Rediscovering America’s Original Super Hero

From Broadway with Love

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull

If you’re unfamiliar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash, “Hamilton: An American Musical,” I suggest you remedy that situation ASAP. Besides it being a triumphant work of art, his story is key to understanding our current political dilemma. But, if you think you’re too old to listen to the rap and hip hop music comprising half of its songs, then, at the very least, read Ron Chernow’s biography upon which the musical is based. Alexander Hamilton’s life is America’s quintessential creation story. I kid you not.

After the New Testament, Hamilton’s juicy role in America’s founding may be the second greatest story ever told. It has unforgettable characters — a super hero in Hamilton himself; George Washington in a supporting role; and two super villains in Aaron Burr who shot Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson who, metaphorically speaking, stabbed him in the back (Jefferson’s ongoing treasonous behavior is well-documented in Chernow’s book.).

No Hollywood scriptwriter could have woven a more intriguing plotline. Hamilton’s contribution to both America’s Revolution and the nation’s shaky, dramatic beginnings propelled his meteoric ascent to prominence. Alexader’s marriage to Angelica Skyler was a “made for the ages” love story, complete with a dark betrayal. His tragic death leaves you breathless. And, just as in the New Testament, our hero is resurrected — or at least restored to the nation’s memory.

Hamilton is more than just a “Founding Father on the ten-dollar.” He was THE Founding Father. His legacy to America is so vast as to be incomprehensible. That he accomplished so much because of his “skill with a quill” is astounding. That he did it all before he died at the age of 49 is miraculous.

Almost as astonishing is Miranda’s breathless encapsulation of America’s founding within a two-and-a-half-hour musical. If not for half of its 46 songs done as fast tempo hip-hop style, the show would run twice as long. More than one listening may be required to catch all the words if you’re not used to that rapid-fire pace. Still, because of Miranda’s use of the rap genre, a whole new generation now sees American history as sexy.

Engaging our youth on that level is great but “Hamilton” transcends mere entertaining history. Confronted with his power, energy and determination, Hamilton’s hero inspires the hero in all of us. Contrast this hero taking life “by the horns” with the protagonist from another Broadway hit of fifty years ago.

“Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” gave us Claude, a passive dreamer who ends up being killed in the very war he’s been protesting. Men like Hamilton create their own lives because they see opportunity and make use of it. They’re not waiting for life to happen to them. They plan and take action. They don’t throw away their shot.

What a great message for a generation flaccidly observing their world go by on handheld devices. In an era that’s expelled history from the public school curriculum, the “Hamilton effect” comes at a crucial time. His unprecedented reinstallation into America’s Pantheon of Greats helps create a space in which America can reevaluate its own story.

George Washington is called the father of our country. Yet during the revolution, Washington may never have succeeded without Hamilton acting as one of his most important aide-de-camps. His later roles as America’s first Treasury Secretary, as well as Washington’s most trusted cabinet member, were indispensable in jumpstarting a brand new, not even out-of-the-box government. It may even be argued that Hamilton built the box.

After the Revolution, Hamilton became one of three New York delegates attending the Constitutional Convention whose aim was to “re-constitute” the crumbling Articles of Confederacy. Although serving on various committees, little of Hamilton’s words made it into the final document. However, the U.S. Constitution would have never been ratified without his defending it in the Federalist Papers or lobbying for it in the legislative halls.

Hamiton’s ongoing arguments with Thomas Jefferson over the role of government echo just as loud as they were more than two centuries ago. Hamilton’s belief in a strong central government versus Jefferson’s desire for a weak one continues to dominate American politics. Today’s divisive political screaming match can be traced back to Jefferson’s hatred of Hamilton’s federalist ideas and his attempts to undermine them.

These two gentlemen didn’t see eye-to-eye about treating humans as property either. Hamilton was an avowed abolitionist while Jefferson not only owned slaves but sired a few as well. And even though America would fight a civil war to settle the question we didn’t quite get there. The deep undercurrent of white supremacy continues to mock Jefferson’s famed words that “all men are created equal.”

As they say, “history repeats itself” and, it appears, so do musicals. Ninety years ago the central theme of “Show Boat,” Broadway’s very first hit, looked at racial injustice. In casting actors of color in historically white characters, Miranda has managed to echo that same topic. And by reminding us of Alexander Hamilton’s unbelievable life, Miranda has also given an enduring gift to both the country and to Hamilton’s legacy. I kid you not.

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Gershon Siegel first started column writing in 1966 for “The Beacon,” his high school newspaper. He served as its feature editor for the majority of his senior year until a series of “misunderstandings” caused his unceremonious dismissal by Principal Bates.