“Who Tells Your Story?”

Who expected it? A world-wide pandemic, recurring food and supply shortages, massive unemployment, widespread violence and lawlessness, deep political disagreement and distrust, feckless leadership, and a general breakdown of our political institutions. 

To many Americans, the current state of affairs seems surreal, if not apocalyptic. As we fret about the dangers of George Orwell’s 1984 our country is spinning towards George Miller’s Mad Max. What we need now is sober realism wedded to the right ideals. We need Hamilton. We don’t mean Hamilton the man—although we could sure use a statesman like Alexander Hamilton right now—we mean Hamilton the musical.

We will admit, when the musical first came out in 2015 we were skeptical. A rap musical dramatization of the American Founding? Wouldn’t this musical be a boring sermon in political correctness? 

But with nine children under the age of 20, it is difficult to avoid completely the latest pop fads, and songs from the Hamilton soundtrack eventually made it onto the song list for long family car trips. We found ourselves first surprised, and then positively delighted by the creativity, thoughtfulness, wit, and sheer excellence of the songs. 

When the musical was released for streaming on July 3, we were excited to see it. But we did not expect it to speak so directly to the serious challenges we are facing today: Deep racial polarization, a breakdown of civil discourse, and a full blown identity crisis about what it means to be an American citizen. As Alasdair MacIntyre and, more recently, Wilfred McClay have pointed out, identity, whether personal or political, is rooted in a true narrative about our origins, our heroes, and our animating ideals. America may be a “creedal nation” dedicated to the self-evident truths of the Declaration, but the stories, the flag, the anthems and songs, the days of Thanksgiving and prayer, and yes, even the statues—in short, culture and art—give these ideas life and make them our own.

In other words, to quote the final song of Hamilton, “Who tells your story?” And how is it told? Is there an alternative to the extremes of the 1619 Project’s claim that America is systemically racist from the beginning and the Pollyannaish blood and soil nationalism of Trump’s tweets? Without sermonizing, Hamilton shows us how art can still tell “our story” well, and in ways that unite instead of divide. It’s impossible to do justice in prose to the creative brilliance of Hamilton, but here are three points worth noticing. 

Telling the Truth about Hamiltonand America 

First and foremost, Hamilton is a truly great work of art which compellingly tells the truth about Alexander Hamilton personally, and America politically. In form, Hamilton is a feast of sound and sense, with its playful pageantry, gripping plot, creative lyrics, clever humor, musical breadth, stunning choreography, and impressive acting. 

In substance, the story Hamilton tells is humanly compelling. Though it includes myriad historical details and is largely historically accurate, Hamilton is not history, but art. Great art does not set out to moralize or make a point, and art that does so—in addition to being bad art—usually fails to influence culture deeply. Rather, good art tells the truth—not literal truth, but metaphysical truth. By imaginatively shifting perspective, art can show us depths of reality that mere sensory or factual knowledge can easily miss. 

And the metaphysical truth is that human nature is neither depravity nor innocence, victimization or agency, but the drama of being constantly threatened by the one even as we are irresistibly drawn to the other. Hamilton’s “realistic patriotism” works against today’s cancel culture by showing the messy reality of a principled political life, which, despite mistakes and problems, was nonetheless honorable. Likewise, Hamilton shows that America’s past does not have to be full of perfect “saints” to be fundamentally good and honorable. 

The life of Hamilton is impressive on its own. As the opening song of the musical puts it: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot / In the Caribbean by providence impoverished / In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar? / The ten-dollar founding father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter…” No blaming, shaming, or self-victimization here.

Born an illegitimate child (a condition with significant legal, social, and economic disadvantages in Hamilton’s time) in the Caribbean, abandoned by his father and then orphaned at an early age, Hamilton went on to become one of America’s most important Founding Fathers. Among other things, he authored the largest portion of The Federalist Papers, designed the nation’s financial system while serving as the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, and helped organize the Federalist Party. 

Hamilton was no saint, however. Married with eight children, Hamilton had an extramarital affair with a married woman, which he sought to cover up by bribing the husband. And his constant political machinations earned him the enmity of many, and ultimately led to his death in a duel at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr. 

But Hamilton also reconciles with his wife Eliza. Her anger in “Burn” and then forgiveness in “It’s Quiet Uptown” are powerful moments in the musical. And his dedication to America and American ideals is clearly contrasted throughout the play with his antagonist Burr, who is shown as a dishonorable man of unprincipled personal ambition and, ultimately, a failure. 

If political identity is constituted by story, then this question becomes of paramount political importance. Today, America is deeply divided over this question, and so we are divided in our very identity.

As with Hamilton’s personal life, so with America: The play’s depiction of the founding defies the simplistic, black and white categories of the cancel culture on the one hand, and an uncritical patriotism on the other. According to Hamilton, the American founding is imperfect but good. It shows us that the founders regarded slavery as unjust and contrary to the principles of the American founding, rather than as an expression of those principles. Slavery is a horrific spot on the goodness of the founding, but forgiveness is as necessary in politics as in marriage. In dramatizing the tension between principle and practice in the founding, Hamilton helps to correct the false and mischievous history of Justice Taney in the infamous Dred Scot decision which continues to dominate the narrative of the radical left. 

One of the best instances of this is “Cabinet Battle #1,” which consists of a debate over Hamilton’s financial plan. Thomas Jefferson argues, “Don’t tax the South ‘cause we got it made in the shade / In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground / We create, you just wanna move our money around.” Hamilton delivers a delicious response to Jefferson’s agrarian populism that simultaneously unveils Jefferson’s hypocrisy while also leveling a dig at the French Enlightenment:

A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor

Your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor

“We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting

We know who’s really doing the planting

And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment

Don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it.

Building a Bridge

Secondly, Hamilton helps build a bridge between blacks and whites in America by fusing the core story of American identity to a largely (though not exclusively) black cultural idiom. This is the genius of Hamilton. (Although a charmingly narcissistic and sadistic George III almost steals the show with his more conventional show tune “You’ll Be Back.”)  Unlike the extreme voices on the left and right, it is a constructive, not a destructive, creative enterprise. 

We can see this cultural marriage in “Cabinet Battle #1.” Delivered with the assertiveness, verbal gymnastics, syncopation, and “voice merging” typical of hip hop and rap (Nathan’s favorite allusion is to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” which reminded him of his futile efforts to breakdance in the early 80’s), the song nevertheless compellingly conveys the seriousness of the issues and ideas, the personal and political division that always make compromise so difficult. In doing so it extends the conventional boundaries of both rap music and politics. 

Hamilton certainly honors the founding genius of America, the heroic risks, the difficult and often messy compromises that had to be made, and the great challenges of governing a new and diverse nation. But by telling this story in a black cultural voice, Hamilton literally binds the African American experience into the larger American one, claiming the American founding story for blacks of our generation, while forever enshrining in American culture more generally some of the greatest modern contributions of black American art.

Maintaining Honor under the Law

Thirdly, Hamilton shows that the greatest challenge of political life is not achieving liberty, but preserving it. The two acts of the musical are organized around the two main moments of the American Founding, the Revolutionary period (Act One) and the Constitutional period (Act Two). There are different virtues required for these moments, and they are in some tension with one another. 

Put most simply, the first moment requires assertiveness and courage, while the second requires moderation and restraint. How does the lawlessness of the first moment get transformed into the law—abidingness of the second moment? It is relatively easy to tear down and destroy, and very difficult to build things that will last. As George III puts it in his wonderfully sardonic humor “What comes next? / You’ve been freed / Do you know how hard it is to lead? / You’re on your own / Awesome, wow! / Do you have a clue what happens now?” Or, as Washington tells Hamilton when he can’t get his financial plan through Congress, “Ah, winning was easy, young man, governing’s harder.” 

Early in the musical a young Alexander Hamilton newly arrived in New York sings “Hey yo, I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry, / And I’m not throwin’ away my shot.” In the song he expresses his ambition and assertiveness in the cause of the Revolution (a cause which alludes to slavery, as does much of the musical): “Let’s hatch a plot blacker than the kettle callin’ the pot / What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot / Poppin’ a squat on conventional wisdom, like it or not / A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists? / Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is” (My Shot).

Yet the lead image used in the advertising for Hamilton shows a silhouette of Hamilton precisely throwing away his shot, as he points his finger up into the air like a gun. This is the moment of Hamilton’s fateful duel with Vice President Aaron Burr which ended Hamilton’s life, and Burr’s political career. Dueling, of course, is a throwback to a time when injury to honor and reputation are taken as seriously as injury to person and property. (The Founders themselves mutually pledge their “sacred Honor” in the Declaration of Independence). And by participating in the duel, Hamilton acknowledges the claims of honor. 

But dueling also reflects a breakdown in the rule of law, and is also a step on the path to vigilante justice, a cycle of violence which leads to anarchy. By participating in the duel but refusing to shoot Burr, Hamilton seeks to affirm the claims of honor and the rule of law. In the eyes of Hamilton, this self-restraint, is the greater, more manly achievement. 

In Hamilton the question is repeatedly raised, “Who tells your story?” If political identity is constituted by story, then this question becomes of paramount political importance. Today, America is deeply divided over this question, and so we are divided in our very identity. There is something gnostic in the extremes which see America exclusively in terms of light or darkness, innocence or guilt, black or white. Hamilton shows us that our story does not have to be perfect to be true, or to be both beautiful and good.

Reader Discussion

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on August 21, 2020 at 07:09:18 am

Hear her, hear him! Hear, hear the Schlueters, for their creative, constructive, friendly persuasion "that our story does not have to be perfect to be true, or to be both beautiful and good."

And for a true, beautiful and good, if imperfect, story read Wilfred McClay's "Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story" or listen as McClay tells that story on Hillsdale College's Online Courses, a gift to the nation.
And hear, hear Hillsdale College, "... a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!"

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on August 21, 2020 at 13:55:30 pm

As an African American woman (attorney, educator and social activist) reading this I wonder if the writers are attempting to "validate" or justify the racism of our Founding Fathers as the only "necessary" way to form our nations' initial union? And I believe that calling the 1619 Project extreme is harsh in its declarations. And I know misses the mark entirely. Hannah Nikole Jones' brilliant project sheds light on primary source documents and historical facts that are rarely if ever brought into a classroom. I can assure you that Anthony Benezet rarely makes an appearance in history or social studies classrooms and his importance in American History cannot be diminished: he created not only the first African Free School for free (and enslaved) black children in Philadelphia but he also created the first public school to educate girls. He was also the father of abolitionism in that he was strongly opposed to slavery and he let his best friend and founding father Benjamin Franklin know it in no uncertain terms during the Constitutional Convention. 'One of the sole reasons' he is not in history books is usually attributed to his being an educator and not a political figure. But it gives one pause to ponder that as a result of his "friendly persuasion" Franklin renunciates using his newspaper to print runaway slave advertisements and eventually frees his slaves. So to say that Jones' project is harsh may mean that she adds to the discussion truths that white America would rather not acknowledge or admit. Perhaps sometimes the ugly truth is simply that; ugly.

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Ruth-Terry Walden
on August 22, 2020 at 07:40:41 am

I fear you are a bit misguided. First, the 1619 thing is a nice small addition to a college curriculum in African Am. studies. Sorry to say but the most remarkable thing about slavery is that it was ended by 800,000 white men, many from aristocratic families, fighting and dying or being maimed to free blacks. Slavery in world his tory is not news. Even the Bible supports slavery. What is news is that majority class fighting and dying to free them. There will always be racism, particular among lacks whose animosity against whites is far out of correlation with the opposite.

I think that blacks have been done a grave disservice by the obsession with slavery. A practice ended 175 years ago is hardly the reason for black dysfunction today. As just one reason, fatherlessness is very highly correlated to poverty. Government, laws, "1619 projects" cannot stop young blacks from reckless and thoughtless reproduction.

Jews have suffered longer and more gravely -- for millenia. Yet they have family coherence and immense success in pretty much all fields. Explain it?

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on August 22, 2020 at 07:48:44 am

A thoughtful piece that overlooks a few points. First, that we need some made-up musical to garner interest in a massively important historical figure is kind of sad. I'd venture a guess that of all the millions who have seen the play, 95% or more will never read the biography upon which it is based. So some 30-something writer, Miranda, will decide what is "history" for all of those people.

Second, the current obsession with focusing on the imperfections of past figures gets too much attention from Miranda, likely the fault of an over-self-identified hispanic feeling liberated by modern culture to taunt the past because it displeases him.

Third, given the bizarre current concept of "cultural misappropriation," where is the outrage over a bunch of blacks and hispanics pretending to be white Founding Fathers? :)

And a final observation. Please! Hamilton basically created our spectacular banking system. Who are about his sex life and his views on slavery? Slavery was everywhere. Even the Bible praises it. Time to live in the present, and plan for the future. Magnificent Founders like Hamilton let us do that.

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on August 22, 2020 at 08:47:28 am

"Is there an alternative to the extremes of the 1619 Project’s claim that America is systemically racist from the beginning and the Pollyannaish blood and soil nationalism of Trump’s tweets?"

Blood and soil? Truly? And is the "pollyannaish" qualifier suppose to muddy our thinking about such an inapposite posit? Blood and soil - invoking the mendacity and malice and propaganda concerning Trump's response to the Charlottesville confusion, also invoking Nazi themes, white nationalism and the like, and equating this with "MAGA"? Again, truly? That's an ugly ol' horsefly in the ointment.

Then, even the grammatical construction of "... the 1619 Project’s claim that America is systemically racist from the beginning ..." Well, America was systemically racist at the beginning (though it is not presently). This too is irritating given the historical, cultural, ideological and existential moment we are facing. Though too, with all respect to a fellow commenter here, to insist we are still systemically racist is to avoid a host of factors in the culture at large. Deleterious new left, progressive, cultural Marxist, etc. influences at all educational levels to mention but one critical example. Similarly within black culture specifically - e.g., to fail to remark upon a nearly 70% out of wedlock birthrate is in fact a remarkably convenient elision in too many discussions.

Also, that the 1619 Project includes numerous facts of note and ideas worthy of consideration - and worthy of critique and review - does not detract from its equally or even more notable historical inaccuracies, and that such has served as agitprop and incitements which have abetted the recent and ongoing destruction of businesses and livelihoods, the looting, the rioting, the mayhem and the murder/deaths that have resulted. But how could it not encourage and result in such human consequence? There appears to be a systemic, a conspicuous interest and design afoot. Debatable? Yes, but only so. Perhaps this is one of the additional reasons why renown historians such as Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz and James McPherson expressed grave concern about the 1619 Project's fundamental historical inaccuracies, including the charge it is "cynical" in its interests and formulations.

Similarly again, that the 1619 Project contains facts of note absolves it of nothing, even to the contrary! It was Natalie Grant Wraga, perhaps singly the premier expert in sophisticated forms of disinformation during the Soviet era, who emphasized "disinformation consists of lies with a bodyguard of truth". Likewise characterizing - again, sophisticated forms of - disinformation "... as a demonstrable lie, or lies, surrounded by both truths and statements which the audience wants to believe." My emphasis. (Quotes taken from prefatory notes attending a talk about Mrs. Wraga by Paul Goblet.)

Is all this part and parcel of the intended purpose of the 1619 Project? In my opinion, certainly so; it's one of the primary reasons it's so effective, conspicuously effective, as agitprop within the current cultural and political milieu. It's also a basic aspect of the Alinskyite, gaslighting, etc. dissolution of language/meaning "games" played by the progressive, new left, cultural Marxist crowd in general. And insidious and pernicious games they are.

Rather than the 1619 Project, I'll suggest Robert Woodson's 1776 Unites project. With eminences such as McWhorter, Loury, Woodson himself and other admirable notables, it's an inspiring and ennobling, and much appreciated alternative.

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Michael Bond
on August 22, 2020 at 17:41:16 pm

I think that one way of thinking about the quote at the beginning of your post is that it juxtaposes Sorelian myths. Arguably, the story of the American founding that includes hagiographies of various prominent personalities and romantic re-tellings of significant events is one such myth. The substance of the 1619 Project, which I know only from excerpts, is another such myth. These are specimens of a vast population of myths, e.g. the Nobel Savage, Manifest Destiny, the New Jerusalem, etc., that have served as the rationale for any number of enterprises, and enterprises of all sorts--humane, genocidal, benevolent, imperialist, egalitarian, tyrannical, etc. Again, these refer to myths in the Sorelian sense, exemplified by Alfred Rosenberg's Myth of the Twentieth Century. There is always a peril in confusing a myth with historical fact, or thinking that myths declare some uncontrovertible truth about the world.

Myths, such as national myths, inevitably bump up against historical fact in one way or another, which does not denigrate their value as myth, but does point out their shortcomings as history. It would be dubious to maintain, as a point of historical fact that racial considerations were not present in the history of the American founding, but it is equally dubious to believe that they were the rationale for, or that they were essential to, that founding. The founders had a smorgasbord of racial beliefs. Jefferson thought that blacks were inherently inferior, Hamilton did not. Franklin both opposed and defended slavery. The attitudes that perpetuated slavery in the Americas into the middle of the nineteenth century, and the attitudes that opposed it were developing in conflict with each other centuries before the first Africans arrived in America.

The attitudes toward slavery as well as non-Europeans were full of contradictions, paradoxes and compromises. Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton informs us that more than half of the members of the New York Manumission Society themselves owned slaves. Hamilton was appointed to a committee to study the question of what members of a Manumission Society should do with the slaves that its members owned. Apparently there were arguments weighing against "how about we just free them?" Hamilton's committee produced recommendations that included that slaves under twenty-eight years old should gain their freedom on their thirty-fifth birthday.

Benjamin Franklin also had a confusing history with the idea of slavery and racial issues. He asked

Why increase the sons of Africa by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red?

Frankliln owned slaves himself, and at various times criticised the institution on economic grounds, and on the effect it had on the children of slave-owners, believing it made them "proud, disgusted with labor." Nonetheless he published an anti-slavery piece in 1729, forty-seven years before the Declaration of Independence. He joined the Associates of Dr. Bray to establish schools for blacks in America, and recommended forming such a school in Philadelphia in 1757. Nonetheless, in 1770, he published a "Conversation on Slavery" in which he wrote

Perhaps you imagine the Negroes to be a mild tempered, tractable kind of people. Some of them are indeed so. But the majority are of a plotting disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel in the highest degree.

Two years later Franklin began corresponding with Anthony Benezet, and expressed the hope that slavery could be suppressed "in time."

In 1787 Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He did not present a petition against slavery at the Constitutional Convention due to the "delicate compromises being made between north and south." He did present a formal petition for the abolition of slavery to Congress in February 1790.

Pragmatic compromises were also made by others, such as Frederick Douglass who, over the objection of Elizabeth Cady-Stanton, supported passage of the 15th Amendment, even though it did not guarantee suffrage to black women. That great people had to make practical compromises in extraordinary times seems too much a challenge for the coddled, ill-educated and hyper-ideological modern mind.

Because the contradictions, anomalies and paradoxes regarding race and slavery in the American founding, the modern reflex is to attribute any disagreement, modern grievance or challenge to a preferred myth to "racism." The idea of racism as essential to the American founding has become another Sorelian myth, mixing elements of truth, falsehood, generational guilt, magical thinking, grievance archaeology, and bad faith. The idea that everything in human history must either be praised or condemned is fallacious. The notion that examining and trying to understand history is attempting to justify malevolence is short-sighted and paranoid. Avoiding discussion by capricious accusations of racism is futile. Pretending to change history does not change human nature, and more importantly there are more effective ways of making other people's lives better.

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on August 22, 2020 at 20:48:33 pm

What is going on?
According to the Gospel of the Republican Establishment and the Democrat Party, Wall Street, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Silicon Valley billionaires, the Washington Post and the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS and NBC; the vast majority of universities, all "elite" universities and law schools, the American Bar Association, the professional associations of historians and political scientists, the vast majority of K-16 educators, Hollywood, the NFL, NBA, MLB and most of their wealthy players, when a black person accuses the USA and white people of systemic racism the ONLY appropriate response is to admit guilt, offer reparations, cede authority, promise to unlearn white privilege, then shut up and go the back of the bus where white people belong.
I am shocked to see that some folks have failed to do their BLM shame-response homework and will require further racial sensitivity training. Their inappropriate comments should have been blocked by the webmaster.

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on August 22, 2020 at 20:54:03 pm

BTW: the merits of Hamilton's staging, choreography and lyrics aside, it is a shame that a musical about a great man was done using the most inferior form of American music.

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on September 15, 2020 at 12:52:05 pm

Par for the course for Hillsdale "conservatives" like the Schlueters, their idea of "telling the truth about America" is to retreat further into "creedal nation" cliches while also writing the American South out of American history. They claim that "Hamilton" promotes "realistic patriotism" as an alternative to"cancel culture," but then they describe Hamilton's ad-hominem and non-sequitur attack on Jefferson over slavery as "delicious." No, it's not delicious: Jefferson criticizes the political economy of Hamilton's proposed marriage of capital with the state, and Hamilton essentially responds by saying, "Yeah, well, slavery." Don't the the Schlueters realize that it's toxic little lines like that which have created the cancel-culture mentality in the first place?

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James Rutledge Roesch

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.