"Hamilton", American History, and the Importance of Heroes
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Children change everything.
The moment you find out you’re going to be a father, your world really does turn upside down.
Your priorities shift.
Your focus intensifies.
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.
Here I am writing from experience as earlier this year my wife and I found out we were expecting our first child.
It’s the arrival of our baby girl that fills us both with unspeakable joy; and it’s the ticking clock of this arrival that also leads me to look at the future with an entirely new excitement and even concern.
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 call America their home and benefit from the freedom and ideals they believed were worth fighting for.
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 and subsequent generations? This is the question the American Founding Fathers asked themselves centuries ago. It is the same one we must ask ourselves today as our nation struggles to recognize its history, honor its values, and preserve the very liberties and freedoms outlined in our founding documents. 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 fortunate 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 limited or 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 even if they look nothing like the nation’s founders. 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 principles of liberty, freedom, justice, and opportunity articulated by the Founders that made America such a game-changing experiment then and still to this day.
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 provided. They must be protected. Some of these include:
Freedom from tyranny and authoritative rule.
Freedom to own private property.
Freedom to defend oneself and one's property.
Freedom to challenge and criticize the nation’s leaders without censorship or fear of reprisal.
Freedom to peacefully protest.
Freedom to worship or not worship God, practice or not practice their chosen religion.
Freedom to pursue one’s goals and further their interests.
Freedom to speak and agree or disagree with their neighbors and leaders.
These are just some of the principles the American Founding Fathers believed in and risked everything to outline in some of the greatest political documents ever written. Why? Because the Founders had seen and lived through the complete opposite!
What was it that Patrick Henry said? “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It often 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 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 an ongoing 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 that those ideals quickly spread beyond our borders.
Of course, many will be quick to point out that many of the opportunities outlined in the Declaration of Independence weren’t extended to everyone at the onset. Sadly, 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, women's rights activists, 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 extended and 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. 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 or new obstacles arose.
Even in their shortcomings then, 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.
And 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.
Ironically, in Hamilton, 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!
Even in its moments of greatest division and political dissidence, our nation survives because it was founded on principles of moral law and absolute truth that are established by a supreme and moral lawgiver who is both good and just.
This nation was built on a political premise of freedom that allowed for growth and was designed to keep our political powers in check. Most importantly, it made future disagreements and debate possible. And in case anyone wonders, the Founding Fathers disagreed and debated a LOT. We got a glimpse of this in Hamilton’s “Cabinet Battles.”
This is why the Founders also believed it was essential to add a provision for Freedom of Speech into the Bill of Rights. A society can only truly grow, they believed, when it provides a marketplace of ideas and an environment for healthy public discourse free from censorship or repression. Here, good ideas rise to the surface and bad ideas can be challenged. That's a profound idea!
Unfortunately, today it’s not the bad ideas that are being challenged so much as the principles of Free Speech that make challenging them possible. That should trouble us.
But this is also where America faces its next greatest challenge, one that has been bubbling to the surface for years and is now finally being unmasked.
Instead of recognizing America’s diverse history and acknowledging and learning from its past, both the good parts and bad, as Hamilton does quite effectively, there is a vocal movement in this country that seeks to rewrite American history entirely, discard its founding documents, and cancel its historic figures, founders, and heroes outright because of their imperfections.
It is a movement that doesn’t seek to reform America and make it better, in the tradition of its greatest heroes, both black and white and male and female; it only seeks to tear down, dissolve, and destroy.
But to what end, I wonder? What comes next when you destroy the greatest political document ever written and abandon one of the most influential political systems of freedom and opportunity ever created? I'm not very optimistic.
Therefore, I cannot emphasize enough why disregarding any culture’s history, disintegrating its founding principles, and demonizing its heroes and major contributors is a move towards unprecedented decline, or worst, inevitable destruction.
There is a reason why shared history 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 mistakes. We honor 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.
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 the narrative, and it's important that they are!
Unfortunately, many people hear the word “myth” and assume I'm talking about promoting lies and fiction over historical facts. This only reveals a flawed understanding of the term and how mythology can influence and unite a civilization.
The post-modernists may like to dismiss story archetypes, mythology, and the existence of grand narratives and self-evident truths, but the truth is, every culture has its stories and heroes, both real and fictional, to articulate, promote, and encourage the values it wants to preserve and pass on to future generations.
In fact, Jon Favreau, the director of Ironman and showrunner for Lucasfilm’s The Mandalorian, recently argued that “mythology exists to inform the generation coming of age of life’s lessons.”
This is why America’s Founding Fathers, amongst others, are so important to the preservation of American liberty. They set the example (and standard) of what it is we should value, affirm, and aspire to be.
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. 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.
But what about the others?
Many are quick to point out what seems like an inherent contradiction of a man like Thomas Jefferson writing, “all men are created equal,” when he himself owned slaves.
What most of these critics fail to acknowledge is that Thomas Jefferson, while morally culpable of owning slaves, wrote often about the evils of slavery that he believed would one day be abolished. And it would happen because of the principles outlined in the declaration he helped write. Jefferson, even as a slaver owner, was a well read, astute, philosophical genius and brilliant writer who had actually written a draft of the Declaration of Independence in which the abolition of slavery would have been included.
In fact, three of the five co-authors of the Declaration didn’t even own slaves, and a majority of the Founding Fathers were outspoken in their belief that slavery should be abolished outright (we see this modeled in Hamilton’s John Laurens).
So any notion that the Founding Fathers were all a bunch of bigoted white supremacists who declared independence from England to preserve the institution of slavery (which had existed for centuries and was a universally accepted institution that they had inherited from the British Empire btw) is nothing more than ideologically driven revisionist history designed to disintegrate the very foundation this country and its freedoms stand upon! And it's simply not true.
Were there slave owners amongst the Founding Fathers? Yes. Have there been Americans who've held prejudiced views? Yes. Does this mean that the entire Constitution, political system, and heart of the United States of America is evil, immoral, or oppressive? Absolutely not! In fact, the founding documents and legacy of the United States reveals the complete opposite.
So why didn’t the Founders get rid of slavery from the beginning? One word in the Declaration of Independence may provide an answer:
The members of the Continental Congress understood that in order to declare independence from Great Britain and even stand a chance in the coming invasion, they needed all thirteen colonies to strike together and stand as one.
Unfortunately, the authors of the Declaration of Independence also knew that some members of the Continental Congress, namely select delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, would never have signed the Declaration had the abolition of slavery been included. And so, in order to win over a handful of delegates from two of the thirteen colonies, a concession was made.
It had to be unanimous in order to get the declaration signed and begin the process of American independence. They had to start somewhere and believed that if they could successfully declare independence from Great Britain, build up the nation they envisioned, and establish the principles they believed in, the system of government they created would provide the just foundation to end slavery one day.
The United States of America wasn’t built to propagate slavery and further oppression. It was designed to end them over time, and those ideas would inevitably spread throughout the world.
George Washington also doesn’t get a pass for owning slaves. Unfortunately, many people forget that he was deeply convicted by this throughout his lifetime and eventually wrote to have all his slaves freed and provided for after his death. Not enough? Too little too late? Maybe. But he changed. And guess what? So did America.
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! Max! After that, the American people get to move on. Thank you, George!
It's no revelation to say that these men 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 in affirming our Founding Fathers as 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 those 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 for generations of future Americans.
But if we rewrite the history books, disintegrate our founding principles, demonize our brothers and sisters, or cancel 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 because we haven't learned from them.
We no longer celebrate how far we've come and lose perspective on what we have achieved and where we're going.
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 as Americans: our values!
We don’t give our children the chance to learn from the character and example of those who came before them.
We don’t give ourselves the chance to teach our children how good people can do great things and also make mistakes.
It's important to acknowledge mistakes and character flaws and never glorify or excuse them. People, including our heroes, need to be accountable for their actions. But erasing or tearing down our nation's heroes and discrediting or disregarding their overwhelmingly positive impact on our civilization and the world, doesn't make us better or help us grow. It only weakens us as a whole.
So many in our society today are so willing to find every speck of dirt in someone else's life in order to destroy or drag them down.
Redemption? Irrelevant. Growth and change? Meaningless. Forgiveness and grace? What's that? Goodness? Not good enough. Perspective or context? Not important.
People will latch onto the smallest thing that someone has done or said, maybe even from a past era, and judge them by their own sense of unearned moral superiority.
In doing so, it's not the American Revolution or principles this country was founded on that we aspire to; it's the violence and anarchy of the French Revolution we unknowingly replicate.
Instead of recognizing great men and women of history, respecting what they accomplished, and aspiring to follow in their positive footsteps, our society has devolved into a generation of weak people finding satisfaction in tearing stronger people down.
What did Eleanor Roosevelt say?
"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."
Instead of taking responsibility for one's personal growth and making changes to become more like the people we admire, we would rather bring our icons and heroes down to our level to make ourselves feel better about our own weakness and insecurity. This doesn't make us heroes. It makes us the Aaron Burr and villain of our own stories. In this narrative, no one wins, but we all pay for it.
And in doing so, we give our children nothing (and no one) to learn from or emulate. No one is perfect, but if we cancel anyone for anything we can dig up, we aren't left with good people trying to become better, we're left with a generation too quiet, too passive, and too afraid to take risks or stand up for what they believe in.
We leave our children to fend for themselves, with no one to look up to, they will look up to anyone they can find. We may not like who they find in today’s world.
The founding of the United States of America was by no means perfect, nor were its Founders, but it was a damn good start. And what the Founding Fathers created was far better than anything the world had seen or created before. It also proved to be a foundation strong enough to withstand the tests and tempests of time, and now it is being put to the test again.
Hamilton might be one of the greatest cultural and creative revolutions 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.
America will always grow. 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 pick up the pen and start writing to preserve the amazing history, heritage, and freedom this country stands upon.
Freedom is ours if we can keep it, but we must be vigilant. History has its eyes on us either way.
Fathers will always make mistakes, and as fathers, we can only hope we've done enough for our children, they forgive us for our mistakes, and they "remember our name, keep our flame, and tell our story." That part, however, is out of our control.
All we can do is take advantage of the time we have been given, remember how lucky we are to be alive right now, and do whatever it takes to make the world a better place for them by fighting the battles today so that they won’t have to tomorrow. 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.
Thank you so much for reading. If you enjoyed this post, do me a favor and tap the heart below, subscribe to Perspectives off the Page to support my work, or share this post along to someone you think might enjoy my words or be encouraged by these perspectives. Thanks again!
Until Today, Storytellers.