"Hamilton", American History, and the Importance of Heroes
Children change everything.
The moment you find out you’re going to be a father, your world really does turn upside down.
You begin to see the world, with all its promises and problems, through a completely different lens, knowing that every decision you make can and will impact the life you’re about to bring into the world.
I am now writing from experience as earlier this year my wife and I found out we were expecting our first child.
Maybe this is also why a song like “Dear Theodosia” from 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 and Aaron Burr, amongst others, were also fathers to sons and daughters they hoped would thrive in the nation they rose up to help create. And they weren’t just fighting for their immediate descendants either, but everyone who would one day call America their home.
In Hamilton’s “Dear Theodosia”, 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,
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 and the ideals introduced 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, some of the best character development you’ll find in any narrative form, 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 voices of America now.
Hamilton reminds us 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, regardless of their skin color or whether they were born here or not. America is also unique that it is one of the few countries where being American is not defined by one’s:
It is, as Alexander Hamilton reflects, “a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints.”
In this country, anyone can take part in the American dream and share in the American experience. They don't have to be born here. They don't even have to be descendent of the founders or look anything like them. This, I would argue, is a beautiful thing!
So what does unite America and hold Americans together through tough times? What makes America an incredible nation, even with its flaws, and why do so many people long to make this country their home?
It is our values, our ideals, our shared history, and the ideals of liberty, freedom, and equal opportunity articulated by the Founders that made America such a game-changing, world-influencing experiment.
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 principle that "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain alienable rights" that aren't granted or supplied by the government.
As outlined in our founding documents, it is the sole purpose of the American government and its leaders, elected by the people and accountable to the people, to defend those rights and freedoms.
Liberty and freedom, they believed, are not created or supplied by anyone other than a divine Creator. The role of government, they argued, exists to protect and defend those rights.
Why are they so precious? Because the Founders had seen and lived through the complete opposite!
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It sometimes takes living outside of freedom for one to truly understand and appreciate just how precious freedom really is. And those who have fled or escaped genuinely oppressive, authoritative governments or tyrannical regimes know that what America stands for and provides should never be taken for granted or discarded so easily.
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, and thank God we have.
Our nation’s most influential voices, speaking and acting across over two hundred years of its history, fought a violent revolution followed by a bloody civil war followed by multiple global conflicts followed by a civil rights battle to ensure that the freedoms articulated in our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence would be accessible to all who call this nation their home.
And those ideals quickly spread beyond our borders. Why? Because they're good, and they work.
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 is such a profound document in that it provided the justification for future abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights leaders to argue, “if we really believe in these words, we need to live up to them!” And they were right.
The Declaration of Independence didn’t need to be changed. 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. 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.
And even in their shortcomings, the Founders believed in the ideals that would inspire and make it possible for future generations to build and improve upon the work they had started.
Let’s be honest. 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 is a political marvel.
However, in Hamilton, we see Aaron Burr rejects 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 states, “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 cultural heroes, even flawed heroes, are essential for societies like the United States to thrive and 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 them for their ideas and the amazing things they did to build this country. 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 also 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 a flawed individual?
A self-made, hard-working, articulate, passionate, relentless immigrant 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 influential Founding Fathers that we seek to elevate and emulate.
Remember also that prior to George Washington, most monarchs around the world ruled for life. Washington, however, set the first and most important presidential precedent by only serving two terms in office. He fought against partisan fighting and the creation of political parties and taught the nation “how to move on”, modeling the kind of servant leadership future presidents would be challenged to follow. Many wouldn’t, but thanks to George Washington, the worst of the worst only gets eight years in office! After that, the American people are granted the opportunity to move on. Thank you, George!
Our heroes 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, Joseph McCarthy, Benedict Arnold and even Aaron Burr don't represent the values we aspire to. We don't honor them. We learn from them as they too are part of American 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 enlightened, virtuous, and better than they were then?
Who would we be in 1776 or 1861 America? What role would we play?
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 proclaim them?
I have no shame affirming our Founding Fathers as incredible men, American heroes and some of the most influential and important figures in history.
And even if we aren't willing to call them heroes because of their flaws, we can still marvel at what they created, acknowledge the ideas they fought for, and honor the sacrifices they made to help America become the land of the free and the home of the brave.
But if we rewrite the history books, attack our founding principles, demonize our brothers and sisters, or erase those who've come before us because of their flaws, mistakes, or even just because of the color of their skin, several things happen:
We set ourselves up to repeat the worst parts of our history
We are incapable of celebrating how far we've come
We discredit and dishonor the painful journey and sacrifice of those who brought us to where we are today.
We dissolve one of the strongest bonds that unites us: our values!
We don’t give our children the chance to learn from the character of those who came before them.
We forget that good people can do great things and also make mistakes.
What did Eleanor Roosevelt say?
"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."
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 who's too quiet and too afraid to take risks or stand up for what they believe in.
We leave our children to fend for themselves, and with no one to look up to, they will look up to anyone they can find. And we may not like who they find in today’s world.
Hamilton might be one of the greatest cultural works of art we may ever encounter in our lifetimes, and in a time where Americans are more divided, scared, and angry than ever, it reminds us that America, like its heroes, doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.
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 amazing history, heritage, and freedom 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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