After years of waiting, I finally saw Hamilton last week in Los Angeles. My wife and I were absolutely spellbound the whole time – dumbfounded masses of quivering goosebumps dripping with tears and snot, gasping for air as certain moments punched us right in the soul. I recommend it.
Setting aside for a moment the brilliant writing, acting, singing, choreography, and everything else that makes this possibly the best thing to come out of Broadway ever, I want to talk about the greatest non-Hamilton thing I love about Hamilton: it’s sparking an interest in history that goes well beyond the musical.
My mission with this blog has always been to bring the personalities of historical figures to life through their lesser-known stories, and I relish the way Hamilton excels in its similar mission. By humanizing these characters from American history text books and showing them with relatable emotions and struggles (and killer rhymes), Hamilton doesn’t just make history palatable, like cherry-flavored medicine – it makes it enthralling, addictive. Hamilton is a gateway drug to real history.
I’m seeing young history fans passionately discussing John Laurens and Lafayette with the same devotion I remember kids talking about Han Solo and Boba Fett. People who never cared about history are starting to care, and they’re becoming new audiences for people who always cared about history. Like the 15-year-old author of this Tumblr, rattling off 39 historical inaccuracies in Hamilton:
|This kid is insane, man.|
The Hamilton drug is psychoactive, and its effects may be permanent if we’re lucky. Hamilton brainwashes the next generation into valuing recently abandoned American ideals like hard work, integrity, perseverance, intelligence, intellectual curiosity, loyalty, love, compromise, and forgiveness, at the same time it condemns vices like pride and infidelity.
It used to go without question that these were American ideals – universal human ideals even. But in a world turned upside down, we could use a reminder that certain values are coveted and others are dangerous, especially in leaders. Hamilton fans who seek out Alexander’s nonstop writing may find this illuminating quote about the danger of demagogues:
|from Yale professor and author Joanne Freeman‘s Twitter|
Hamilton‘s influence could not have come at a better time. When the leader of the country compares a Confederate general to George Washington, Hamilton reminds people what George Washington actually believed in. When the role immigrants played in building the United States is minimized to further a nationalist agenda, Hamilton shows what an absurd misrepresentation that is of our history.
When we’re told we must build a wall around this country to make it great, Hamilton breaks through the fourth wall to reveal that America’s greatness comes from enlightenment thinking and ideals of the human spirit that have no borders.
|from Hamilton: The Revolution|
I can’t help but think of another Lin-Manuel Miranda project, Moana, which my daughter is absolutely obsessed with. (It’s like her Hamilton.) In a beautiful moment along her hero’s journey Moana is asked, “Do you know who you are?” The song seems like a companion piece to Hamilton, not just as a question for Moana or Alexander to answer but also for the young nation: America, do you know who you are?
We’re still asking that question two centuries later. Moana learned her ancestors were voyagers, and that applies to Americans too – we were geographic and intellectual voyagers, using the lessons of the past to chart an unknown course forward. Because, like Hamilton, there are still a million things we haven’t done. We haven’t put a person on Mars yet. We’ve made substantial progress but we have yet to achieve true equality. We’ve never even impeached and removed a president from office. These are just examples.
Hamilton didn’t make history cool. (History has always been cool.) But Hamilton made more people interested in the truth about the past and its applications to the present. As it expands to more locations and punches more theatergoers in the soul, its influence will only grow. That could be a damn good thing for the future.
We’ll just have to wait for it.
Plodding Through The Presidents on Facebook for more like this!