If you were at the nation’s finest 4thof July Parade (Piedmont’s – duh!), I hope you noticed the most adorable little float ever: the Kelleher/Olcott/Pochop/Maxwell’s tribute to Hamilton. Besides presenting a unique opportunity for Chad to dance wildly in a Colonial-era wig, it was the most fun our crew has ever had in a joint float-building tradition that dates back to the Olcott-Pochop’s second day in Piedmont, circa 2003.
I love Hamilton for all the reasons everyone else does. The sensational music, the gorgeously diverse and outrageously talented cast, the fascinating history lesson. The awe-inspiring creative leap it took to envision a hip-hop story within the drama of our country’s founding. The sheer fact that it was written by a living genius, a product of New York public schools and a son of a Puerto Rican immigrant who became obsessed with Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography. The beautiful and profound connection the show had with the first African American First Family. Well, perhaps everyone doesn’t share that last one. In fact, I know they don’t. Because as we were building our float, a friend who I both love and respect told me he was ‘boycotting’ Hamilton because of the way ‘it’ treated Mike Pence. More on that later.
This 4th of July, I realized that beyond the many well-documented reasons to adore the show, I also love it for a more obscure quality. In dramatizing a critical turning point in our nation’s history, Hamilton telegraphs an important message to our current polarized, shrill and unyielding political climate. If only we can listen.
Before seeing Hamilton, the only thing I remembered from American History class about A. Ham was his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Many people admit to a similar limitation. Through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s teaching, we’ve all been reminded of the historical context of the infamous duel, which is, in brief:
Hamilton and Burr were both from the same political party – the Federalists. Hamilton was a fierce advocate for the Federalist point of view. He wrote, spoke, and argued exhaustively for the party’s values. Burr was more of an opportunist, testing the winds before taking positions and switching them when it was politically expedient. The central philosophical divide of the day revolved around the size and role of central government. (Is this sounding familiar?) Opposing the Federalists were the Democratic-Republicans, anchored by Thomas Jefferson, the original populist. Jefferson’s vision of a ‘common man’s’ agrarian utopia depended upon strong states’ rights, and the mostly Southern Democratic-Republicans were loathe to assume other states’ debts. To make a long and fascinating story short, in the Presidential election of 1800, Hamilton endorsed Jefferson and essentially handed the victory to his opposing party.
Hamilton’s fateful endorsement was no mere political betrayal. Despite the fact that it ended in a duel, it wasn’t personal, either. Historical records suggest that Hamilton detested both Burr and Jefferson. Instead, it was a deeply principled action that boils down to something I hope contemporary politicians who gush over Hamilton have noticed: country over party. After decades of close collaboration with Burr, Hamilton decided Burr’s ambition was so insatiable and his allegiances so malleable that his fellow Federalist posed more of a risk to the infant nation than the Federalists’ worst enemy: Thomas Jefferson. As Miranda has Hamilton sing in The Election of 1800, “I have never agreed with Jefferson once; We have fought on like seventy-five diff’rent fronts; But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”
On the morning of the parade, in my flouncy purple Angelica Schuyler dress with “Helpless” blaring in the background, I sent a link to the Mike Pence/Hamilton incident to my boycotting friend. If you don’t believe me, watch it: despite whatever Fox News reported, Brandon Victor Dixon, who spoke directly to Vice President-elect Pence, displays nothing but respect. He even reprimands the audience for booing.
My friend wrote back that very morning to tell me he watched the clip and that he had revised his opinion. He still didn’t understand why the cast felt the need to urge Pence to work on behalf of all Americans, or to inform him that Trump’s campaign rhetoric had made many of them feel unsafe. But he was excited to see the show nonetheless and open to learning more.
I was so impressed by his willingness to revisit an opinion and consider newly discovered facts that I vowed not to retreat to the knee-jerk liberal response. I’m truly trying to understand his point and to internalize his belief that the Trump administration is being unfairly demonized in the press. I agree with my friend that we’ll never move forward if we all stay in our own corners, shouting into the wind about how right we are. In many ways, Alexander Hamilton lost his life in a commitment to value ideas over tribalism. We owe it to our Founding Fathers to do the same.