What Is America's Legacy?
Many critical discussions of the show have stuck to its identity and race politics, but its political philosophy seems all too timely in the face of a roiling, parody-proof presidential election. One can easily imagine Obama’s rueful smile in the audience when Washington admonishes Hamilton, “Winning was easy, young man / Governing’s harder.” Jeb! The Musical is just the tip of the iceberg. When Antonin Scalia died, prompting a national catfight over whether the president was or was not rightfully allowed to appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court, it was impossible not to sing Jefferson and Madison’s rejoinder to Hamilton about his own plans for what would become the Federal Reserve: “You don’t have the votes. You don’t have the votes / You’re gonna need Congressional approval, and you don’t have the votes.” Follow Twitter during any debate and you’ll see gifs, lyrics, and memes from Hamilton pop up, casting various candidates’ positions and platitudes in terms of the show’s characters.
The only real heroes in Hamilton are George Washington and Eliza Schuyler. Having served two terms as president, the former willingly cedes power while quoting Scripture to explain why rest is part of his legacy; the latter forgives her husband for an unspeakable betrayal and spends her life after his death in carrying on his legacy and creating her own through works of great service: “The Lord in his mercy, he gives me what you always wanted / He gives me more time,” she sings. Besides these two, whose virtue is founded on historical fact, no one is valorized—not even the show’s eponymous protagonist. Instead, Hamilton gives us characters who sacrifice personal integrity for image, who refuse to stand up for anything in the pursuit of power, who do things we applaud and other things we abhor. People are messy. Our founders were messy. They have lessons to teach us still.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s critic at large and associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her criticism appears in RogerEbert.com, Rolling Stone, Vulture, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans).