• Joel Ryan

"Hamilton" and the Importance of Historical Heroes and Icons


Image via Lin Manuel Miranda/Nevis Productions LLC

Children change everything.


The moment you find out you’re going to be a father, your world really does turn upside down. Maybe this is why a song like “Dear Theodosia” from the musical Hamilton hits much closer to home these days.

They may have been Founding Fathers of the so-called American experiment, but men like Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Aaron Burr, amongst others, were also fathers to sons and daughters they hoped would thrive in the nation they helped create. And they weren’t just fighting for their immediate descendants either, but everyone who would one day call America their home.


At the end of Hamilton’s first act, both fathers offer this poignant lullaby following the British surrender at Yorktown:


You will come of age with our young nation,

We’ll bleed and fight for you,

We’ll make it right for you,

If we lay a strong enough foundation,

We’ll pass it on to you,

We’ll give the world to you,

And you’ll blow us all away,

Someday.

Someday.


What kind of world do we want to pass on to our children?


This is the question the American Founding Fathers asked themselves centuries ago. It is the same one we must ask ourselves today. And if our republic, its freedom, and ideals articulated by our Founding Fathers are to survive for our children and even beyond, we too must “think past tomorrow.”


This is where a show like Hamilton drives home an important theme regarding the history of the United States, the courage and philosophical genius of its founders, and the significance of its rather auspicious beginning.


With its impeccable staging and choreography, fantastic character development, and iconic blend of classic Broadway show tunes, rap, hip hop, and R&B, Hamilton attempts to do what few musicals, movies, or books have been able to pull off: it puts its finger on the heartbeat of America’s legacy by telling the story of America’s heroes then through the sound and music of America now.


Hamilton reminds us also that, for those blessed to call the United States of America their home, America’s history is their history, and its Founding Fathers are their Founding Fathers.


In fact, it is one of the few countries where being an American is not defined by one’s:

  • Race,

  • Religion,

  • Wealth,

  • Family History,

  • or Birthplace

It is, as Alexander Hamilton reflects, “a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints.”


In this country, anyone can take part share in the American experience if they believe in what America stands for. They don't have to be born here. They don't even have to be descendent of the founders or those whose families have been here for generations.

If that is true, then what does unite America and hold Americans together through tough times?


What makes America such an incredible nation, even with its flaws?


And why do so many people long to make this country their home still to this day?


It is our values, the sovereignty of the individual, and the ideals of liberty, freedom, and equal opportunity we promote and aspire to preserve and protect.


Ambitious, enterprising, courageous, and, yes, entirely human and flawed, America’s Founding Fathers turned the world upside down with their radical idea of forging a nation founded on the creed that "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.”

Liberty and freedom, they believed, are not created or supplied by anyone other than a divine Creator. The role of a limited government, they argued, should exist to protect and defend those rights, not infringe upon them.


Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness


Sometimes it takes living outside of freedom for one to truly understand and appreciate just how precious liberty really is. Those who have fled or escaped genuinely totalitarian governments or tyrannical regimes know that what America stands for should never be taken for granted or discarded.


With the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers laid out America’s mission statement, which it would be tasked with living up for the rest of its existence. And when it didn’t, the words carefully chosen by men like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, would provide justification for rightful challenge, criticism, and reform. We’ve seen this throughout American history.


Of course, many will be quick to point out that many of the liberties and opportunities outlined in the Declaration of Independence were not extended to everyone at the onset. This is true. But again, this is why the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are such profound documents. They provided the justification for future Americans to argue, “if we really believe in these principles, we need to live up to them!” And they were right.


The Declaration of Independence didn’t need to be discarded. It needed to be applied.


The Constitution didn’t need to be abolished. Amendments could be introduced, voted on, and ratified.


Our system of government didn’t need to be overturned or overthrown every election. It would occasionally need to be reformed.


Thankfully, the Founders creatively (and quite brilliantly) established a system of government for those provisions and changes to be made without the country having to go through a violent revolution every time challenges arose or there was a change in leadership.


Any document that can outline and protect the liberty and freedom of its people and even expand those freedoms to more people for more than two hundred and forty years should be treated as a political marvel.


However, in Hamilton, we see the character Aaron Burr reject Hamilton’s invitation to co-author the Federalist Papers by arguing that the Constitution, as it was first written, was a mess. But if you’ve ever read the Federalist Papers, particularly #85, which I believe most of “Non Stop” was inspired by, Hamilton himself argued that the Constitution was:


“imperfect in its parts but good as a whole.”


And as his musical counterpart sings, “we have to start somewhere.”


The real Alexander Hamilton also concluded that, “the establishment of a Constitution, in times of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy.” He was absolutely right!


But beyond its founding documents there is a reason why shared history, shared values, and shared historical heroes, even flawed heroes, are essential for societies like the United States to survive.


We don’t worship men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., or Alexander Hamilton, nor do we ignore their flaws and mistakes.


No man is above reproach.


However, we recognize these men for their ideas, their courage, and their contributions. We tell their stories to our children to promote the qualities of their character we want them and future generations to emulate and pass on.


Take someone like Alexander Hamilton. We know that he was an ambitious and assertive self-starter who made some pretty gargantuan mistakes in life. So why would Lin Manuel Miranda invest so much of his creative energy to telling the story of such an imperfect individual?

A self-made, hard-working, articulate, passionate, relentless man who stood for what he believed in, took risks, pulled himself out of his worst situations by his tenacity and skill with the pen, and made some of the biggest cultural and political contributions this country has ever known. These are the qualities found in one of our most important Founding Fathers that we seek to recognize. A giant on whose shoulders we still stand.

And what of George Washington? Prior to Washington’s inauguration, most monarchs around the world ruled for life. When Washington became the first President of the United States, it wasn’t guaranteed that he wouldn’t follow suit. Washington, however, set the first and most important presidential precedent by only serving two terms in office. After that, he voluntarily stepped down, modeling the kind of leadership future presidents would be challenged to follow.


National heroes like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are the ones who help shape and inform our American mythos. And guess what? Our villains do too, as they help us identify why men like Richard Nixon, Benedict Arnold and even Aaron Burr don't represent the values we aspire to as a nation.


We don't revere them. We learn from them, as they too are part of our history, and it's important that they are!

It's no revelation to say that men like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton were flawed, and there are plenty of things we can point out in each of the Founders that weren't ideal by today's standards, but are we also so self-righteous to assume that we are now more virtuous and better than they were then?


Who would we be in 1776 or 1861 America?


Would the views we hold today be popular or unpopular by the standards of that era? And if unpopular, how many of us would be bold enough to risk everything we have, including our lives, to defend them?

I have no shame, therefore, affirming America's Founding Fathers as incredible men, heroes, and some of the most important figures in history.

And even if we aren't willing to call them heroes because of their flaws, we can still appreciate what they created, acknowledge what they fought for, and honor the sacrifices they made to help America become the land of the free and the home of the brave.


Perfect? In no way, but good and hopefully good for many years to come.


That being said, if we abandon our founding principles and values and demonize or tear down our heroes, several things happen:

  • We destroy our history and identity as a nation

  • We fail to recognize how far we've come

  • We discredit and dishonor the sacrifice of those who got us to where we are today

  • We don’t give our children the chance to learn from those who came before

  • We forget that good people can do great things and make mistakes

Their genius, therefore, was not in their perfection. It was in their acknowledgement and understanding of human imperfection and why God, not man or government, is the ultimate authority and standard of liberty and justice for all.

No one is perfect, but if we tear down the past, we aren't left with good people trying to become better, we're left with a generation without an example, too quiet and too afraid to take a stand.


Hamilton might be one of the most important cultural works of art in modern history, and in a time where Americans are more divided, confused, and angry than ever, it reminds us that America, like its heroes, doesn’t have to be perfect to still be good.


As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “imperfect in its parts but good as a whole.” This is the legacy of the United States of America, which Americans should never be ashamed to call their home.


The “great, unfinished symphony”, as Hamilton put in, endures because a handful of people were willing to sacrifice everything for something they believed was bigger than themselves. And that symphony will continue because of the character and courage of those who value what our Founding Fathers believed in and are willing to preserve the history, heritage, and heroes this country stands upon.


Our fathers did this for us, and if we follow their lead, we may yet see our children thrive in the nation they've made... one last time.


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