When American history is personal history

While I was on vacation last month in Chicago, my wife and I saw the hit musical “Hamilton” at a local theater. It’s my wife’s favorite musical soundtrack, but since it’s a new show and tickets to see it on Broadway remain prohibitively expensive, it was the first time either of us had actually seen it performed.

It was great, as good as any reviewer or someone lucky enough to have seen it has ever said it is. However, as I enjoyed the clever and intricate musical numbers along with my wife, I was also pondering the show’s somewhat complicated relationship with American history, and how that ties into how Americans see themselves, their leaders, and each other.

Perhaps my favorite thing about “Hamilton” is that it has shed some well-deserved light on its namesake: Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first secretary of the treasury and perhaps the United States’ most unsung Founding Father. Out of all the people on our money, he’s perhaps the one many Americans know the least about, and that’s a shame, given his responsibility for our financial system, his advocacy for our Constitution, and a host of other accomplishments. Before the musical, his primary footnote in the popular memory was that he was killed in a duel by the man who, at the time, was America’s sitting vice president.

While the play does a great job at highlighting the accomplishments and the foibles of both Hamilton and his killer, Aaron Burr, I felt conflicted at its simplification of much of the supporting cast – characters who, in reality, aren’t just bit players in a musical but real people who helped shape our nation, some of them much more than Hamilton did.

The two Founding Fathers besides Hamilton and Burr who appear in the play the most are George Washington and Thomas Jefferson: Two names that are much more recognizable to most Americans than that of the show’s main character. When handling these men, “Hamilton” generally treats them as a wise hero and a vain villain, respectively.

In a way, it’s understandable why the show does this, especially given as we are in modern America to thoroughly demonize those who we don’t like and canonize those we approve of. Certainly, Washington is an American war hero and perhaps the man most responsible for the U.S. not descending into a monarchy after its democratic origins. Just as certainly, Jefferson was not only a major political rival of Hamilton’s, but a slaveholder who likely fathered several children with a woman he owned, a result of a sexual relationship he began with the woman while she was a teenager and he was in his 40s.

Those things I just mentioned are, undeniably, good things about Washington and bad things about Jefferson, but in service of “Hamilton’s” need to draw more concrete sides for the purposes of drama, the show scarcely mentions Jefferson’s many indispensable contributions to the country, like the Declaration of Independence or Louisiana Purchase. You can excuse “Hamilton” for doing that – after all, those are Jefferson’s accomplishments, and he’s not the main character – but I’m inclined to be less forgiving that the show contains a scene in which Hamilton excoriates Jefferson for owning slaves as Washington looks on, all the while never mentioning the fact that Washington himself owned many slaves.

It will never stop being hard to reconcile how two men so devoted to the principles of liberty could deprive that right from so many, to know that two people to whom America owes so much have on their reputations the stain of one of our country’s greatest sins. But yet, that constant reckoning is inescapable from American life: Mount Rushmore features Lincoln, this country’s Great Emancipator (who himself held opinions on African-Americans that we now consider horribly backward), along with two men who oppressed people for whom that emancipation could not come soon enough.

The same kinds of consideration are now at play in the discussion the country is engaged in about the place of some prominent Confederate leaders in our nation’s history. While I will always be in favor of removing symbols that represent oppression to the innocent and give comfort to Nazis and fascists, I look on the life of a man like Robert E. Lee and see again someone whose complicated life and actions have been flattened into something more digestible, something that allows sides to be easily taken. Like both Washington and Jefferson, Lee was a slave owner, but also like Washington, Lee had served with distinction in the U.S. Army before taking command of Confederate forces in the Civil War. He was opposed to southern secession, and after the war, he worked to reconcile the North and South. Ultimately, however, his decision to side with home over country, his choice to lead the side that wished to split the nation so it could continue to profit from an evil institution, forever changed history’s view of him. While white supremacists and counter-protesters do battle over a statue of Lee in a park, his fellow Virginians, not unlike him in many ways, grace the country’s collective national monument alongside Lincoln and Roosevelt.

What are we to make of all this? There are many lessons, perhaps the most sobering that the way others view you, not the way you wish to be viewed, is what becomes your legacy. However, the lesson I’m most inclined to take is that our founding fathers, our remembered leaders, and our current public officials are ultimately just people. Like you and me, they are complicated and messy, and a single person is capable of great deeds and horrible evils.

We live in a time where personal and political animosity are often blurred, where forgiveness cannot be granted due to the infraction of a disagreeable viewpoint or a bad action later apologized for. But even as we condemn those unlike us, we will paper over the sins of those we admire in our hunger for the appearance that our “side” has moral rectitude. In this time, I think it’s important to remember that the leaders of our cities, our states, our country – and so too, that neighbor who’s too loud or that coworker who annoys you – are people with good parts and bad parts, acting perhaps not that much different than the way you might if you were in their shoes.

Speak out when you disagree, but don’t lose sight of their humanity, and don’t forget that the terrible and wonderful things in the hearts of Washington, Jefferson and Lee are in your heart, too.

Ryan Howard is the news editor of The Forest Lake Times.