Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Hamilt 'n Jeff

Like many others I've been smitten with Lin Manuel-Miranda's Hamilton.  I haven't seen it, of course, but last spring we drove half-way across the country and, looking for new CD's for the trip, I happened on the original cast album and bought it on impulse.

Astute readers will have guessed that those of my age are not exactly the target demographic for hip-hop.  But I very much enjoyed the music and lyrics, whose word-play and unexpected rhyme-schemes reminded me of no one so much as Stephen Sondheim.  I should also emphasize that hip-hop is really only a part of the musical; there is a great deal of Broadway-style balladry and show-stoppers.  With Jefferson's return from France there is some toe-tapping boogie-woogie, and Burr's big number, "The Room where it Happens,"starts off somewhere between Stephen Foster and Kurt Weil.

(I began writing this post long before the dust-up with the Vice-President-Elect, and I am really rooting for that Hamilton boycott, because it's probably the only chance I'll have a shot at a ticket anytime before 2020.)

It's a Broadway musical, not a history text, but the outlines are quite accurate and the themes of the story are exactly what your teachers would have wanted you to pick up:  Hard work and perseverance pay off, virtue is its own reward, and your sins will surely find you out.

Most surprising is the production's respectful portrayal of Washington.  It's been a good forty years since I read Gore Vidal's Burr, an enjoyable but thoroughly cynical take-down of all the founders, starting with Washington.  Here Washington the slaveholder is largely ignored, eclipsed by the prudent general and the virtuous first magistrate, first to last a steadying figure among more ambitious and less scrupulous men, and a father figure to the orphaned and abandoned Hamilton.

In commending the play's accuracy I don't mean of course that the founders occasionally burst into song or worked topical twenty-first century observations into their banter.  But as it happens I received, last Father's Day, a copy of the book which led Miranda to write the musical, Ron Chernow's 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, and I only finished it last week.   It's a timely reminder that American politics in the late eighteenth century was not so genteel as we imagine.  After all, it rarely happens today that one leading politician kills another.

But though Burr fills a key dramatic role as a career-long competitor and opponent to Hamilton, the deeper and more significant conflict, both personally and philosophically, is that between Hamilton and Jefferson.   That conflict is of course present in the musical, but it's only in the biography that the depth of personal animosity is set out, as these two men spend year after year attacking each other, directly as members of the first cabinet, and indirectly, through anonymous broadsides and scurrilous journals and the leaking of scandalous rumors.

In that respect Jefferson is the founder whose reputation seems to have fallen the farthest in my lifetime.  In my college days he was invariably revered as the purest exemplar of the new American idea--author of the Declaration ("hold[ing] these truths..."), advocate of a constitutional Bill of Rights, opponent of corrupt capital, advocate of the independent farmer.  And though today he is more frequently lambasted as seriously compromised--a Southern slaveholder who took a mistress and left unacknowledged children in bondage--it's a little surprising that Hamilton, the spokesman for banks, the virtual founder of Wall Street, and the distruster of democracy, so easily takes the role of virtuous hero, in both the musical and the biography.

The two men are so diametrically opposed in every way that their juxtaposition seems almost too perfect for real life, a symbiosis I've tried to suggest in the Finniganian variation on Mutt and Jeff in this post's title.

One of the recurring motifs of Chernow's biography is the vulnerability of democracy in the face of unscrupulous campaigning; when truth takes a back seat to ambition the "mob" can be too easily manipulated.  Hamilton had the luxury of being able to treat democracy as only one form of consensual government, but in the end he was its victim, unable to refuse a challenge from Burr when such a refusal would brand him a coward in the eyes of the electorate.

The biography is full of similar "object lessons" fully applicable to our contemporary crisis.  I will end with one not untypical summarizing paragraph with obvious continuing validity, from  pp. 456-57:

"In its final report in late May, the Republican-dominated committee could not deliver the comeuppance it had craved.  Instead, it confessed that all the charges lodged against Hamilton were completely baseless, as the treasury secretary had insisted all along.  And what of the endless Jeffersonian insinuations that Hamilton had used public office to extract private credits?  The report concluded that it appears 'that the Secretary of the Treasury never has, either directly or indirectly, for himself or any other person, procured any discount or credit, from either of the said banks...upon the basis of any public monies which, at any time, have been deposited therein under his direction.'  The vindication was so resounding that Hamilton withdrew his long-standing resignation, and his cabinet position grew more impregnable then ever..  Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct.  He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that 'no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.'  If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end 'that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.'"

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