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American Dream Betrayed

Why We Should Love Hamilton Less And Truth More

Note to Hamilton author Lin-Manuel Miranda. Yes, we all loved your brilliant invention, but every day I love it less.

Every day I wonder more what I liked about it. What's wrong with me?

That happens when you reconsider illusions. Do illusions bring you closer to seeing the truth, or only drive you deeper into error?

New generations of Americans are being introduced to America's "Founding Fathers" through Disney's ownership and distribution of Hamilton with distortions that are even more pronounced than the odd views we always have held.

Miranda's sale of Hamilton to Disney, plus the 4,000 or so New York and Chicago stage performances, has transformed an artful four-year theatrical experience into consumable faux history for the masses. Now more of us will know even less that is true.

Miranda has been confronted by these issues from the very beginning and acknowledged what he wrote is not close to the truth. It's not even an artistic "truth."

It's stupendously clever. But that's all.

Historians have pointed out the deeply embedded errors in the show. But they're experts, and we hoot at experts now because they know stuff. We are too deeply in love with Thomas Jefferson as a hip-hopping rapper.

"People of color" might see Hamilton somehow as closer in spirit to an underlying American value that is more hopeful and human. You might secretly wish Hamilton was true.

But Hamilton is so wrong on so many characters that it seems dangerous, mindless propaganda. It's an origins story built on attractive, choreographed fabrication. Miranda's work is not less false because it is deliberately untrue.

For example, the Hamilton version of "George Washington" is invariably a Black actor. Black actors play "Thomas Jefferson" and "James Madison."

So far; so good. That makes a valuable and artful statement for inclusion.

But Washington owned 123 slaves at the time of his death and though he occasionally had suggested he might get around to freeing them, he never did.

He chased down escaping slaves and beat them, just as Robert E. Lee did. He, like Lee, and at least six Founding Fathers, was an activist slave owner who coveted his human property.

Only John Adams, Sam Adams and Thomas Paine were ardently against slavery. Ben Franklin owned slaves.

And the intellectually brilliant Thomas Jefferson? As one historian noted, Jefferson was a deep thinker and man of principle "in everything but slaves, Indians and women."

There is distortion and ambiguity enough inside proven history that there's no need to fabricate new misrepresentations. But welcome to Hamilton.

Washington claimed he never freed his slaves for their own good because the complication of freeing an inferior human was too difficult for anyone to imagine.

For this to be true, you must accept that a man talented and organized enough to defeat the British Empire's military, create a continental country's identity out of nothing, and twice was its president, could not conquer the subtleties of freeing slaves.

Seems more likely he just didn't want to give up valuable property. That's a less pleasing hero.

Martha Washington had inherited 74 of her own slaves from her father's family. After Washington died, she let one of George's slaves go live with his relatives as "sort of" emancipation.

James and Dolly Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson each owned slaves, and Martin Van Buren owned one during his early career.

The point is that New Yorkers and Southern people of means - especially Virginians - used, bought, sold, raped, and tortured slaves. That does not cancel culture. It merely accepts facts.

Do we still cheer for them as loudly as we did before we knew them?

We even have created an odd deflective voice to describe the practice human bondage when charming "Founders" did it.

For example, many texts refer to Washington euphemistically as "employing enslaved people" as if he were a curious but uninvolved bystander. This "employed enslaved people" is a passive linguistic deception adopted to describe most of the Colonial slaveholders.

But this was not some 17th-century form of "Kelly Temp Services." Owning and using people was the life the Founders lived. It was a choice. They clung to it.

This was treating humans as things, as useful tools and farm implements. Slavery is not an employment category. Slaves were stolen people with families and dreams.

When you marvel at Washington's palatial 8,000-acre Mount Vernon farm, you should also consider the 317 slaves who made Washington rich there. Or the 47 within a 30-year period who escaped. Or the at-least 70 buried there.

Until recently, the slaves of Mount Vernon were barely mentioned.

Those slaves were the fundamental source of Washington's continued wealth.

At Washington's funeral, Jefferson acknowledged Washington had a dangerous temper, and his many slaves learned to avoid him in those moments. But mostly, Washington stole their humanity to make himself rich.

That wealth offers a darkness to our country's origins that often surprises us in modern times.

But that evil was standing there in the shadows staring at us from the very beginning and has never been overcome. We simply ignore it, as Hamilton does.

Hamilton masks it cleverly. That's why Hamilton is both a great but terrible piece of art that could shape how we think and not necessarily for the more enlightened.

As a performance, Miranda's lyrics give artistic yearning and voice to people of color but simultaneously gives cover for the real people who bore those names.

Must we say it plainly? The American Revolution was not meant to free you if you are female or black.

Or if you were among the 75 percent of some colonies that were indentured servants - which functioned for destitute white immigrants much like slavery did for Blacks. Indentured servants were considered human, but just barely for legal purposes.

The Revolution was not about civil rights.

Beyond rhetoric, the Revolutionary War had very little to do with liberty, except property-owner emancipation from British taxes. That is hardly the underlying moral meme of Hamilton. That motive drove the real Hamilton.

The idolized "land of the free' created by the Founders was not meant for most of us.

I remind friends that it's no surprise that Jefferson and protege President William Henry Harrison had overlapping points of view and conduct both about slaves and women. They were cultural frat brothers. As was Washington.

And the real Hamilton? As a teenager, he took over operations of the entire St. Croix branch of Beekman & Cruger, an import-export business that engaged in the African slave trade and sugar business. That's where he became the brilliant financial theorist that Miranda extols. Several academic researchers have theorized he hated his slave interactions and took his loathing to New York.

But he was no freedom rider on his way to Selma as he seems in Hamilton.

He and his towering ambition always cared more about his property rights than eliminating slavery. In Hamilton's world, he debated against slavery, but he despised civic disorder and mundane people more.

He was no man of the people.

As a theatrical character, Miranda's Hamilton had little reason to sneer at Jefferson's blind spot about slavery. Even as Miranda has been forced to admit more recently, everyone on the stage he created was complicit in slavery.

That should never have been only unformed, unstated subplot. What's missing in Hamilton is its great sin.

But you don't get the feeling of slavery's reality in Hamilton. That truth would not be attractive or nearly as entertaining.

It seems clear that Miranda deliberately avoided slavery as a central Hamilton theme. Those characters could not have been so relentlessly upbeat and heroic.

Multiple academic researchers, led by Harvard Law School Professor of History Annette Gordon-Reed, demonstrate without rebuke that Hamilton bought slaves for his in-laws and almost surely owned several himself.

After he moved to the United States, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, a member of an influential, slave-owning family in Albany, New York. She and her sisters are lovingly portrayed in Hamilton. They grew up in slave-managed homes. Slaves tended to their Scarlett O'Hara lives.

Miranda did not mention that in Hamilton, which also does not mention that New York of the 1790s was a slave city in a slave colony. One in five households in New York City had slave domestics.

The entire environment of Hamilton's reality was drenched in slavery. Neither was Hamilton an advocate of the underdog common man. He was not trapped in a world he hated. He was an elitist who supported the presidency as a lifetime position.

That reality is not the sensibility Hamilton signals. But so what? It's a play, though a much more powerful document in Disney's hands.

Art is a powerful teacher. Example? Unless you can read Latin, likely all you know about Roman Emperor Julius Caesar comes from Shakespeare's play. And the 10 movies and TV series that portray him. All concocted.

There is a temptation to analyze Hamilton as both wonderful and destructive. Art need not be accurate about anything except the honesty of its ideas. There is little danger in such distortion, as long as the audience knows the truth.

But does America really know the truth, or does it even want to know?

Truth need not be factual. Truth is the deep ocean in which facts swim. This duality is not cognitive dissonance.

You can absorb art in its own language.

But what is Hamilton now except an unintended documentary, an artful component of our cultural self-delusions, especially dangerous now because the truth as a value is under assault? It temps us to dismiss the cruel, deep, human failure that slavery was.

Hamilton is a beautiful but dishonest delusion. And now Disney ownership has turned it into Mary Poppins.

The man, his history, and the truth have been fully rebranded. I wish Hamilton did not depress me so.


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David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on July 24, 2020

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