ONLINE EXCLUSIVE COLUMN BY JOHN WINGERT
The Hamilton musical is sweeping the country. After an extremely successful run off-Broadway, Hamilton was taken to Broadway and has had an almost spotless record of reviews. Tickets are sold months in advance. President Obama has praised the musical after the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, had first delivered the opening number at the White House in 2009.
The musical also has a very particular, political perspective. No one should go as far as saying that it is representing directly the lessons of history; the musical takes many liberties with historical facts such as the number of children people had, the nature of certain relationships, and the ardency of people’s beliefs.
Nonetheless, it has some important lessons to tell us about politics based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s romanticization of Alexander Hamilton.
The main themes of the musical relate to the immigration, leadership, and the relationship between Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The two characters repeatedly run into each other throughout the musical. Burr acts as the narrator who tells Hamilton’s story.
In the beginning of the musical, Hamilton approaches Burr for advice on his law degree and future with the burgeoning revolution. Burr provides him with some salient advice that will repeat itself throughout the rest of the narrative. “Talk less/smile more,” Burr says, “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
Before the Revolution, Burr refuses to join in the fight with Hamilton and other radicals. He refuses to commit unlike the others. Hamilton pressures for war and an end to what he sees as British tyranny, while Burr, despite being asked to revolt by his parents before they died, decides to postpone to see how it goes.
Throughout the Revolution, Hamilton advances through the ranks. Burr comments that he is “willing to wait for it,” but Hamilton is advancing because he “doesn’t hesitate/he exhibits no restraint/he takes and he takes and he takes/and he keeps winning anyway.”
After the Revolution, Hamilton tries to recruit Burr to write in support of the new Constitution. Hamilton famously wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist papers, and in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s history Burr refused to take one side or the other. Instead, Burr is constantly concern about “backing the wrong horse.” When Hamilton presses him on not taking a stand for a new Constitution, and, in his view, a better form of government, Burr just says “I’ll keep all my plans/Close to my chest/I’ll wait here and see/Which way the wind/Will blow.” Hamilton grows frustrated but concedes that he must work harder to get it passed without Burr’s help.
Hamilton eventually becomes a member of the Washington Administration as the Secretary of the Treasury. In this position, Hamilton tries to consolidate the states’ debts at the national level. Burr and Hamilton run into each other as Hamilton is trying to formulate a compromise that will get his finance proposal through Congress. Burr grows jealous and becomes increasingly determined to gain power.
As the story goes on, Burr and Hamilton’s animosity grows. Burr continues to show a lack of commitment to ideals. Burr abandons the Federalist Party, which Hamilton is a leader in, so that he could take the New York Senate seat from Hamilton’s father-in-law. Showing no commitment to ideology, Burr explains that he thought the Democratic-Republicans would win and therefore joined with them.
Years later, Burr is running for the nomination in the Democratic-Republican Party against Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton and Jefferson have fought ardently against each other because neither can agree on any issue of policy. Jefferson has continually led efforts against Hamilton’s proposals, but nonetheless, Hamilton endorses Jefferson’s candidacy. Hamilton states that Burr clearly stands for nothing and is unfit to lead. Jefferson, who had staked out farther right positions, benefits dramatically from Hamilton’s left-leaning endorsement to make him look more moderate.
Burr blames Hamilton for this defeat and over the course of escalating language and bellicose letters, the two eventually engage in their infamous duel.
Lin-Manuel Miranda clearly portrays Hamilton as the protagonist, imperfect as he may be. Hamilton’s clear propensity to go out on a limb in his policy propositions in ways that may be dramatically unpopular is congratulated. Burr instead chooses to give no opinion so that it will not alienate anyone. The message is clearly to be honest and frank in political discussions and be genuine while staking strong stances.
What does this message mean for the 2016 cycle? Two candidates have had the most trouble appearing “genuine” and staking out strong stances. The presumed front-runners early in the race in both parties, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, have had shaky moments due to their inability to appear principled. Clinton has flip-flopped too many times with poll numbers to convince anyone that she is the principled activist in her party. Bush has often retracted statements that later became unpopular in the general public.
These “Burrs” have faced challengers from either side that have strongly and clearly voiced more extreme positions that seem to be more genuinely held. Bernie Sanders has held largely the same far-left positions since he joined Congress. On the other side, a Donald Trump supporter praised the billionaire for being able to “legitimately say what he thinks” and that he “doesn’t care if people aren’t going to like what he has to say.”
The pandering of establishment favorites in politics has been referred to as “post-politics.” It is a strategy of not caring about your own beliefs to any noticeable extent but instead following the polls to determine policy proposals. This form of politics has been tried in other countries.
In Poland, the Civic Platform party tried to use post-politics to maintain power even if it meant not passing reforms that actually mattered to them personally. Ewa Kopacz, the Civic Platform Prime Minister, recently saw her party crushed in recent elections which instead demonstrated a tremendous outpouring of support for the far-right populist party, The Law and Justice Party. Although the ideas of the Law and Justice Party may be extreme, by all accounts they seem to be sincerely held.
There are few doubts that the Hamilton musical played with the facts and wove together lessons and narratives to be gleamed from the performance, but nevertheless there is resonance in the message of sincerely held beliefs over poll-based, fence-sitting, indecision.
Whatever the candidates’ leanings, perhaps they could learn a thing or two from Alexander Hamilton, or at least Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrayal: be yourself. What the ochlocracy believes will always change, but if you are true to yourself, people will respect your honesty.