The tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has shocked our country. It has led to nationwide protests, riots, and calls for change.
Where do we go from here?
I believe there are lessons for us in Hamilton: An American Musical.
George Floyd was but one of many black men who have died at the hands of police, and occasionally black women, too, such as Breonna Taylor. I will have thoughts about policing in future posts, but in this post I want to consider a broader question: what kind of country are we?
Two aspects of our country must be considered:
- First, as the New York Times has reminded us with its 1619 Project, some of the Europeans who immigrated to the Americas forcibly brought Africans as slaves.
- Second, when the American colonists declared a revolution in 1776, they deliberately created a new nation unparalleled in human history. That is the story told by Hamilton: An American Musical.
What kind of nation did Alexander Hamilton and his peers create? The United States of America became the most powerful nation the world has ever seen, but that is not the focus of my question. My question is about the character of this new nation, our country.
Hamilton and his peers were well aware that they were making history. “History Has Its Eyes on You” is one of the key songs in Hamilton. The Founding Fathers put much thought into writing two documents that changed the world:
- First, they wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This document explained why the colonists were revolting against Great Britain and also proclaimed what the revolutionaries avowed to be “self-evident truths” about people and their governments.
- Second, after the American Revolution was won, they wrote the Constitution of the United States of America which specified the framework for a new government, unlike anything that had ever existed before. The Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788.
Both documents are addressed in Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies in 1755 or 1757. Ron Chernow, whose biography inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create the musical, uses 1755. Hamilton sailed to what is now the United States in 1772 or 1773, but he played no role in creating the Declaration of Independence. At the time that document was drafted in Philadelphia in 1776, he was a young man of 21 and he was in New York City pursuing an education at King’s College (now Columbia University) and drilling with the New York militia.
Hamilton was certainly aware of the Declaration of Independence, and he was a vigorous supporter of the revolution from the beginning. He became an indispensable aide to General George Washington during the American Revolution, and he played a role in the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the last major battle of the war.
Hamilton was among the 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia in 1787 and drafted the Constitution. James Madison is considered the primary author, but many others including Gouverneur Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and Hamilton were also significant contributors. (Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was abroad as minister to France when the Constitution was drafted.)
Once the Constitution was drafted, it was presented to the 13 states for ratification. The Federalist Papers were written to promote ratification. Between October 1787 and August 1788 a total of 85 Federalist Papers were written by three men: James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. These documents remain to this day an important reference concerning the intentions of the Founding Fathers, often cited by federal judges on matters of constitutional interpretation. Hamilton wrote 51 of the Federalist Papers.
So what do the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution say that can be helpful to us today in thinking about the George Floyd protests and riots?
The Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” which we now interpret to mean all people not just men. Clearly we remain far from this ideal, even 244 years later, in spite of the Civil War in the 1860s which brought an end to slavery and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s which sought to bring equality to black people. The George Floyd protests and riots are stark reminders that we have much work yet to do, but the goal remains equality. As President Calvin Coolidge noted in his 1926 speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, there is a finality about the goal of equality. While we remain short of reaching the goal, the goal itself is unchanged. Indeed it is a self-evident truth that any goal other than equality would be a goal of inequality.
As a side note, Thomas Jefferson included anti-slavery language in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, but it was stricken by others. See this for more information. See also Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents at the Library of Congress. I learned about this little known fact last year while visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC. There was an exhibit about early drafts of the Declaration of Independence on Level C3 in the History Galleries.
How do we move closer to the goal of equality? Clearly there are systemic changes that are needed. In future posts I’ll propose specific systemic changes in our policing policies, but in this post I want to talk about how we propose and make changes. That is, the process for making changes.
The Constitution answers that question. The “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is enshrined in the First Amendment. In short, peaceful protests are OK but riots are not.
Some protestors today call for a “revolution” but this word need not mean riots. The riots must stop. The riots are not OK. If a “revolution” is needed today, it must occur peacefully within the parameters of the Constitution.
Can a peaceful revolution be impactful? Yes! Following are two examples relevant to the theme of this post.
The first example is the election of 1800, sometimes called the “Revolution of 1800,” when the Federalists were swept from power and Thomas Jefferson was elected president. (Hamilton was a Federalist. His party lost after having been in power for 12 years.) That election was contentious. Unlike any presidential election before or since, the vote of the electoral college was a tie. Under the rules of the Constitution, the election moved to the U.S. House of Representatives where the vote was again tied until the 36th vote! The person who brokered the way out of that impasse was, yes, Alexander Hamilton. That story is told in the musical.
The second example is Hamilton itself. The image at the top of this post is the book Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. It documents the genesis, development, and production of Hamilton: An American Musical beginning with the performance by Mr. Miranda of a single song at the White House in May 2009 during President Obama’s first year in office. It took several years for this to blossom into a full-fledged musical, which opened in New York in February 2015. The book Hamilton: The Revolution was published in April 2016 during President Obama’s final year in office.
The widely acclaimed musical that draws from the breadth of America’s culture and shows its audience what we share doesn’t just dramatize Hamilton’s revolution: It continues it.
(from Hamilton: The Revolution, page 11)
Hamilton is indeed a revolutionary musical in many ways, from its nearly nonstop rap music to the extensive use of non-white actors.
Hamilton reminds us that America isn’t about any particular people or peoples. Nor is America about any particular class. America is about ideas, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and other documents. These ideas are open to all. They are “what we share.”
Alexander Hamilton was an extreme outsider. He was an immigrant born out of wedlock and raised by a single mother who died when he was 13. He grew up orphaned, in poverty, and far removed both physically and socially from the privileged and ruling classes in colonial America. Aaron Burr, who played a major role in Hamilton’s adult life, ultimately ending it, was the opposite – the consummate insider. Although also orphaned (by age 2), he was born into and raised by a prominent and wealthy colonial family. He attended the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, where his father and grandfather had been president. Hamilton sought to attend the same college, but was denied admission.
Hamilton’s highest office in the new national government was to serve as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Burr became the third Vice President. Today we honor Hamilton, not Burr, because Hamilton had better ideas about how to build a new nation. And today these two historical characters, both white, are portrayed in a wildly popular musical by people of color and no one cares about the race of the actors except to celebrate that
American history can be told and retold, claimed and reclaimed, even by people who don’t look like George Washington and Betsy Ross.
(from Hamilton: The Revolution, page 95)
Three presidents appear in Hamilton: Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. All are portrayed by black actors. Hamilton was produced during the two terms of the first black president of the United States of America: Barack Obama.
These facts from and about Hamilton speak well of the character of our country.
The reason why I am writing about Hamilton now is that earlier this month Disney Plus released the movie version of Hamilton (see trailer) in time for the public to enjoy this masterpiece during the Fourth of July holiday – which this year the nation celebrated in the midst of a lockdown due to the novel coronavirus. My wife and I have not seen the stage production, but we watched the movie version on July 4th, the 244th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Hamilton is sensationally good. We heartily recommend it.
The final song in the musical is titled:
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Hamilton: An American Musical tells the story of the founding of our great country. It is a story to be proud of, mostly. By reminding ourselves of this exceptional story, both the good as well as the bad extending back to 1619, we can find our way through the current protests and riots to a better future closer to the goal of equality.
May the story of our time be worthy of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Alexander Hamilton.
Update 12/24/2020: I have tweaked this post since publishing it in July. Changes to the original post include the addition of quotes from Hamilton: The Revolution and the discussion about Aaron Burr.