My ten year old and I took a trip to our nation’s capital last month. One of the conversations early on in the trip went something like this.
Me (doing my best Tony Soprano voice): There it is.
Ten Year Old (TYO): What?
Me (Pointing to the Washington Monument): George Washington showing the British a huge middle finger.
TYO: Really? No, that can’t be what it represents.
Me: No it’s not. BUT are you ready to check out the monument to G Dub? What about my man Tommy J?
TYO (Making a face like he’d smelled a cadaver): Who are they?
Me: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
TYO: Please don’t call them that.
Me: Ok what ’bout my homie Marty K?
TYO (The same face again): Who? Oh, never mind. Please stop.
I then did the floss and had him record it, all the while watching him visibly cringe and cover his eyes. As if covering his eyes meant no one around him could see him in the company of a rotund middle aged man doing the floss. Right by the Washington monument no less.
So we did the museums and the touristy stuff but we also caught a performance of Hamilton.The popular cultural phenomenon that has swept the nation the past three years. Full disclosure is in order here. This is the second ever play or musical or what have you I have ever watched. The first one was The Damn Yankees to which I had tickets courtesy of a co-worker whose husband was a student in the Drama department at Texas Tech University. That was about fifteen years ago and I sure didn’t know nothin’ about no baseball or no damn Yankees then. I sure as hell didn’t know what a musical was. Regardless the wife (then fiance) and I had a great time. The poor graduate students that we were then, the highlight was the free food. All this is a long winded way of saying that if there is a person least qualified to review a performance of Hamilton you are reading him. That being said I cannot resist writing what my impressions of the show were, even though, as always, I’m a day late and a dollar short (more like three years late). So for what its worth, here goes.
The music is incredible. My ten year old and I haven’t stopped listening to it since the day I booked the tickets. Some would call questionable parenting letting a ten year old listen to a soundtrack that starts with “How Does a Bastard, An Orphan, A Son of a Whore and a Scotsman“, but hey. Questionable parenting aside, one doesn’t have to be a fan of hip hop — which my ten year old and I most certainly are — to appreciate the genius of the music and the lyrics, of the interweaving of the story of Alexander Hamilton and the Revolutionary War. Just brilliant. The ten year old gets a special kick out of the songs featuring King George III (You’ll Be Back, What Comes Next, and I Know Him). He remarked how the actor playing George III looked just like DJT and said “So King George was the Donald Trump of his time.” I corrected him that Donald Trump is the King George of our time and how all of them back then were Donald Trumps. He also gets a kick out of the lyrics that involve the character of the Marquis de Lafayette, because of the French accent: The Story Of Tonight, Aaron Burr Sir, and Yorktown being some of his favorite ones. My personal favorite is How Does a Ragtag Volunteer Army, In Need of a Shower, Somehow Defeat a Global Superpower? (Guns and Ships)
I’ve always thought, and this is no revelation for even a casual reader of American history that some of the founders: Hamilton, Paine, Jay, Madison, Lafayette, Rush, to name a few, get short shrift in the telling of the founding compared to Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin. One doesn’t need any particular knowledge of revolutionary history to appreciate the show but like everything else, the more one knows the more one can appreciate it. For example, from the reading of Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of George Washington I understood the complicated relationship Washington had with Hamilton and also the bitter falling out Paine had with Washington after the French Revolution. In Paine’s view Washington’s abandonment of him and Lafayette to face the guillotine in the Robespierrean Terror that followed the French Revolution was unforgivable. He went from a “man of exemplary virtue” in his eyes to being called at best a marginal character that received way too much undeserved credit for the revolution.
Returning to the show, I thought the reduction of Jefferson (What’d I Miss) as someone that delegated the writing of the Declaration of Independence to the Marquis de Lafayette, took credit for it and went gallivanting about Europe was not cool. Yes, Jefferson spent most of the war in France and Europe but to reduce arguably his greatest accomplishment with the exception of the Louisiana Purchase to essentially a credit undeserved bordered on the revisionist in my opinion. But I do understand how in the popular telling of history some things can get embellished. Especially considering that when viewed with today’s lenses Jefferson would have been what we call Conservatives today. More on that later though. The lyrics precisely go like this. It could be the satire that went completely over my head so I’ll let the reader be the judge:
I had Lafayette draft a declaration
Then I said, I gotta go
I gotta be in Monticello
Now the work at home begins
So what’d I miss?
What’d I miss?
Virginia, my home sweet home, I wanna give you a kiss
I’ve been in Paris meeting lots of different ladies
I guess I basically missed the late eighties
I traveled the wide, wide world and came back to this
There’s a letter on my desk from the President
Haven’t even put my bags down yet Sally be a lamb, darlin’ won’tcha open it?
It says the President’s assembling a cabinet
And that I am to be the Secretary of State, great
And that I’m already Senate-approved
I just got home and now I’m headed up to New York
Headin’ to New York, headin’ to New York
Those familiar with Jefferson’s exploits (or in this specific case, institutionalized rape, as the historian Jon Meacham writes) would not have missed the reference to Sally Hemmings.
The caricature of John Adams was funny. The lyrics of Take a Break as Eliza is urging her husband to spend more time with her family go like this:
Angelica, tell this man John Adams spends the summer with his family
Angelica, tell my wife John Adams doesn’t have a real job anyway
Or as Washington steps away and Adams is now president , the lyrics of The Adams Administration go:
Adams fires Hamilton
Privately calls him “creole bastard” in his taunts
Hamilton publishes his response
Sit down, John, you fat mother—[BLEEP]
Now granted that Adams was nicknamed His Rotundity by some of his peers because of the highfalutin titles he kept coming up with for Washington, one of which was “His Highness, the President of the United States of America and the Protector of their Liberties”. Before Washington put his foot down and they settled on the powerful yet simple “Mr President”. But fat motherfucker? C’mon! That’s just plain mean.. And funny. And needless to say that evoked the greatest amount of laughter from the ten year old.
Some of the loudest cheers from the audience came when Hamilton and Lafayette sang Immigrants: We Get the Job Done (Yorktown).
One takeaway for me from the show is how precarious things were. Things we take for granted today; the things that are Common Sense (see what I did there?). The people electing their own leaders. A government of the people, for the people, by the people if you will. How novel the very concept was and what an experiment it was on so grand a scale. One also appreciates the greatness of Washington the man as one looks at the bickering and pettifogging that followed him. As history is our witness, the first excuse for any dictator or general to usurp power is: “If I leave it to these clowns the country will come apart”. The man was prescient to see the folly in setting the wrong precedent and every president since has followed it. Well, at least until a certain FDR came along. The Communist in the White House they called FDR. Even so, Washington himself could not escape the taunt of Dictator. Heck, even the great Abraham Lincoln was called a dictator when he suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. So presidents lest revered and canonized in the popular telling of history should take solace in that even Washington and Lincoln weren’t above the accusations of being dictatorial.
Another takeaway was what the fate of the revolution would have been if it were not a white man’s revolution. I have always envied America and its revolution and felt ashamed in a way that we Indians couldn’t do that to the British sooner. Before Empire became a tottering, rotting relic of the previous centuries Before the British had their resources stretched so thin after World War II that they could no longer hold on to Empire. But that shame and envy is misplaced because if it weren’t the white gentry of Virginia, Massachusetts, Philadelphia and New York leading the charge (literally and figuratively), I dare say it had every chance to go down as “an insurrection” or a “mutiny” as the events of 1857 subsequently showed in India. What the Indians call The Revolt of 1857, or The First War of Independence is simply the Sepoy Mutiny for the western world. Would the French have stepped forward if this were not a white man’s revolution? I don’t know but I’m inclined to believe they wouldn’t have.
Another thing I tried to deduce from the show was where, in today’s political spectrum would men like Jefferson, Paine, Hamilton, Adams and Washington have come down. The term States’ Rights is code these days for “I want to maintain the status quo and not give up my privilege” white or male or heterosexual or whatever. Or a means to argue against universal healthcare. Back then it meant something though. Paine, Hamilton and Adams would have been today’s democrats in my opinion, being Federalists and all. Jefferson, Madison and possibly even Washington today’s republicans. Only these men would have had principles as opposed to the GOP of Paul Ryan. Indeed I even bought tickets to a discussion where I could, as a member of the audience participate in a debate in Monticello one evening where the topic was “Are we living in a more Hamiltonian or Jeffersonian world today”. Like the topic even needs debating. It is settled in my opinion that we are living in a Hamiltonian world. Then my ten year old insisted he *had* to get that fried chicken fast food at the train station and we missed our train to Charlottesville.
The the other parts of the show, the personal stuff, the Schulyer sisters, Theodosia, the Reynolds Affair etc. I didn’t quite care for, but I see how it is an essential part in a biography of Hamilton. Much has also been written about the stupidity and absurdity of duels so I’ll skip those parts too.
If you’ve managed to read this half-assed review of sorts, Thank You. Really. Or to close in the words of A dot Ham and A dot Burr.
I have the Honor to be your Obedient Servant.
L dot Har.