non-white groups, most notably Native Americans.
Interestingly, Hamilton seems to belong more to the former tradition, seeing America as a great country that simply hasn’t lived up to its ideals—”you great unfinished symphony” as Hamilton says in his dying moments. Some of this is more overt in the musical as when Hamilton and Lafayette enjoy a playful “immigrants / we get the job done!” line in “Yorktown.” But to limit the pro-American spirit of the musical to just a few lines is to misunderstand the work on a fairly basic level.
At its deepest levels, Hamilton is a profoundly American story that provides some justification for why even traditionally marginalized groups might love this country. The story’s protagonist, disadvantaged from his earliest days, pulls himself up by his bootstraps, depending on a mixture of personal genius, shrewd social maneuvering, and some luck to establish himself as one of the most powerful and influential men at the founding of our country. The fact that he did it, of course, means that anyone can do it, or at least anyone who is as talented and hard-working as Hamilton.
The regularly repeated line “There’s a million things I haven’t done / but just you wait, just you wait,” is not just a good line for Hamilton himself. It’s a line for many Americans throughout our country’s history and it is a line that could comfortably come from the lips of many more Americans who never do succeed at the million things they dream of doing. In this sense, Hamilton is simply an attempt to re-assert the radical nature of the American project and argue that in America anyone really can get ahead through the sort of hard work and individual genius that Hamilton himself exemplified.
The patriotism of Hamilton is distinctly contemporary.
But there’s a further point that can be made here: One of the enduring questions at the founding of our country and up to the present has concerned the actual meaning of our revolution. Adams and Jefferson debated this question in their dying days as the two estranged friends rebuilt their relationship. One point that has until recently enjoyed broad support amongst most Americans is that there is a certain set of political virtues that must be shared across the entire populace in order to sustain our republic.
This was a point that the founders all agreed on. The Democratic-Republican Madison said that “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.” The Federalist John Adams, likewise, said that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Franklin, who died not long after Washington took office also shared this assessment, saying “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
What is striking about Hamilton is that it has relatively little to say about this sort of political virtue or shared set of cultural norms. Hamilton sees an America whose chief characteristic is its meritocratic tendencies that answer the question which opens the musical:
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished,
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
In the story, individual moral failures are dealt with, such as Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds. Much is also made of slavery as a systemic evil in “Cabinet Battle #1.” Eliza returns to it again in the final song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” But beyond that the moral arguments of Hamilton are relatively limited. To some extent, this is likely a function of the genre. It is easier to delve into these sorts of cultural issues in detail in a series like the HBO miniseries on John Adams than it is in a musical.
That said, other musicals have been able to strongly evoke a shared way of life and the remarkable influence that such norms and public virtues can exert on a place. Fiddler on the Roof comes to mind. Les Miserables, one of Miranda’s inspirations, is also an interesting case here as the signature moral acts of the story are often one-off decisions made by central characters, much as in Hamilton. But whereas in Les Miserables those decisions accumulate over time to transform characters in stunning ways and create small worlds marked by those transformations, in Hamilton the characters do not change that much over the course of the story.
The Burr we meet in “Aaron Burr, Sir” is not that different from the Burr of the opening lines of “The World Was Wide Enough.” To be sure, Burr is deeply affected by Hamilton’s death in that same song, yet even there the transformation of Burr seems to be confined to an internal realm—his public life is changed due to factors wholly outside his control, which is a striking departure from the fates of Valjean and Javert after similarly shattering moral experiences in Les Miserables.
Meritocracy, Genius, and Public Life
For Hamilton, the drama and power of the story is in the complete picture of characters we are given from the moment of their introduction and as we see how those already-realized characters respond to a radically unstable, rapidly changing world around them. We know who Hamilton is after the first song, who Burr is after the second, and who Eliza and Angelica are after their first few songs. The drama of Hamilton isn’t in seeing these characters change, but in seeing how these relatively static characters face tremendous adversity and, in true American fashion, overcome it.
Because Miranda’s characters are so good and because the music and lyrics are fantastic, it works quite well. And in reflecting the meritocratic tendencies near the heart of the American project, it helps to explain the enduring appeal of that project, particularly to people who in other more traditional societies would have been permanently on the margins. Hamilton is, indeed, a very good answer to the question of how someone like an MLK could speak in such grandiose terms about the rights enshrined in America’s founding documents even after a lifetime of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the government established by those documents.
Yet the musical is also marked by (to say “suffers from” would be too harsh) a strange sort of individualism that doesn’t reckon with one of our republic’s most foundational questions: Can an individualistic meritocracy work without a general set of shared norms and public virtues that shape a place and sustain the structures that allow individual geniuses, like Hamilton, to flourish? This is a question that concerned men like Adams greatly. In Miranda’s telling, it seems to have not bothered Hamilton at all.
Perhaps an answer to such a large question is too much to expect of a musical. But the fact that I’m asking it at all suggests, first, that Miranda’s work does answer other challenging questions and that its quality is such that it doesn’t seem absurd to think it could address other complex questions as well. Ultimately, then, whatever criticisms we might make of Hamilton are tacitly noting the sheer genius of Miranda.