In the wake of nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd in May, some protesters have taken to toppling statues of figures from history they say practiced or endorsed slavery or white supremacy. The main targets have been monuments to the Confederacy.
But some protesters have gone further. Statues of Christopher Columbus have come down, and there have been attacks on statues ranging from George Washington to Francis Scott Key, writer of the national anthem, to Union war general and president Ulysses S. Grant.
Donald Trump has seized the opportunity to engage in the culture wars he sees as a main plank in his reelection campaign. On July Fourth, he assailed “anarchists” and “agitators.”
“We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children,” the president said in a speech on the South Lawn. “And we will protect and preserve (the) American way of life, which began in 1492 when Columbus discovered America.”
But have a large group of Americans really turned against the “American way of life?” As some have pointed out, the same Independence Day weekend of Trump’s fiery speeches at the White House and Mount Rushmore, the most popular quarantine entertainment was ... (Revolutionary War drum roll, please) ... “Hamilton.”
The Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton began to stream on Disney Plus last week. Media analyst Apptopia says the channel saw a 74 percent increase in paid subscribers over the previous four weekends, and “Hamilton” was 2020s biggest content launch, measured by downloads, outpacing “Frozen 2.”
The production is a movie version of the 2015 musical written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and based on Ron Chernow’s biography. It follows the life of Hamilton, who immigrated from tough circumstances in the Caribbean to become a hero of the American Revolution, a significant figure in the ratification of the Constitution and the first U.S. treasury secretary.
“Hamilton” employs color-blind casting to tell the story with Black and minority actors in the roles of figures like George Washington, James Madison, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette, the French revolutionary for whom Fayetteville is named.
We believe, however, that Hamilton is beyond a mere popular entertainment. We believe it should be included as a supplement to school students’ history education across the country. It would make the American story more accessible to an increasingly diverse nation.
“Hamilton” turns the Founders into relatable men. They are not cast as the perfect heroes too often presented to generations of bored school students.
The musical is also written as an immigrant story. It is a message that is always timely in a nation of immigrants, but particularly so since the country took a harder line against immigration, legal and illegal, after Trump’s election in 2016.
We do not mean to take credit from those great history teachers who manage to make history and historical figures alive for their students, no matter the era covered. “Hamilton” as an educational supplement can help those teachers who are trying to bridge a cultural divide in their classrooms.
The characters in Hamilton operate not just in the national interest but also out of passions, jealousies and self-interest. In this presentation of diverse humanity, young people can see themselves in the imperfect people depicted — despite the separation of nearly 250 years between them and the men and women in the narrative.
More importantly, youth can clearly see that the ideals of freedom, equality, vision and bravery transcend race, culture or time. They can see that in the great sweep of history, American ideals are more important than those periods when the country’s institutions failed to live up to the ideals.
“Hamilton” in its own way contains a hopeful message that will resonate with every American.