‘Hamilton’ Succeeds By Recreating The American Founding Myth Sans Slavery

‘Hamilton’ Succeeds By Recreating The American Founding Myth Sans Slavery

To understand liberals’ sudden admiration for Alexander Hamilton, it helps to consider what they think of the other Founding Fathers.
Ryan Hammill

Americans are searching desperately for a new national myth. That is the only explanation I can come up with to explain the immense popularity of the “Hamilton” musical. I don’t mean to denigrate the musical—after all, the songs are innovative, moving, and entertaining. (Since I cannot count myself among those privileged enough to have attended an actual showing, I can comment only on the music.) The music is good.

But how could a man—not just any old straight white man, not just one of the Founding Fathers (inherently patriarchal), but the man who was the very architect of American industrial capitalism—become so overwhelmingly celebrated, particularly among liberals? It is hard to imagine “Adam Smith: A British Musical” having the same effect.

In an age where the legacy of slavery has again taken center stage in our national life, I can see that the ethnically diverse casting carries political appeal. But writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t particularly original in that respect. Any free, open-air Shakespeare production in my home of the San Francisco Bay area is sure to have an intentionally diverse cast.

Seriously, They’re Going Wild

That the musical is wildly popular among liberals is undeniable. Compare the finger-wagging Vice President Pence received at a New York “Hamilton” showing to what has happened on the other side of the aisle. President Obama himself hosted Miranda in the White House and called the musical “a work of genius.”

That it may be. First Lady Michelle Obama went further. She called it, repeatedly, “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” Really? The best, in any form, ever? I mean, she did spend eight years living inside a museum.

Liberal exaggeration of Alexander Hamilton and his eponymous musical is hardly confined to the White House. A column in The Atlantic queried thinkers and cultural figures on “the most influential politician in history,” and in it, Hasan Minhaj of “The Daily Show” didn’t miss a beat in endorsing Hamilton as the most influential political personage in human history.

“A bastard, orphan immigrant who came to America to leave his mark on our nation’s history” Minhaj said, echoing verbiage from the musical. “His impact on politics and our financial institutions is second to none.”

So is Hamilton’s arch-capitalist, white male-ness just casually overlooked, incidental and unimportant when viewed in the light of his “bastard, orphan immigrant” upbringing? Do the boosters of identity politics have selective vision (and hearing) about Hamilton, both the man and the musical? Or are they just really into the financial apparatus that undergirds industrial capitalism?

Let’s Put This Craze in Context

Well, to understand liberals’ sudden admiration for Hamilton, it helps to consider what they think of the other Founding Fathers. Let’s just say that things aren’t looking up. You can’t really mention Thomas Jefferson, for example, without a reference to Sally Hemings. In some places Jefferson can’t be mentioned at all—at the University of Virginia, which he founded, the university president met protests after mentioning Jefferson in a school-wide email. So, Jefferson’s out.

George Washington, honest though he may have been, is similarly derided for his vast landholdings worked by slaves. James Madison, author of the Constitution, was also a Southern slave-owner. In the eyes of the Left, these men have very little moral or political standing. Their disgrace inevitably disgraces the American myth, which, as David Brooks pointed out in a recent column, has “been bruised by an educational system that doesn’t teach civilizational history or real American history but instead a shapeless multiculturalism.”

But let’s not be too hard on liberals for denouncing these Founding Fathers. After all, they’re doing precisely what the American revolutionaries did in 1776: disowning their patrimony. The dynamic is captured, actually, very clearly in the “Hamilton” musical. As king, George III not only holds political authority over Britain and its colonies, he is also the father of his people. Kingship is a hereditary, lifetime office, ordained by God in the fashion of family. On this model, the father of the house is a little king over his family.

In the musical, it’s clear that the revolutionaries are fighting not only to establish their own country, but also to rid themselves of their unwanted father, and his contemptibility comes across none-too-subtly. George III is pompous, vain, and insane (accurate). For example: in all three of his songs, he intones a long, obnoxious, nonsense refrain of the same “Da da da” sound. But having secured independence from their loathsome king, the Americans are suddenly fatherless—just like Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton Is the America Liberals Want to Love

The musical makes clear that Hamilton himself is a symbol of the young United States. “I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,” he raps. But of course, those aren’t the only similarities they share. Like America, Hamilton is also self-made, with clear immigrant origins, and most importantly, is an orphan.

Having denounced their father in the Revolution, Americans had to develop new heroic ancestors—the Founding Fathers. But now that postmodern liberals have denounced the bulk of them as racists, liberals find themselves orphaned in America. The Treasury secretary, thus, personifies not only the young United States. He is also a stand-in for the twenty-first-century liberal.

This helps explain the musical’s appeal—it is a new myth. After all, people cannot live without myths. True or not (some are), myths are the stories that tell us who we are, where we are, what we are doing, and why. Even liberals brave enough to have dispensed of the Founding Fathers find themselves drawn back willy-nilly to a new origin story, to a Founding Father untainted, in their minds, by the racial sins of his contemporaries. So, we actually shouldn’t be too hard on liberals for their inordinate love of “Hamilton,” since bearing witness to the creation of America’s new myth is groundbreaking stuff.

Reaching Back Into Human Archetypes for Meaning

However, it’s actually an oxymoron to say that anyone “creates” a myth. A myth is never new. It always refers back to something older, some other story that lives within us, perhaps without us even knowing it. Could we have Star Wars without the Odyssey? Could we have the Odyssey without Gilgamesh?

So then, if Hamilton is a new national myth, what older story lends it the key to slip open the door into the inner chambers of the heart? What is “Hamilton’s” Odyssey? What is its Gilgamesh?

None other than King Arthur himself was the offspring of an illicit union, a very strange beginning for the father of a nation.

We see the beginning of a paper trail in the song “Aaron Burr, Sir,” in which Lafayette anoints himself the “Lancelot of the revolutionary set.” Whether he is or not, the reference to the Knights of the Round Table gives us a clue about the source of mythic power “Hamilton” must draw from.

Alexander Hamilton isn’t, after all, the first national hero of questionable birth. None other than King Arthur himself was the offspring of an illicit union, a very strange beginning for the father of a nation. In Thomas Malory’s account, Arthur is born of Uther Pendragon’s rape of Igraine then spirited away to be fostered by a poor peasant family. He eventually returns as a young man to Camelot, and through a series of trials, finally attains his rightful kingship.

Granted, the similarities between Arthur and Alexander aren’t one-to-one (Hamilton obviously never became king), but certain elements, like the origin story, fit closely. In the earliest Arthurian text, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain,” some of the same themes of identity even crop up. Arthur comes to power battling Saxon invaders, but of course, “Saxon” isn’t a foreign “other” for the English. It provides half of “Anglo-Saxon,” an inextricable element of their mixed-up ethnic identity, which sheds a new light on the significance of casting ethnically diverse Founding Fathers who are fighting against King George III, himself a descendant, in a way, of the mythical Arthur.

The plot structure of the “Hamilton” musical is Arthurian. One of the central plot devices, and for good reason given the historical Hamilton’s violent intemperance, is the duel. The noble duel, that battle for honor, potentially but not always fatal, fits right in line with the jousts that dominate the Arthurian legends.

‘Hamilton’s’ Holy Grail

What are the cabinet meetings but councils of the Round Table? At these councils, the knights of the American founding embark on quests for sound banking policy and a workable Constitution, mere preludes to the ultimate quest—the quest for the Holy Grail. Ah, the Grail. No retelling of Arthur could work without a parallel to this ultimate quest, and indeed, the “Hamilton” musical delivers. But what is America’s grail?

At first, it may only seem subtle, but it’s actually what gives “Hamilton” its immense relevance and blockbuster appeal. This is where the paper trail leads. In her song lamenting Hamilton’s untimely death, his faithful wife Eliza (in a reversal of the faithful and forgiving Arthur versus unfaithful Guinevere trope) sings to her dead husband of her political activities as a widow: “I speak out against slavery / You could have done so much more if only you had—” The ensemble finishes her line: “Time.”

I speak out against slavery / You could have done so much more if only you had time.

That is the Quest. Abolishing slavery eluded presidents Madison, Jefferson, and even Washington, the one Founder who emancipated his slaves upon his death. In American life, racial harmony is the always-out-of-reach Holy Grail. It’s a quest that democracy has repeatedly proved herself incapable of attaining. Slavery required a war for its abolition, Reconstruction was carried out by an occupying army, Jim Crow required mass lawbreaking to push out of its nest, and still, racism divides us, violently and deeply.

In American life, racial harmony is the always-out-of-reach Holy Grail.

Of course, this one line from Eliza isn’t the climax of the musical. But it does help explain the central, most remarked-about features of “Hamilton”: casting a racially diverse set of actors as the Founding Fathers (the only role filled by a white actor is, let the reader understand, that of King George III), and centering hip-hop as the artistic basis of the musical.

These moves are not sops to multiculturalism, they indicate the hope that sustains the myth, like the hope that Penelope will be faithful, that Gilgamesh’s friendship with Enkidu will never die. It is the hope, the belief, that racial harmony is within our reach, that it always has been, and that we need only empower the right people who will help us attain it. The tragedy, of course, is that Hamilton, the one Founder who could have, died before he achieved it.

Thus, we should not be surprised that this tragic musical’s triumph has come at the end of the Obama era, the presidency that was supposed to rebirth American race relations. We empowered the right man—the right kind of man—but he had to leave office before he could do it. He’s a president whom many wistfully fantasized about staying past his term in office. Some hope for a family dynasty.

The Old Myths Never Truly Die

It is entirely fitting, then, that the hero of this revolutionary musical is paradoxically the very figure who was accused, repeatedly, of being a closeted monarchist. That’s because even when you try to kill the father, or destroy the old myths, they never go away.

The Arthurian mythology that haunts the Left and lends this Treasury secretary his splendor is the nagging thought, the wish, the belief, that if Hamilton had survived Mordred’s (sorry, Burr’s) betrayal, if he had acceded to power, then that bastard, immigrant, son of a whore would have done something. He would have abolished slavery. The unattainable Grail could have been found.

If only Hamilton had been king.

Ryan Hammill is a writer who hails from the San Francisco Bay area. He likes to find points of agreement in surprising places. Follow him on Twitter @RyanAHammill.
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