Our Founding Fathers Were Bad Dads

My life is full of lies. I have spent the past year stressing over elections for politicians that lied straight to my face; my mom keeps telling me I’m special; and my ex says she still loves me. All I ask for is a smidgen of truth or just a temporary escape from the lies of reality, and surprisingly, I often find this safe haven in musicals. Now, I’m not about to argue that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a canonical, historical event nor am I going to claim that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should replace our history textbooks (although our education system would be hell of a lot more fun). Musicals can be some of the rawest forms of commercial performance and expression. There is no lying during show-stopping belts or spectacular ensemble choreography, and there’s even a semblance of truth in the acting. Every movement, every note, every expression has truth in it somewhere, and that comfortable feeling of sincerity is one we chase every day.  

After seeing it back in 2018, Hamilton was my safe space. There was a song for every moment in my life that I could retreat to instead of facing reality. For a show centered around the birth of American politics, it is remarkably apolitical, and that’s what makes it so universally appealing. The production number “The Room Where It Happens” isn’t about the formation of the National Bank; it’s about wanting to fit in and being a part of something bigger than oneself. “Burn” provides solace for the heartbroken, and “You’ll Be Back” deploys an 18th century tyrannical monarch to help them cope with this heartache. But, just like every political campaign, just like my supposedly innate uniqueness, and just like my ex’s empty words of affirmation, Hamilton is too good to be true, and for the sake of performative diversity, Lin-Manuel Miranda throws away his shot to make a substantive, meaningful statement on sexism, cyclical political centrism, and the racism that this diversity is meant to battle.

The public opinion of Hamilton has shifted negatively in recent years without a tangible impetus for this downward turn. The music has aged well, the creative players haven’t been involved in any egregious scandals, and the Disney+ release has made the show more accessible than ever. Frankly, Hamilton didn’t change; the world around it did. Similar to Into the Heights marking the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, Hamilton’s late 2015 release bookended the other side of it, but its meteoric rise also coincided with that of our current president, who launched his original campaign a month before Hamilton’s Broadway debut. Donald Trump’s populist promises and uncompromising attitude towards lawmaking and the Democratic Party shot him past the more centrist candidates running for Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton’s similarly bipartisan message did little to slow Trump’s momentum. The situation is more complicated than a one sentence explanation, but the root cause of it is not. The decline of centrism allowed Trump to enter the forefront of national media and enabled his eventual victory.

People are going to bat for this guy?

Hamilton is a celebration of American exceptionalism, unity, and patriotism, all monumental tenets of centrism. Of course, there are moments of discord between the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison giddily dance around to celebrate the discovery of the damning Reynolds Pamphlet, and it seems like they can’t stop shooting each other every 30 minutes. But, in the end, they all live happily ever after. Sure, Hamilton unnecessarily dies, but Jefferson and Madison finally recognize his genius, George Washington is honored for being the ultimate symbol of American unity, and all the slaves are freed! (Oh wait…no. Eliza Hamilton just speaks out against slavery.) These idealistic outcomes and revisionist perspectives on political figures are what American politics have revolved around since the country’s inception. Before Trump’s recent defeat, the transition of power between administrations has been largely cordial, and this respect lends itself to forgiveness. Our history books paint Thomas Jefferson as a master negotiator and one of the great American writers of the Revolution, not a rapist and serial slave owner. More recently, George W. Bush, responsible for the backwards Patriot Act and the continuation of the endless war against terrorism (*cough* oil *cough*), is now lauded as a respectful man that brought us out of the dark shadow 9/11 cast upon this country by liberals and conservatives alike. The sins these politicians committed and the regressive policies they passed are forgiven to maintain the image of excellency that we are told our representatives share in common because if our leaders are bad people, what does that make us?

Hamilton projects American exceptionalism for the world to see because that is what its audiences crave; that is the truth they want to believe. No proud American wants to recognize the atrocities of slavery in their totality. So, we’re given smaller, palatable truths to swallow. Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, not property. George Washington freed his slaves when he died, excusing his ownership of these men and women during his lifetime, and Hamilton portrays these men in exactly this way. Jefferson and Washington are illustrated as heroes of the Revolution and sympathetic to the struggles of slaves, despite the latter not being further from the truth. Lin-Manuel Miranda had a rare opportunity to tell American audiences the truth. In an industry and world dominated by white men, he had the privilege to shine a spotlight on the reality of America hidden in the shadows for too long, but Americans don’t like that truth. Instead, Miranda compromised, like any “great” politician would do.

Lin may compromise his morals, but he sure doesn’t compromise a good ol’ lip bite selfie!

Miranda takes a Jordan-like approach to his products. In 1990, one of the first African-American senate candidates in North Carolina Harvey Gantt challenged incumbent senator (and unabashed racist) Jesse Helms. Basketball legend Michael Jordan refused to endorse Gantt’s Democratic campaign, justifying his lack of activism with “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Gant lost the election by a narrow 5 point margin. At the end of the day, Miranda’s shows are for-profit products. They are opportunities for him to showcase his talent in front of the brightest lights on the biggest stage. Maybe he wrote this show with the express purpose to make a statement on bigotry and the state of America, but any meaningful attempt at that falls flat. Miranda writes a show that appeals to the centrist ideals of America without alienating any of his potential customers but does throw progressivism a bone in his casting. All of the protagonists are minorities! Again, in such a Caucasian-dominated industry, this is a huge step forward for diversity in Broadway and talented minorities are finally recognized, but simply making the cast diverse is not enough on its own. The diverse cast propped on a pedestal leads to complacent writing that does not acknowledge the full extent of America’s past and makes the audience too comfortable with the false identity of these characters.

Going back to Thomas Jefferson, Daveed Diggs compounds the issue of Miranda’s lack of activist writing. His natural stage presence and charm makes it nearly impossible to dislike Thomas Jefferson. The swagger that he exudes in the Cabinet Battles and his introductory number “What’d I Miss” fills the theatre, and this charisma is what audience members remember. Until my viewing of Hamilton, my only experience with the portrayal of Thomas Jefferson were educational documentaries with dramatic reenactments of historical events and pictures of his uncomfortably greasy hair. Do you expect that relic of American history to compete with Daveed freaking Diggs? Now when the name “Thomas Jefferson” is mentioned the first image that comes to mind is Daveed Diggs with his lavishly purple coat and stylish cane. The musical not only completely disregards Jefferson’s gross mistreatment of his slaves, but it subtly relinquishes the image of Thomas Jefferson as a white, privileged man.

Contrary to Hamilton‘s portrayal, the actual Thomas Jefferson had negative zero swag.

This performative casting diversity continues to be applauded for the future of Broadway that it represents and for getting Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Chris Jackson all on the same stage, but it distracts from more than just racism and centrism. Male characters dominate Hamilton. That isn’t unique to this show specifically, but the women’s lack of effect on the plot throughout the show is another missed opportunity by Miranda to make a powerful statement on sexism in America. Eliza feels like a pawn waiting to be moved. Alexander Hamilton walks into the ball, and she and her sister immediately swoon over him. She spends the rest of the show pleading for her husband to relax or at the very least survive, neither of which he can do, and in the second act, she is a conduit for the heartbreak that comes with Hamilton cheating on her and her son passing away. Only when Hamilton dies does Eliza finally get the faculty and power to effect change. She and her choices are reactionary to the world around her without the people around her paying much mind to her decisions. It’s rather disappointing because Phillipa Soo’s incredible vocals and strong acting could make a true female lead shine, but Miranda diminishes her to a source of internal conflict for Hamilton and of the resulting soliloquies when he neglects to heed her advice.

American exceptionalism is an ideal that we accept as the truth but do not necessarily believe to be true. From the moment we step in an American public school, everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to President’s Day are empty promises of national greatness, but there’s no reason to believe otherwise without evidence to the contrary. People with privilege and power are the individuals writing our textbooks and producing our shows telling us America is great, and the reality is that most of these individuals are rich, white men. But, sometimes a minority creator defies expectations and is given a platform for their voice to be heard. Lin-Manuel Miranda had the opportunity to tell the American people the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the midst of rampant unemployment, people drowning in debt, and the perpetual presence of systemic racism, Miranda fed us what centrists and patriots have told us for years. America was great, is great, and always will be great, and we truly believe it when we watch Hamilton. Only when we step out of the theatre and face the reality we desperately tried to escape do we realize the truth of our nation. America was not great, is not great, and will never be great unless we stop compromising for the bigots of the past and present and recognize the flaws of our nation.

Ensembles

4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Hi Will! This is a great post, even though I find it mildly infuriating that we came to essentially the same conclusion about Hamilton but you managed to express your argument in a much more articulate and hilarious way (this is still a compliment). Using images to break up your text was visually appealing and helped signpost when you were shifting gears to present new analysis. I especially enjoyed how you acknowledged the capitalism that motivates creators like Lin Manuel-Miranda and Michael Jordan, though it’s worth pointing out the two were in vastly different stages of their careers when their respective incidences occurred (I’d argue Jordan in 1990 is more akin to LMM post-Hamilton Tony Award wins). Maybe we are too harsh in judging the clout Miranda had before his Hamilton success? Could he have made a more progressive version of Hamilton made based on his career at that point, and even if he could’ve, would it had been as well-received as Hamilton was when it came out in 2015? I’ll be thinking about your conclusion that “America was great, is great, and always will be great, and we truly believe it when we watch Hamilton” for a long time. It really gets to the core of what Miranda ultimately created, whether intentional or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi,

    You have the best title and first sentence. I laughed so hard at them and they hooked me in immediately. (I offer my condolence and promise I will be truthful in my comment). I really like the humourous tone of your essay and the visuals and captions of them never failed to make me laugh out loud. Though with a light-hearted voice, you also offered a solid analysis and criticism of American centrism and the faults of Hamilton as well as the historical figures the show was based on. 

    I am most intrigued about your point that Thomas Jefferson as portrayed by Daveed Diggs has relinquished his image as a white, privileged man. While yes, he did relinquish the image of a white man (fun fact, there are actual people who believe Jefferson was black because of the show), how much of the “privilege” was relinquished? Is there any other power that he relinquished beside that of race? How did class and gender and even sexuality play into this? How intentional do you think the character design of Diggs’ Jefferson was to bring him closer to the audience? His styles, in clothings, hair, and even his voice and movements, were so that he appeared as different from a typical “stoic white founding father” figure as possible. What do you think this distancing from the original historical figure means for Hamilton as a musical that appeal to centricsm? 

    Liked by 1 person

  3. William Henke! I love the idea about if our leaders are bad people, what does that make us. I think that you have perfectly encapsulated what draws so many people to the story Lin-Manuel has retold in the context of Hamilton. People want to know that those that they celebrate, and the roots that they come from are exciting and good, like them. People are scared of the truth that maybe not everything in their past is perfect which is a scary truth Hamilton guards them from. In addition, I think that you have a wonderful tone and I really enjoy your writing. You have strong organization and your examples are perfectly selected. It is an argument comedically and intelligently devised. Great work.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “For a show centered around the birth of American politics, it is remarkably apolitical, and that’s what makes it so universally appealing. ”

    “Lin-Manuel Miranda had a rare opportunity to tell American audiences the truth.”
    These two lines from your essay speak volumes so simply. I am in awe of the simple and direct statements they make. Your discussion about the way we transfer power and write history in America gave me the words to discuss just interesting it is that so many people identified so strongly with Hamilton. Not only did not ruffle any feathers, Lin went out of his way to write the American story that is easy to swallow and the story that has always been told. You don’t condemn LIn, you condemn the society that made all of this “digestible narrative History” the norm. Thank you so much for such a great use of simplicity facts and exprespessive explanation.

    Like

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