Noah Millman’s take on Hamilton is exceptional. It’s insight is essential, because it explains the value of the “Great Man” theory of history. That is, the value of the “Great Man” theory is in its potential to make great men and women of the people who encounter singular historical figures. Great people make great people, basically:
Teaching the American founding as the story of great statesmen gathering to create the first large-scale republic in human history out of sheer genius and public-spiritedness is not merely false, it’s obviously false, and hence unlikely to inspire anyone of independent mind and spirit. But the Howard Zinn approach to American history, while emphatically worth engaging with, can’t ever rise above being a critique of traditional history. It can’t displace it. Nor can it ever really tell you what it must have been like to be in the room where the founding happened.
Hamilton does that: It makes the founding present, so we can understand it in our own terms. It doesn’t so much bring the founders down to our level as bring us up to theirs. Instead of having us believe they were born great, the show submits that they were present at an extraordinary time and rose to the occasion that their moment in history offered them. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” is the lyric — not, “gosh, you guys in the audience are so lucky it was us who were alive back then instead of you.”
Some people in the audience will be blessed — and cursed — with considerable ambition. Some could imagine themselves as Alexander Hamilton, as Lin Manuel Miranda did — or as his dark doppelganger, Aaron Burr, who I suspect Miranda understands pretty well, too. Most of those people will be Americans, and speaking to them matters, because how they direct their ambitions will do much to shape the country’s future.
Because the show’s story is the story of our nation’s founding, you might think it would speak to them automatically. But most of them will not be lineal descendants of the founders, or of anyone alive at the time of the founding. Even the tiny minority who are will have grown up in a very different America, culturally-speaking — or so they think. The audience might well start from a position of either inferiority, or opposition, or feigned indifference — on the grounds that these people are not their people. If they are to have any relationship with the American past, then, it will be akin to that of Major General Stanley — from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance — to his “ancestors”:
“General Stanley: I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.
“Frederic: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco in your baronial hall is scarcely dry.
“General Stanley: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.”
That’s why Hamilton matters, and matters for being exactly what it is: yet another telling of the story of the American founding that focuses on those same old Founding Fathers. It’s not about how we feel about them — it’s about how they make us feel about ourselves. They are our ancestors, unavoidably, and as long as we are Americans we will necessarily have a relationship with them and their work. The question is whether that relationship is more intimate or more alienated. Hamilton — because of its non-traditional casting, because of the writing and musical style, because of the way the story is told, and just because it’s so good — does an exceptional job of building that relationship anew, and letting all Americans imagine themselves in the founders’ lives. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
“They are our ancestors, unavoidably, and as long as we are Americans we will necessarily have a relationship with them and their work.”