The “core” of American democracy, writes Matthew Robin Hale in the March issue of the Journal of American History, is a struggle over how egalitarian and communitarian our politics should be. This struggle emerged, he argues, in the mid-1790s as the French Revolution excited and mobilized thousands of Americans to discover and declare that they were “Democrats.” They were Democrats in emulation of Frenchmen’s embrace of liberté, egalité, and fraternité and in opposition to the “aristocratic” airs of the Federalists who preferred to distance the representatives from the people, certainly from the propertyless people.
This lasting division, Hale writes, appears today as a debate between the political left of figures such as Mario Cuomo and Barack Obama who describe the nation as a family of mutual obligation and the political right of figures like Barry Goldwater and Rand Paul who decry the label “democracy” and argue that our nation is instead a formally contracted “republic” of independent individuals. (Consider the debate over health care. The political descendants of the Francophiles claim that it is a human right, that through government we should all pay for the health of our neighbors. The descendants of the Federalists claim that it is the responsibility of self-reliant individuals and the government’s role is, at most, to gently regulate the health market.)
The story of Francophile enthusiasm during the Washington administration not only informs our understanding of American political history, it also informs our understanding of our ever-changing collective memory of that history. (Earlier posts on collective memory are here and here). In particular, Hale’s account plays against the political memory in the latest smash hit, the musical, “Hamilton.”
The form of government that the Founding Fathers developed was revolutionary for its time in its responsiveness to the public will. But, by modern standards, both the public and the responsiveness were limited: The public that mattered included only white men of property and the responsiveness was filtered through the judgment of leading citizens. (Recall, for example, that initially delegates to the Electoral College were supposed to independently decide who should be president, not to simply reflect the votes of their states.)
Hale describes how news of the French Revolution stirred up ideas of creating a much more egalitarian, inclusive, and communal society than that. Between 1793 and 1795, being a France-loving “Democrat” became all the rage. In writings, speeches, and public celebrations, the new Democrats dared hope that the French example would bring everyone together not in disputatious politics, but in “bonds of mutual confidence, harmony, and brotherly kindness,” much like one happy family. Suspicion of and resistance to these impulses emerged from the Federalists, whom the Democrats, in turn, labeled “aristocrats.” As the conflict developed, the rising democratic spirit, instead of transcending politics, became politicized. Street festivals transformed into election campaigns and into the “First Party System” of competing “left” and “right.” We live with the consequences, argues Hale.
In 1790s struggles, Thomas Jefferson spoke for the Francophile democratic movement (and then rode it to presidential victory in 1800), while Hamilton was a leader of the “aristocratic” Federalists. One might imagine that these men’s political alignments would move today’s theater audiences in blue cities like New York and San Francisco to cheer the former over the latter. (Recall, too, that Hamilton was America’s primal mercantalist, turning government and taxation to the ends of capitalist expansion.) Nope; it’s flipped.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rousing, brilliant biographical musical tells, at the personal level, the tragedy of an immensely skilled and ambitious man succumbing to his own flaws. At the political level, it pits a heroic, working-class immigrant against a duplicitous, patrician plantation owner–even though the latter fought for more and former fought for less democracy. Jefferson is the prime villain of the play–more so than the Aaron Burr character, who is both the narrator and the killer of Hamilton, more so even than King George III, who appears as a comical, one-man, Greek chorus. (To be sure, Ron Chernow’s masterful 2004 biography of Hamilton, upon which the musical draws, is another matter.)
Act II of “Hamilton” spins around the tension between, on the one side, a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, . . . impoverished, in squalor, grow[n] up to be a hero and a scholar. . . [who] got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter . . . .,” and, on the other side, a slick, well-bred, well-schooled, conniving slave master who spent much of the Revolutionary War in Virginia as a politician (while Hamilton was in battle) and then time in Paris as ambassador to France. Jefferson enters the show singing, “So, what did I miss? What’d I miss? . . . I’ve been in Paris meeting lots of different ladies . . . I guess I basically missed the late eighties . . . I traveled the wide, wide world and came back to this . . . ” Jefferson steps into the Secretary of State role and confronts Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton.
Miranda sets up two cabinet meetings as rapping face-offs between the pair. The second “battle” concerns whether the U.S. should come to the aid of revolutionary France in its 1793 war with monarchical Britain. Jefferson, pointing out that France had come to rescue of the American colonists in the 1780s, argues that “revolution is messy but now is the time to stand. / Stand with our brothers as they fight against tyranny.” Miranda’s Jefferson sneers at Hamilton who “knows nothing of loyalty, smells like new money, dresses like fake royalty, desperate to rise above his station, everything he does betrays the ideals of our nation.” This, then, is Jefferson as spokesman for Americans enthralled by the democratic impulses of the French Revolution.
Hamilton replies that taking sides with France would be a practical risk and, anyway, “We signed a treaty with a King whose head is in a basket. / Would you like to take it out and ask it?” Jefferson turns to Washington, “But, sir, do we not fight for freedom?” “Sure, when the French figure out who’s gonna lead ‘em.” And, so the resistance to the democratic enthusiasms of the public wins out as Hamilton wished.
In this show, which has become so popular that it apparently saved Hamilton’s face on the $20 bill, Hamilton and Jefferson are defined more by their backgrounds than by what they fought for as politicians.
Another scene also illustrates this point. Near the end of Act I, as Lafayette and Hamilton celebrate the victory of Yorkstown, there is this quick exchange: Hamilton says, “We’ve had quite a run.” Lafayette: “Immigrants.” Lafayette and Hamilton: “We get the job done.” This line brought down the house (at least in San Francisco). Of course, Lafayette was no immigrant, but rather an aristocratic adventurer who returned to France as a hero of both the masses and the king. Hamilton himself was a quasi-immigrant, having moved from one part of the British Americas to another. The line, however, is a winner.
Hamilton’s star in the collective memory has been on the ascendance in recent years, Jefferson’s in decline, even before Lin-Manuel Miranda. (As the old-style left in the U.S. declined, antipathy to Hamilton waned. As Jefferson’s connection to slave Sally Hemmings became clearer, antipathy to him waxed.) Such re-positioning of our historical figures is part of how we reconstruct our understandings of the past.
Miranda’s “Hamilton” closes with a meditation on precisely this theme. Washington: “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / when I was young and dreamed of glory. / You have no control: / Who lives, / Who dies, / who tells your story?” And the last line, by the entire cast: “Who tells your story?”