Edmund Burke Today, or The Social Importance of the Musical Hamilton
A common refrain these days is that our nation’s founders established a government that was supposed to be exclusionary either, perhaps even an inherently racist, sexist, or otherwise prejudiced system of government. Not only is this inaccurate, it is dangerous manner of thinking. While there do exist valuable critiques of the founders, the narrative provided by the likes of the musical Hamilton holds a much greater social importance.
Though it has generally been reviewed as a great work of art with a "good enough" representation of history, Hamilton too has its critics. They fear that lines such as Angelica Schuyler's, "to include women in the sequel [to the Declaration of Independence]," a potentially generous account of Alexander Hamilton's relationship with abolition, and a glossing over of slave ownership by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others presents contemporary audiences with too favorable of an impression of these historic politicians. There is no such thing.
The great conservative Edmund Burke would have agreed that Hamilton may be the most important and beneficial type of work that modern audiences could enjoy because of his political theory of history. For Burke, history held a sacred place within society, providing laws, moralities, and norms. Furthermore, history provides the answers and solutions to the great questions and problems of yesteryear, often times at the courtesy of the past's greatest minds. With a grasp of history, societies could continually progress and formulate new answers for questions that did not even occur to one's ancestors—but only because they provided a foundation for new thoughts. This, Burke termed as prejudice: the ability to have answers without having to ask their prerequisite questions.
Burke, famous for his rejection of revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France, held stances towards the American revolutionary that were somewhat contradictory. He sympathized with the Colonies' concerns and grievances, but did not approve of their protestations; was firmly opposed to usurping any standing political regime, but was an admirer of the newly-formed United States. He even held animosity towards a few of the founding revolutionaries, but he would love how they are portrayed by Hamilton. Instead of simply representing a means of entertainment, Hamilton presents itself as the most important historical prejudice: deference towards the greatness of our national forebearers.
By celebrating these figures as greater men of a greater age than our own, we help ourselves become better and, at the very least, prevent a sort of nihlistic regression. Of course, any serious academic inquiry into the lives of Alexander Hamilton, et al. will find them to be ordinary, flawed characters. The inequality among sex, race, and class of the independent United States are certainly problematic by the liberal standards of modernity. Yet, it serves no progressive purpose to underscore this. If we believe or tell ourselves that this country was a tyranny founded by monsters, then we lose the important cultural safeguard that is our prejudice, telling us we cannot become a tyranny of monsters. In many ways, this is what modern Progressive Liberalism does. The likes of Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore who paint such a critical caricature of America tell us that from its inception, this country has been a leech on its surroundings or a force for evil in the world. Even if this was true, saying this is historically so, while providing extreme and unrepresentative examples, normalizes such behavior.
If one does not find the negative case compelling, just think about the possible benefits of the positive examples. Whether in religion or in science, figures such as Moses, Mohammed, Socrates, or Newton are provided examples of a historic ideal of any number of characteristics—ingenuity, piety, humility, etc. One of the reasons that ad hominem attacks against prophetic ancestors have been so ineffective is that, to their devotees, the worst possible portrayal does not matter in comparison to the best. The example of Jesus is so powerful for Christians, because it represents the absolute zenith of human potential. Regardless of one's religious beliefs, it would be hard to argue that the Christian faith has not accomplished great acts of charity and developments of morality. Granted, the Inquisition, Crusades, and other incidents also caused a bit of damage, but sermons on the evils of the Church would not inspire congregations to do good or be faithful. Likewise, there is great benefit in recognizing the best of our historical figures and focusing on the good in place of the bad.
By placing Washington on an impossibly high pedestal, we encourage ourselves to be better. A national mythos provides a well for both inspiration and aspiration. This is largely why the Constitution has been so successful. By no means is it a perfect document and we certainly do not interpret it in the exact manner it was intended, but that is fine. The belief in the Constitution and its rights as a great work that transcends time and place is what allows compromise and reconciliation in this country’s most trying times, from Reconstruction to Vietnam, and far into the future. This messages is presented in chorus by Hamilton. When Daveed Diggs celebrates the great ideas and national hopes of Thomas Jefferson, he is not acting as an apologist for the man’s racism but is instead reclaiming and expanding the Jeffersonian ideal. Even if Lin Miranda does exaggerate Alexander Hamilton’s social liberalism, he is doing a justice to our country by providing faith that we might have been, and very well could be, the shining city upon the hill of history.
Beyond this claim for a fundamental approach to public history, it is simply more pragmatic to generously reflect upon historical figures. The personal faults of great figures like Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, or Martin Luther King Jr. should not be used as an excuse to ignore their virtues or wisdom. Especially in today's hyper-politicized envirnoment, where the opinions of those we disagree with quickly become villianized and unacceptable, we should try to open the Overton Window and our minds.
Now, by all means, Hamilton should not be used as a study tool for AP US History. I do not believe we should forget our historical misdeeds either but we should not let them become our national identity. Leaving such views of history to the academy separated from mainstream culture. Hamilton and its ilk turn the past into relics that we can celebrate and cherish. They provide us with a means to respect our history; thus, providing the opportunity to strive for a better future.
So, let the professors and activists complain while we keep listening (or watching, if lucky) to Hamilton.