Just You Wait: Reflections on Hamilton, Founders Chic and the Need for an Example in the post-truth era
There were two types of people in high school in the late 90s: those that screamed and swooned and became haunted with a lost look in their eyes at the mention of Tori bloody Amos (I mean Christ I had friends who wrote flipping research papers about her) with a log-lady like protectiveness, and those that wondered what the fuck they were on about.
I must confess, dear reader, I fell into the latter.
I fell outside the clove-cigarette smoking circle.
I couldn’t tell you y Tori kant read.
And I was never a Cornflake Girl.
Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty of her music; perhaps it’s just envy or frustration that I missed the rapturous mass convrersion to the Church of Tori.
So it goes with most obsessive fads: Harry Potter, Bubble Tea, Christianity.
Blink and you miss the wave and the further it drifts away from you the less fun it seems like to catch.
Which is funny really, because I write to you from inside the Hamilton bubble, that wonderful phenomenon of storytelling that has swept from Broadway to most major American cities and now on to the London stage and that everyone who is anyone seems to be talking about and seems to know everything about.
Except me. I knew almost nothing. I heard vague references to a hip hop musical and Alexander Hamilton, who had always been a footnote in American history books mentioned somewhere in connection with federalist papers (yes, it’s true when they say ‘every other founding father’s story gets told’). And I hadn’t expected much because I’m one of those people who’s just ‘not that into musicals’ (I hated Billy Elliot the musical. Did I mention? Awww look at all the cute Northern miners striking for their very fucking survival! Good job, Elton John for condescending to them and treating them like pixies!)
And this wasn’t some desperate grab for tickets. This wasn’t me entering the Hamilton lottery every day or calling ticketmaster or camping out like I did for Ani DiFranco tickets back in Penn State. This was pure luck. My editor at The American happened to be unable to go and so he offered it up to me. On the night my mother-in-law was landing from Dublin for Christmas.
I ask you not to judge me for choosing Hamilton.
I wish I could buck the trend and say it didn’t live up to the hype.
‘Well,’ my brother intoned to me skeptically over facenet with digitally raised eyebrows, a couple days after I had seen the show, ‘I hope it’s more than just… gushing praise.’
I mean it was articulate gushing praise.
My younger sibling was worried that I had not caught on to the trend of Founders chic, the celebration and the cool rebranding of our anglophile, landowning, manipulative power hungry founding fathers and the backlash against said trend. He was right. I hadn’t been all that aware that John Adams had been made cool again or that all the kids were pejoratively referring to their worst enemies in the playground as lobsterbacks.
And I get the point. I really do. We spent the first couple hundred years setting up these white men indignant at having less privilege than their British counterparts as Gods. And I know it’s not as simple as that, but it’s also not that much more complicated. George never came clean about the cherry tree. He never chopped down the cherry tree. It was a myth invented by Washington’s first biographer. Draw what conclusions you will but that tells you a lot more about our national character and our unquestioning belief in the deified founding fathers than any account of our first commander-in-chief’s life and times.
But is re-interpreting Hamilton’s life as an inspirational tale of an American grafter overcoming adversity by pulling himself up by his bootstraps really dangerous? As a former History major and a former teacher of History, I can sympathise (see above for my irreverence and unquestioning acknowledgement of our ‘founding fathers” non-greatness and flawed humanity) with the frustrated historians who see it that way. After all, I refused to shell out to see The Iron Lady in 2011 because I’m not going to financially support anything that humanises a woman who would gladly see her fellow MPs die on Hunger Strike and question their virility before she would negotiate for their rights as prisoners of war. To be sure, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill looks compelling but I’m deeply skeptical of the perpetual lionisation of prime minister who changed parties twice and didn’t really know what to do without a war to get him up and going in the morning (or midday… or whenever he slept off the previous night’s whiskey as it were).
But here’s the thing. Because Hamilton includes references to history does not mean it is to be taken as a History Lesson. It is fiction. A compelling story. But no more an attempt at a factual historical account than Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most compelling portraits of witty, villainous, despotism in which the bard, according to many frustrated British historians, greatly maligned the last Plantagenet.
And I’m not going to repeat the obvious arguments in greater detail than has already been outlined with greater eloquence than I could accomplish here (that hip hop subverts the white elitism that was the currency of Hamilton and Washington’s era and forces us to reflect on it with fresh eyes, that Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians playing historical figures who would have been exclusively white also challenges us to a process of cognitive reevaluation of the way we perceive our history).
What I will say is that we need Hamilton as a story and as a national mirror of who we are, and we need its critics every bit as much. We need Hamilton for reasons that neither Lin Manuel-Miranda nor anyone else could have anticipated back when the show opened in 2015, that its jibes at major political leaders would seem so much more poignant now than they did then. That we would suffer such a paucity of leadership that James Comey would join the ranks of bestseller authors by building a case several hundred pages long about the poverty of leadership from which we as a nation currently suffer. And we also need Hamilton because one of its very true facts: that unlike some of our current and recent political leaders, Hamilton came clean about his sexual misdeeds. He faced up and ‘overwhelmed them with honesty.’ He showed us how to handle a scandal. It may have circumscribed his political ambitions, but at least he was honest.
So read Hamilton‘s critics. Get to know them. Understand them. If this magically inspiring historical musical that is as American the spirit of protest that allows us to use our greatest words to protest through historical analysis, and to be inspired by an engaging narrative about energy, ambition and drive, then more power to it.