I am obsessed with the soundtrack for the musical “Hamilton.” I know I’m not the only one and so I don’t think I could say anything new about it here. Briefly, though, for those of you unaware of it, “Hamilton” is a play, sung-through so that the soundtrack is essentially the unabridged soundtrack of the play itself. The subject is the youngest founding father of the United States Alexander Hamilton and what makes the show noteworthy is that much of the lyrics are rapped. It has thus earned comments about the ostensible absurdity of a “hip-hop musical” about the first treasury secretary of the United States. And yet it works, not despite of the musical styles employed, but because of them. As the author of the play Lin-Manuel Miranda notes, hip-hop allows for way more lyrics than any other musical style and so he can pack in more story and more allusions and more meaning in his play than can other playwrights.
What the style also allows is clever reimaginings of important scenes in American history, such as a cabinet debate between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over how to manage the nations debts after the War done in the style of an 8-Mile-like rap battle. This particular song was my first foray into the musical since it was played on the NPR podcast “Planet Money.” One of the highlights of this song are the way these two historical figures whose portraits grace American currency really go after each other with ad hominem attacks. For instance, Jefferson begins the debate and includes the verse:
But Hamilton forgets
His plan would have the government assume state’s debts
Now, place your bets as to who that benefits:
The very seat of government where Hamilton sits
Ooh, if the shoe fits, wear it
If New York’s in debt—
Why should Virginia bear it?
Hamilton’s response ends thusly, hitting on Jefferson’s interest in growing hemp and James Madison’s frailty:
And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment
Don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it
You think I’m frightened of you, man?
We almost died in a trench
While you were off getting high with the French
Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President
Reticent—there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison
Madison, you’re mad as a hatter, son, take your medicine
Damn, you’re in worse shape than the national debt is in
Sittin’ there useless as two shits
Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you
Where my shoe fits!
Despite how much I enjoy this scene, I became troubled by it over the last few days with news of the last Republican debate. I didn’t watch it, so I only know what people said about it and that was of course dominated by what two of the candidates had to say about the size of Donald Trump’s anatomy.
One reaction to the way Trump talks in general is a New Yorker cartoon of former presidents shaking their heads at Trump holding up his small hands. But are we lionizing the founding fathers a bit too much? Does not Lin-Manuel Miranda offer a better picture and one that looks more like Trump and Rubio than the whitewashed pictures that hang in portrait galleries and on our currency? After all, it wasn’t just Jefferson and Madison who fought with Hamilton, but also John Adams, who was in the same party as Hamilton. Hamilton sabotaged Adam’s candidacy with an incendiary 50 page pamphlet and Adams, in turn, sabotaged Hamilton’s legacy for centuries with his own savage responses. One of the few things Adams had in common with Jefferson, it seems, is a shared hatred of Alexander Hamilton
Until pretty much last year, when Miranda’s musical became the hottest ticket on Broadway, Hamilton was primarily known as the guy who Vice President Aaron Burr killed in a duel! As ridiculous as Republican politics seems right now, and as obsessed as each seems to be with guns, I’m pretty sure we’re miles away from one of them actually killing another one with a pistol!
How, then, do we reconcile our perception of what “presidential” is with how the most revered presidents actually acted? Well, first, I think we should be better historians and realize that our founding fathers were more accurately named “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis in his Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name. They squabbled and were imperfect. They were often nasty to each other (like some modern politicians). And their ideas were often very much at odds with each other to the point that the country each envisioned was often not the same country at all.
Second (and this is merely a theory based on my wanting desperately to find a way to disqualify Trump and Cruz from leading a modern nation-state), despite their hatred of each other Hamilton and Jefferson still recognized the importance of compromise. This is dramatized in “Hamilton” with a somewhat cynical number “The Room Where it Happens,” where Aaron Burr is aghast that Hamilton would allow for the capital of the United States to move to the Potomac river in Jefferson’s state of Virginia. Why would Hamilton agree to this? Because Jefferson and Madison let Hamilton form the financial and banking system in New York. The Capital for the capital, if you will.
The five competing theories of governing in “Hamilton” don’t have direct analogies in the current presidential race, but they illustrate what’s going on in a limited fashion. Hamilton (Federalist, abolitionist), Jefferson (agrarian, states-rights Democratic-Republican, slave-owner), Burr (idea-less opportunist; someone “you could have a beer with”), King George III (authoritarian). The fifth is George Washington, who plays the ideal that no one can live up to: Great leader with great temperament who has the modesty to give up his own power for the sake of the Republic.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if any of these fit in the current campaign. But it seems to me that Trump is a combination of Hamilton (“am I talkin’ too loud? / Sometimes I get over excited, shoot off at the mouth /”), Jefferson (populist and a hypocritical racist), and Burr (party-flipping opportunist). Any of these is arguably “Presidential.” But with Trump (and Cruz?) you also get a huge dose of King George’s authoritarianism.
I recently saw a hat parodying Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” It reads “Make America Great Britain Again.” It was unclear what the hat wearer is trying to say, though. Is he an anglophile who actually wants America to join Great Britain again, now that the head of state is merely a figurehead? Or is he arguing that Trump’s rhetoric makes him sound like a wannabe crazy narcissistic monarch? In “Hamilton,” the crazy narcissistic monarch King George III sings, “When you’re gone, I’ll go mad / So don’t throw away this thing we had / Cuz when push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”