Hamilton, the Fourth of July, and What it Means to Be an American
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
I have a confession to make:
I have only just now seen the 2016 Broadway phenomenon that is “Hamilton: An American Musical.”
I know, I am very late to this party. As a musical theatre-lover, and especially as a historian, I thought it my duty to listen to the soundtrack when it first came out, but somehow I never got around to it. And getting tickets to any show was out of the question—kudos to those lucky lottery winners! But when Disney Plus made it available yesterday, I knew I had to sit down and watch. Its timing in being released just before the 4th of July was no coincidence, and I decided I would immerse myself in this tale of a founding father who, admittedly, I knew very little about.
And I confess—I was not captivated by the first song, or the second, or third. It took a bit of time to adjust my preconceived notions of musicals to what I was actually seeing and hearing—this was no ordinary musical or historical fiction piece. This was something else entirely, and I had to get my toes wet before I could fully appreciate this new medium.
And then “The Schuyler Sisters” came on. And here was a girl-power ballad that grabbed me and began to pull me into this world of history, hip hop, rap, clever witticisms, and beat boxing, all set against the backdrop of the American Revolution and days of founding that we all thought we knew. And as each musical number came on after the other (for surprisingly there is very little non-musical dialogue in this Herculean show with no less than 46 songs), I was entranced, captivated, urged to think and question and remember those history lessons in school.
The stage production itself deserves an entire essay: the deconstructed costumes of the ensemble with their nod to colonial accoutrements but made for dancers in nude-colored leggings and shiny black boots; the dramatic lighting that bounces between blues and reds with each turn of emotion or drama; the depiction of the Battle of Yorktown, the turning point in the War of Independence and its beautiful choreography; the attention to detail as we moved from the late 1700s to the early 1800s in the styles of dress, more fitted and somber coats for the men, and empire waists and Spencer jackets for the ladies as they shucked their corsets; the minimal but cleverly mobile stage set with its stairways and soapboxes.
The voices of each cast member as they embodied different figures and ideals: the deep, rich voice of a wig-less George Washington, our brave leader who is quite human in his fear, and superhuman in his ability to walk away from absolute power; the wonderful French-accented notes of the Marquis de Lafayette, who passionately defends his American friends; the velvet tones of Aaron Burr, a man characterized as walking the middle of the road, never rocking the boat, getting ahead by not standing for something, which as he learns, does not work; the strong, playful, mocking tones of Thomas Jefferson as he battles Hamilton and rejoices in his failures, even while grudgingly admitting he did some useful things with the Treasury; the powerhouse voices that belong to Angelica and Eliza Schuyler as they sing of the twists, turns, navigations, and struggles of women during this time period; the comedic perfection of King George as he watches from the sidelines as his wayward children break from the bounds of his “paternal love” and try to fend for themselves; and of course, Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, who while lacking in the rich baritones of his counterparts, demonstrates the sometimes lost and conflicted voice of this perceived outsider, and at others pulls forth excitement and passion as his words fall, almost tripping over one another in their haste to get out, much as Hamilton’s own writings were almost innumerable with all the things he wanted to say.
Of course, the show does get a few things wrong or takes liberties with historical accuracy. One of the most egregious errors is the reduction of John Adams, who is not even a physical character in the show, to two sentences on how he “doesn’t have a real job” and “has shit all over the presidency.” While Adams is not necessarily known for being an expert politician, one must remember that in the wake of his predecessor, George Washington, expectations could hardly have matched with reality, especially when this new government was still reeling from its war and already facing new threats from the conflict between the French and the British. As a political philosopher, rather than a politician, as the government website for the White House notes, Adams is best remembered. His letters to his wife Abigail Adams, preserved in David McCullough’s “John Adams,” demonstrate not only his keen philosophical mind, but his regard for his wife as his equal in all matters, domestic or political, and show his complete and utter abhorrence for the enslavement of black peoples, which he staunchly fought against even while others like Jefferson, that very writer of the phrase “All men are created equal,” kept huge plantations.
With all of the events happening in America right now—the pandemic, the murders and abuses by police who shame the name of officer and human being, the protests and the election cycles and the divisions that split us every which way—seeing this show helped me to codify for myself what the history of America, and what being an American, means to me. As all art does, this show reflected my own society, my own history, my own origins, back onto myself, while simultaneously showing me different points of view, people who were flawed and made both good and bad decisions in their lifetimes, people who tried to make the right decision at each new turn, those who were willing to compromise their humanity and integrity, and those who were not. As George Washington says in one of the best songs of the show, “History has its eyes on you.” History has its eyes on us all, and we must meet its gaze fearlessly, with humility, contrition, and action for decisions that were wrong, and with pride and a desire to continue the good work of the decisions made that empowered all peoples to live as free Americans in this land.
This 4th of July, I pause to remember the origins of our nation, one that is not 244 years old, but is as ancient as the world itself. I think on those men, those leaders, who committed treason against an unjust king and committed their new ideals of freedom to paper. I think centuries back to the Magna Carta of 1215, which was the first such document to spell out abuses of power and demand the right of the people to be heard by their government. I think thousands of years back to the ancient Greeks, from whose ideas of democracy stems ours.
And I also think across the thousands of years when the inhabitants of this land lived, and hunted, and fought wars, and made peace, and fixed their governments and cosmologies before any European landed on these shores. I think of the wars and conquests to the south where the Spanish imprinted the land with searches for gold and the blood of indigenous peoples. I think of the promises made by the English and French and Dutch to the Iroquois, the Massachusett, the Algonquin tribes, which were almost all reneged. I think on the expansion of the slave trade from Africa, where leaders traded their people to Europeans, who then expanded this industry of human flesh to such a scale it reached across the Atlantic.
I think of all the wars waged, on battlefields and in the hearts of men and women: of those who died in the Civil War fighting to make those words in the Constitution a reality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all [humans] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I think of founders like John Adams, who even in his own time knew that the enslavement of another fellow human was the grossest sin, and refused to have any part in this unjust system, even when his contemporaries held plantations and hundreds of lives in their hands. I think of Frederic Douglass and his words at seeing the statue funded by former enslaved peoples like himself, “Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the lesson of our history in the United States...shall survey the long and dreary spaces over which we have travelled...they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of...pride.”
I think of all the men and women who have stood up through the years to defend this nation, and make those ideals that we all learn in school a reality. I think of the men and women in our armed forces, from those revolutionary heroes on their apotheosized pedestals like George Washington, who stepped away from power so that we would know what it meant to serve people first, instead of personal vanities. To the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) aviators of WWII, who stepped out of traditional gender roles to go fight for their country. To the Navajo code talkers, whose efforts took down the Nazis. To my great aunt who served in the army, to my grandfather and uncles and father, who all heeded the call.
Oh think back on how much blood and sweat and tears, the true red, white, and blue, that have gone into the history and building and tearing down and rebuilding of the meaning of those words in that piece of paper that binds us to our higher ideals which we sometimes have yet to fully practice, but which we must continue to strive for every day. Because our founders, the flawed men that they were, gave us the guidelines and the means to add to them when we see they are not being executed. And if we really love this country and feel pride in being American, as I do, then we will make sure it is a country that lives up to these ideals and offers safe harbor, opportunity, and happiness for all under its embrace.
As Lin-Manuel Miranda encapsulates so well in these lyrics:
“The Constitution’s a mess.”
“So it needs amendments.”
“It’s full of contradictions.”
“So is independence...
We studied and we fought and we killed
For the notion of a nation that we now get to build.”
To all of my fellow Americans, let’s keep building. Happy 4th of July.
The Presidential biographies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The Presidents of the United States of America,” by Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey. Copyright 2006 by the White House Historical Association. https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/john-adams/.
McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Miranda, Lin-Manuel and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton: The Revolution. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2016.
“Oration by Frederick Douglass Delivered on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument, April 14, 1876.” Smithsonian Institution. https://edan.si.edu/transcription/pdf_files/12955.pdf.
All images of the show “Hamilton” do not belong to me, but to the production and are under its copyright.
Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull, 1818, oil on canvas, U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., image after Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_Independence_(Trumbull).
Navajo Code Talkers image after CNN, at https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/28/us/navajo-code-talkers-trump-who/index.html.
American Flag Image after Pinterest, at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/502714377130065946/.