Every election season there’s a point, right about at the end of summer when rhetoric reaches an all-time high. Political ads are grainy and grim. Biblical apocalypse is imminent. People quietly block their relatives on Facebook.
You know what I find soothing in the middle of the election fervor? Listening to the Hamilton soundtrack.
In case you somehow missed this cultural phenomenon (Lord knows I almost did) I’m referring to the hip hop musical about treasury secretary and founding father Alexander Hamilton.
It’s one of those things that shouldn’t work, but it does work, and the music is amazing. Even better for history nerds like me, the songs reference some of the more eccentric details of our government’s formation.
Did you know that originally the office of the Vice President was awarded to the presidential candidate who came in second? Can you imagine?
It was supposed to prevent partisan fighting by forcing former opponents to work together, but people are people and it lasted all of three presidents.
Newspapers of the era were wholly owned by political parties,* and politicians often published letters under pseudonyms or letters written by supporters (the 17th century version of re-tweeting) to attack their opponents.
In fact the very first laws on our books about defamation were worked out because Alexander Hamilton used the “it’s not libel if it’s true” defense while attacking Thomas Jefferson in the press.
We tend to gloss over our first clumsy attempts at democracy, but one of the things Hamilton does extremely well is hit that perfect balance between idealism and realism.
For example, in one song, Thomas Jefferson boasts about the prosperity of Virginia and Hamilton raps back, “a civics lesson from a slaver/hey neighbor/your debts are paid/because you don’t pay for labor.”
The foundation of our government and our political system was a flawed landscape, and populated by characters every bit as slippery and morally questionable as the politicians of today.
And that’s why listening to Hamilton makes me feel reassured. And not just reassured, but hopeful. Because one of the other themes that runs throughout the musical is the idea that America is an experiment. At one point the titular character calls it “a great, unfinished symphony.”
We all have a part to play in this experiment. We can make things better, or we can make things worse. Just because our past is full of injustice, corruption and pettiness doesn’t mean we have to stay there.
Finally, here’s beautiful song from Hamilton about the very first presidential farewell address.
*The Whistlestop podcast did a really excellent episode recently about political journalism in this era. You can listen to the whole thing here.