Alexander Hamilton – We Want You Back!


Three years ago, when I started the Surviving Seattle blog I thought it was important to look for a silver lining up here in a corner of the country cursed with short days and wet weather. Could a high-desert émigré find happiness in the soggy Northwest? I thought I could. I decided to write my way out of the gloom by finding interesting and entertaining things around Seattle – travel, books, art, music, dance, food and local theater.

That plan was working fine until August 6, 2015 when fifteen Republican Presidential aspirants showed up for a debate on Fox News. It was disturbing. I struggled to understand how the American electorate could tolerate a slate of such self-promoting, narcissistic, vulgar, blockheaded candidates? I tried to look away and trust that America would come to its senses. As much as I wanted to ignore it, I couldn’t. It was like watching a slow motion train wreck, and it made me wonder what the Founding Fathers would think.

In the latest Atlantic (April 2016) in an article entitled The New Value of Fiction, the author advances the theory that the recent decline in novel readership leads to a “deficit in empathy” that “imperils a democratic culture, and that novels keep us entwined and engaged when we might otherwise drift apart in shrill and narcissistic self-certainty.” Well, the drift is on and lack of empathy makes as much sense out of this situation as anything else I’ve heard.

Coincidentally, as I was questioning the American electoral process, I was also listening to the soundtrack of the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton. Times have changed and we’ve put a shiny gloss on the Founding Fathers, but they weren’t perfect either and in some ways there are lessons in the comparison.


In Hamilton we see and hear about the chaos and clash of personalities at the founding of our country. Lin Manuel Miranda, the composer, has given us a surprisingly creative Broadway musical that tells the story of the early republic – a hip-hop, non-white version of early American history starring Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr and George Washington.

Both the 2016 election and the new Broadway musical are messing with our minds. Both are non-traditional. What’s going on here? This isn’t what we expect in a slate of candidates. Is hip-hop the right vehicle to tell the founders’ story? Who are/were those guys? What are/were they like? What are/were their concerns? How do/did they act? What can we learn about/from them?

Based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda has transformed the scholarly text into a rocking theatrical experience. Of all of our founders, Hamilton is the outlier, just as Trump is in the campaign today. He was the Caribbean born “bastard son” (Miranda lyric) of a Scottish immigrant and a married British West Indian mother. He is probably the least celebrated of the founders, and unlike Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison was never President, but in many ways he may be the most important figure in turning the country into what it is today.

Philosophically, Hamilton envisioned large cities, a strong central government, a powerful banking system and less power for the states. His vision of America is like Hillary’s. Jefferson, on the other hand, advocated a weak central government, low taxes, and a self-reliant population. So does Trump, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “Mr. Trump, you’re no Thomas Jefferson.” Hamilton and Jefferson hated each other. Sound familiar?

Ignorance and Confidence

The Revolutionary Era was turbulent and with the exception of George Washington (Barack Obama?) none of the characters was of high moral character. The brilliant Hamilton, author of The Federalist Papers, though married, engaged in a notoriously public affair with a blackmailing prostitute, insulted political rivals in public, and was eventually killed by Aaron Burr in an honor duel. Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, whose public life was exemplary, was a slave owner who had several children with his black slave mistress. There may not be exact equivalents in this election but Trump, with his three fashion model wives, dubious and controversial business history, and lust for the spotlight is up against Hillary with her philandering husband and widely doubted integrity. What would George Washington think?

What’s behind the unusual cast of characters in this election cycle? Frustration and anger have emerged as the emotional responses to a political system that is broken. Congress isn’t even trying to work together. The President is handcuffed by our system of checks and balances, and the electorate’s hatred of business-as-usual politicians has them willing to look at non-traditional choices – Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson.

Whether it’s caused by a lack of empathy or something else, Republicans have uncaged an angry, vocal, small minded minority who think America has given in to terrorists and let tyrants like Putin and Kim Jong Un kick sand in our faces. If only we built a wall, deported all the foreigners, lowered taxes, repealed Obamacare, powered up the military, and unleashed Israel to fight our battle with Iran everything would be fine. Just like it was in 1950. We would have the lily-white, racist, misogynistic, homophobic paradise these faux-patriots love to celebrate.

I’m sorry Republicans your narrative is nonsense. You’re living in a fantasy world. In 1945 America bombed Japan into submission and the world changed. Nine nations now have nuclear weapons. State actors are no longer the biggest threat to world peace. ISIS is a moving target. The Middle East is not a WWI construct. Israel is no longer a safe haven for Jews fleeing fascism or communism. Russia is no longer monolithic. China owns the majority of US debt. The world is a lot more complicated. 1950 solutions no longer apply.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, wants to build a 1960’s utopian society by reforming Wall Street and the financial system, increasing taxes on the wealthy, reclaiming corporate profits being held offshore, bringing manufacturing back to America, expanding child-care, guaranteeing parental leave, providing free college tuition, building a single payer universal health care system, lowering taxes for the middle class, and increasing social services. Sounds great, but the funding plan looks like Swiss cheese?

It’s hard to know how Hamilton and Jefferson would react to the current political scene, but I imagine they would be appalled – not by the policy differences but by the lack of civility, cynicism, and in some cases outright ignorance. Despite their personal failings, the founders were giants and visionaries. They fought personal battles with political adversaries but also argued the merits of different approaches to building the new nation – the one we’re still fine-tuning after 225 years.

If you need a refresher on the creation of America you should listen to the soundtrack of Hamilton. It’s an entertaining short course in our history. It’s so remarkable that the Broadway run is sold out through November (election time) of 2016. A friend of mine was able to find a ticket for her upcoming New York visit but the resale market priced the ticket at $750. If you can’t see the musical you can amuse yourself with an original cast CD from Amazon for $22.98 or listen to it on Spotify, like I am.

I guess I’m not alone in wondering about the Founding Fathers:

Founding Fathers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *