Hamilton & Founding Myths
Musings Culture

Hamilton & Founding Myths

Bradley Davis
Bradley Davis

The lead up to this Independence Day was a dark one. When a different form of this piece ran during Athwart’s first iteration in 2016, I wrote about growing criticism and resentment toward the American founding. I did not imagine that it would grow to its current fervor, with statues of important and respectable Americans toppled across the country, a president’s name scrubbed from the institution he helped build, and a sense that this is just the beginning.

I do feel a degree of sympathy: If our country has been limited throughout its history, why should it be expected to change now? Is our moral and political rot fundamental to the American identity? Admittedly, I also sometimes find myself swept up in the fervor of ideas scribbled on conservative corners of Twitter. Looking at the chaos surrounding us, the uninspiring and poll-driven politicians, or sclerotic and untrusted institutions, I wonder: were the founders too compromising in their politics? Can our grand experiment in governance actually work?

These doubts seem to abound in our contemporary Republic. But in 2016, just as now, this mode of thinking is limiting. Obscured by the occasional appeals of left- or right-wing anti-liberalism, are the hopeful and promising ideals of our revolution. Our popular sense of history should look different with this in mind. By focusing on the moral values of revolution and the possibilities they provide, this sense would appear less like 1619 and more like the musical Hamilton.

To be certain, the founders were not demigods and are not men above reproach. They were morally imperfect, limited in their learning, and were perhaps underprepared for the task at hand. They were all fallen men. But so are we.

Though it has generally been reviewed as a great work of art with a “good enough” representation of history, Hamilton has its critics. Some fear that lines such as Angelica Schuyler’s, “to include women in the sequel [to the Declaration of Independence],” a generous account of Alexander Hamilton’s relationship with abolition, and a glossing over of slave ownership by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others present contemporary audiences with too favorable of an impression of these men. In the public perception, there could be no such thing.

The value of popular history, and Hamilton is excellent in this regard, is in creating an image that is brighter and more hopeful than reality. It encourages us to live up to unrealizable ideals, striving to be better than we are or our predecessors were. Indeed, this is also what our country’s founders did. The promises of the Declaration of Independence have still not been realized. Perhaps, the promise that all men are created equal will never be fulfilled in this country. In a practical sense, it might not be possible for any country to wholeheartedly govern in line with the Declaration’s lofty vision of political life. But the Founders set forth hopeful ideals that, as aspirations, could not be more complete.

Edmund Burke would likely have agreed that Hamilton may be the most important and beneficial type of art for modern audiences . For Burke, political tradition holds a sacred place within society, creating wise laws and civil norms. Furthermore, history provides the answers and solutions to the great questions and problems of yesteryear, often at the courtesy of the past’s greatest minds. With a grasp of their history, societies could continually progress and formulate new answers for questions that did not even occur to one’s ancestors—but only because they provided a foundation for new thoughts. This, Burke termed as prejudice: the ability to have answers without having to ask their prerequisite questions.Hamilton presents itself as the most important historical prejudice: deference towards the greatness of our national forebears with their political leadership setting models for how we ought to act and conceive of political life.

”Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom, beyond the vulgar practice of the hour: and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”
— Edmund Burke, Reflections On The Revolution In France

By celebrating these figures as greater men of a greater age than our own, we help ourselves become better and, at the very least, prevent a sort of nihilistic regression. Of course, any serious academic inquiry into the lives of Alexander Hamilton and others will find them to be ordinary, flawed characters. The inequality among sex, race, and class of the newly-independent United States was abhorrent and casts its shadow today. But to focus so intently and narrowly on our nation’s flaws and scars doesn’t just damn the past, it condemns the present and future as incapable of change—unable to escape our original sin either through our principles or our institutions.

If we believe or tell ourselves that this country was nothing but a tyranny founded by monsters, then it becomes so. We thereby lose the cultural safeguard that is our Burkean prejudice—which tells us to aspire to the virtues we declare rather than vices we practice. It is one thing to underline injustice and remember its victims—these are very important tasks. But I fear wide adoption of an irredeemably negative account of America’s founding. Even if the country is fundamentally corrupt, saying this is a historical necessity, while providing extreme or unrepresentative historical examples, can only normalize such immoral past behavior.

By placing Washington on an impossibly high pedestal, we encourage ourselves to be better. A national mythos provides a font for both inspiration and aspiration. This is largely why the Constitution has been so successful. By no means is it a perfect document, and we certainly do not interpret it in the exact manner it was intended, but that is fine. The belief in the Constitution and its rights as a great work that transcends time and place is what allows compromise and reconciliation in this country’s most trying times, from Reconstruction to Vietnam, and far into the future. This message is presented in chorus by Hamilton. When Daveed Diggs celebrates the great ideas and national hopes of Thomas Jefferson, he is not acting as an apologist for the man’s racism but is instead reclaiming and expanding the Jeffersonian ideal. Even when Lin Miranda exaggerates Alexander Hamilton’s social liberalism, he is doing a justice to our country by providing faith that we might have been, and very well could be, the shining city upon the hill of history.

Now, by all means, Hamilton should not be used as a study tool for AP US History nor should we forget our historical misdeeds. But Hamilton is indicative of what our national identity should look like and the musical represents, in its artistry and mythology, the country I want to call home. While we pursue rigorous and critical history in academia, let’s seek heroes and virtue in public discourse. Hamilton turns past relics into moments that we can celebrate and cherish. They provide us with a means to respect our history, thus providing the opportunity to create a better future.

Feature Image: "The President greets the cast and crew of 'Hamilton' after seeing the play with his daughters at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City." Photo (2015) by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.

Bradley Davis is Editor-in-Chief. He is a candidate for Master's degrees in philosophy and theology at the DSPT and was previously awarded a Fulbright fellowship in Morocco.