As 2020’s COVID summer winds down, around our house it also signals the end of “Hamilton Summer.”
When Disney’s streaming service announced it would be releasing the 2016 original Broadway cast production of “Hamilton” on July 3, it was marked on calendars.
My 14-year-old and most of her friends have been Hamilton fans for quite a while, learning the songs and the raps, and as a family, we’ve been dragged along into it. All summer, the most innocuous statements like “Take a break” have become song cues. The soundtrack has been on heavy rotation in the car.
It has warmed my old, civics class-inspired heart to see so many young people learning the stories of our national struggle for independence and the beginnings of the American experiment.
It has spawned a lot of teaching moments in our house: Watching the three-part History Channel documentary on George Washington, learning about the birth of America’s two-party system, exploring lyrics that use lines from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and even diving deep into some of Lin Manuel Miranda’s rap call outs from Biggie Smalls and Grandmaster Flash.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we’ve been running a master class all summer.
In the process, I’ve realized all over again what a fragile thing American democracy is. From the very beginning, people’s understanding of the issues were shaped by hundreds of colonial newspaper articles — some by the likes of men like Alexander Hamilton as well as pamphlets by Thomas Paine. The written word, consumed by literate and well-intentioned citizens, was as important to the creation of the United States as the sword and the musket ball.
It hasn’t always been a smooth progression. Through more than 240 years, our country has gone from liberalism to reactionary leadership and back with sometimes unpredictable and dangerous swings.
The part of Hamilton that covers the 1800 Presidential election made us go look up that contest. It was a campaign that would look familiar to us now, featuring name-calling and threats: If the other party won it would be the end of our nation. In the musical, the cast sings about presidential candidate Aaron Burr that “he seems approachable like you could grab a beer with him,” which I remember as a common comment about George W. Bush during his 2000 campaign.
The short-form snipes on Facebook and Twitter are not really up to the task of conveying the deep material necessary to make an informed decision, then or now. We have an awesome responsibility to elect people at all levels who are the smartest and most capable.
In Oklahoma, we seem to have an endless parade of state and local leaders who become sources of embarrassment. We must choose candidates based not purely on name recognition or the codewords on their signs that tested well with a certain demographic group. I don’t believe that either party has a lock on virtue or intelligence, both need to bring their best players and their A games.
From the very beginning, the rest of the world has watched America as we showed how to choose a president over a king, and how to manage peaceful transitions of executive power at four-year intervals. We have accomplished that because smart and thoughtful people designed our government in ways that made it something to be envied and copied around the world. That high regard won’t continue without each of us doing our homework, beyond parties and back to finding “the smartest in the room.”