As a political philosophy nerd, I was delightfully surprised that Broadway merged pop culture and American history to create the musical “Hamilton,” and even more surprised that it actually appealed to my generation in spite of our notorious underappreciation of America’s founding history.
Yet the death of Justice Antonin Scalia revealed a startling disconnect: millennials flocked to social media celebrating the Grammy win of a show about the foremost proponent of the Constitution’s ratification, while simultaneously rejoicing in the untimely loss of a strong adherent to the ideals for which Alexander Hamilton fought.
If millennials truly understood their heritage, their reactions to these events might be less disjointed. So what is to be done to rectify this situation and help millennials recognize the relevance of the Founders in their own lives?
Let No One Despise Your Youth, But Be an Example
First, millennials must learn that the Founders are relatable: they too were young, driven, and passionate. “Hamilton,” the musical, expertly captures this with Alexander’s line, “I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy, and hungry/and I’m not throwin’ away my shot” when describing his ambition. The real Hamilton never let his youth hinder his success; rather, he ensured that his work ethic compensated for his lack of experience.
Hamilton became George Washington’s advisor in his early 20s, went on to write the Federalist Papers at age 32, and became secretary of the U.S. Treasury at age 34. The Founders—and their youth— can be an inspiration for young people to realize that age is not a prerequisite for leadership and engagement in politics and policy.
Second, millennials must heed the Founders’ warning when voting in 2016. They explicitly warned us about inflammatory candidates (read: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders), and endeavored to structure a system that would protect the angry masses from themselves. In “Federalist No. 1,” Hamilton cautions against men gaining power through igniting the public’s fury, warning that they start by “paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
Later, in “Federalist No. 10,” Hamilton’s coauthor James Madison discusses concerns about how “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices” may abuse power and “betray the interests of the people.” The Founders knew there would be times in our nation’s history when antagonism would be the dominating sentiment amongst the people. They also knew that reactionary anger would not be a reliable enough emotion for choosing leaders.
Consider Your Long-Term Legacy
It is here that Hamilton again keenly appeals to young people, this time, by reminding them to think about their political legacy. Hamilton died before age 50, and the play leaves audiences wondering what more the young American could have done for our country had he not been fatally shot in a duel. Multiple songs remind audiences to think about “who keeps your flame, who tells your story.” In the final number, Hamilton’s widow laments to her late husband, “You could have done so much more if you only had time.”
Millennials’ political legacy begins today. In 2016, it is imperative for us as the largest living generation to heed the Founders’ warnings and think about the long-term consequences of our vote. We cannot afford to let present vehemence blind our judgment, especially since the next president may have the unique opportunity to fill multiple Supreme Court vacancies. Since most of us won’t be able to claim “killed in a duel” as an excuse for our shortcomings when looking back on the political choices (or apathy) we adopted as young people, it would behoove us to understand and remember the Founders and their principles as we head to the polls.
If we fail, we will become the generation history blames for relegating our amazing heritage to historical insignificance. Choose wisely, my fellow millennials, because the time for blaming older generations is running out. This year’s elections provide us an opportunity; let’s not throw away our shot.