The founders were people, but The Founders aren’t people.

by waxbanks

Idle, irresponsible, testy thoughts, unedited and unfiltered and (to be frank) probably un-thought-through.

Problem: The world of the Founders seems impossibly distant from our own, and Americans are pig-ignorant about our history.

Bad solution: Pretend the Founders were essentially modern Americans, somewhat abstracted perhaps, and try to draw political/cultural lessons from them on those terms. (This is known amongst historians of the era as ‘Founders Chic,’ and is popular for boring reasons — cf. Wall Street reporter Ron Chernow’s laudatory book on Hamilton, or the current backlash against Thomas Jefferson.)

Better solution: Treat them as fallible human beings while acknowledging the historical specificity of their time and place — i.e. maintain their status as historical figures rather than mythic characters.

In my family we’ve been listening basically nonstop to Hamilton, which is a great success on its own terms but seems, based on what little guilt-motivated research I’ve done, to be bad history. The play’s full of anachronisms, which don’t bother me because (1) they’re groovy and (2) I’m not a priggish asshole, but the specific recasting of the Hamilton/Jefferson conflict (Hamilton married into a family of slaveowners and himself rented slaves, yet he gets a number of abolitionist applause lines; Jefferson’s genuinely radical democratic ideals are laughed off as aristocratic hypocrisy) damages the history for no damn reason except, I think, to pander to Miranda’s ‘progressive’ audience.

(Testy aside about Miranda’s own background goes here, but I can’t be bothered.)

It’s dangerously distorting to portray humans of hundreds of years ago as basically modern in their outlooks — though I can see why you’d do so; no one would give a shit about Alexander Hamilton today if Miranda hadn’t made that choice. It works, and you’ve got to put asses in seats. Hamilton is a multimillion-dollar business. Yet the cost of that distortion is the audience’s cheaply acquired false certainty, which leads to recklessness:

Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, [Chernow] said, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to.

Sadly, no! It just substitutes a fashionable interpretive matrix for, y’know, actual historical understanding, and piggybacks the noble and correct idea that ‘Anything You Can Dream, You Can Be’ on a sugarcoated misreading of history that shuts down further inquiry. It slots the Founders into contemporary conversations too easily, and the cost to our collective historical imagination will far outlast any tactical gains that one or another side might make in the culture wars. (‘Culture wars’: rather a grand name for local proxy conflicts whose chief purpose seems to be distraction from, among other things, actual wars…)

The Founders don’t need to be mythic embodiments of Good and Evil to be useful to us today — quite the opposite, if they’re to be sustainably useful and meaningful. Our inability to admit that the Founders were complex human beings is part of the reason we have such a childish relationship to our national history. The idea of America is an ongoing conversation, a history of debate between complexly invested humans. We go back to Colonial history wanting it to illustrate a point or settle an argument. But that’s not what historical inquiry does — the past doesn’t settle our arguments, we have to do that for ourselves. And we’re best able to handle our own business when we know where we’ve really come from.

Anyhow, the upshot here is twofold:

  1. You should listen to (or see) Hamilton, which is a great musical on its own terms.
  2. You should ignore the people who tell you it ‘brings the history to life.’ For ‘history,’ there, read ‘mythology.’ Hamilton settles for being a passion play when it could have been something so much more interesting: a problem play.
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