Had to happen eventually, right?
The wedding of a family friend took me to lower Manhattan recently, and though the schedule was tight I did manage to sneak down to see two sites I’d been meaning to visit for a while: the World Trade Center 9/11 Memorial (more on that in a post soon to come) and Trinity Church Burial Ground, resting place of many interesting figures from the early history of the nation. Among those is Alexander Hamilton, a leading voice for the Constitution, the architect of the American financial system, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and the subject of the hottest musical in the world.
Those who know me well know that my relationship with musical theater is tenuous at best (it generally begins and ends with West Side Story). But with Hamilton, I’m surrounded: my students love it and reference it constantly, my wife loves it and plays it in the car, and now my three year old son is obsessed with it and demands it whenever we go anywhere. And I will begrudgingly admit that some of it isn’t bad musically, and some of it isn’t bad historically (though I could rant about historical inaccuracy, I will choose to refrain).
What I do find fascinating about it is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s vision of Hamilton, and the way in which the founding fathers serve as national symbols, ready to accept whatever interpretation is of the moment. It helps that the founding decades of American history offer us a panoply of different figures with different personalities that we can graft onto whatever version of American identity is on the rise at the moment: Washington, the suave military leader; Jefferson, the passionate and learned visionary for freedom; Franklin, the wise tinkerer; Hamilton, the shrewd, energetic, financier.
Hamilton has long been a villain of sorts in American history, and at times rightly so. He was not a believer in democracy, at least not in its wider sense. He supported a strong military state in times of peace long before it was fashionable. Those on the far left see him as a paragon of Wall Street, the inventor of modern government capitalism. He has often been portrayed as the ultimate insider: a crass politician too obsessed with power, prestige and wealth.
But Miranda’s Hamilton is a different sort: a striving immigrant from the Caribbean who, through drive, brilliance, and force of will, secured for himself a place at the center of a young nation. Miranda plays up Hamilton’s rejection of old money, of respect for the old ways, and – to me, most controversially – of slavery. Hamilton the musical makes repeated references to Hamilton’s abolitionist bona fides, vastly overestimating them in the process. Still, It’s fascinating to see a man often held up as a warning of power’s ability to corrupt portrayed instead as a crusader against old power.
And here’s what I love about history: neither of these interpretations are wrong. Hamilton is both. There’s no question he was resented by those who, like Jefferson, were born into wealth; there’s also no question that wealth was what Hamilton prized above all else as a means to a strong and centralized state. There’s no question Hamilton distrusted the democratic masses, yet there’s also less hypocrisy in his distrust than in Jefferson’s, who shared it but couched it often in language that made him seem supportive.
Today, Hamilton rests not far from Wall Street, at the heart of the financial district of the city he best represents: equal parts arrogant and dirt-low, busy and bustling, bursting with new ideas and new schemes, democratic in the best and worst ways, egalitarian in its contempt for everyone and everything but itself. He would have loved modern New York, and also hated it, and isn’t that just how it goes?