Hamilton and America's Story

This post by Susan Clark first appeared as a Vermont Public Radio commentary on June 10, 2016. You can listen to the original commentary here.

I’m old enough to remember America’s Bicentennial in 1976 – but young enough to have been an impressionable pre-adolescent at the time. I was swept up in the national celebration, and my giggling all-girl birthday party even went to see the new film, adapted from the musical 1776.

That’s when I developed one of my earliest crushes - on Thomas Jefferson. He was portrayed as a young, homesick, lovesick, fiddle-playing revolutionary poet, and he won my heart. To give you an idea of the vibrancy of my crush, the first time I visited Jefferson’s home in Monticello, I actually got butterflies in my stomach.

My early Jeffersonian impressions have matured and sobered, but they sparked a long-term interest that’s served me well as a democratic researcher, writer, and activist.

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, with his astonishing score and magnificent storytelling skills, is now making history come alive for a new generation. Classrooms are vibrating with the music, families are rocking out to it, and Miranda himself can’t wait for high schools to perform it.

In this show, except the wonderfully foppish King George, nearly all characters are played by non-white actors – including Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton, himself – with a driving hip-hop sound that makes history relevant by beaming it through the prism of today’s America.

The Revolution sings as a story that stars new Americans. Caribbean-raised Hamilton and French General Lafayette celebrate their battlefield collaboration with the shout “Immigrants! We get the job done!” This line gets so much applause when performed that the actors have had to add a pause to the score.

Hamilton’s wife Eliza didn’t have the policy influence of an Abigail Adams. But the vibrant presence and soaring vocals of Hamilton’s female characters are powerful reminders that half of our nation’s history was made by women.

Most of us won’t get to see the sold-out Hamilton anytime soon. But the soundtrack alone tells the story, and it’s readily available to buy, download, or stream so you can get your ears on Hamilton. It’s fierce, funny, romantic, tragic, passionate, and deeply human. It makes America’s creation story new and real and alive again. Maybe you’ll even fall in love.

And America’s story could use a little love right now. Hamilton’s story, like Jefferson’s - like America’s really - is loaded with imperfections. But only through a loving lens can we understand these flaws and work to improve them.

In this time of disillusionment, when it seems that polarization could destroy our great American experiment – such a rich historical celebration was never more needed.