All your friends are right about how amazing Hamilton is

A hit

In 1789, Alexander Hamilton became America’s first Treasury Secretary. That presented him with the immense challenge of enabling the new republic to repay the immense debts it had wracked up winning the Revolutionary War against Britain. These came to the enormous sum of $75 million. In order to avoid a default, he not only raised a huge range of taxes, but introduced policy innovations which some credit as laying the foundation for America’s Federal Government, banking system and industrial economy.

In 2020, Disney struck a deal with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the right to put a live filming of his hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton on their streaming service. It cost the House of Mouse the enormous sum of $75 million.  

This equivalence between an entire nation’s debt and the royalties for a play speaks to two things: 1) inflation and 2) what an enormous success Hamilton has been. Even though its premise sounds like the basis for a Producers style fraud, it won 11 Tony Awards, endorsements from world leaders and runs in Broadway and the West End which only coronavirus could break. However, this hype had perversely made it rather inaccessible. Demand for tickets to the stage shows was so great that you had to book them months in advance at a price one could only afford via financial engineering worthy of the show’s protagonist. However, its arrival on Disney + brings it to an even larger audience.

As part of that latter group, I am immensely grateful. Yes, there is certainly a loss of intensity and immediacy relative to seeing the show live, but even on the TV screen it is still entrancing. I’m not musically literate enough to tell you how Miranda manages to deliver banger after banger, but he absolutely does.

Hip-hop history

However, if I may engage in some ill-informed speculation, Miranda’s counter-intuitive decision to tell Alexander Hamilton’s story using hip-hop, an art form which didn’t emerge until almost two centuries after his death, gives Miranda’s work a range of advantages.

Some of these are practical. To see one of them, compare Hamilton with Les Miserables. Both plays regularly require characters to deliver exposition about history and politics through lyrics. However, in Les Mis this sounds cringeworthily out of place. Hamilton can almost entirely avoid this distracting dissonance between form and function because the gap between rap and regular speech is narrower than that between speech and song.

Rap is also an apt vehicle for depicting the more combative side of politics. Public debate in eighteenth century America was at once more refined and nastier than it is today. Yes, it was an era when politicians were often classically trained rhetoricians who communicated through erudite essays and pamphlets. However, as the historian Alan Taylor observes: ‘We often hear pundits declare that our politics have never been more polarized. In fact, politics were even more divided and violent in the era of the founders, when one minister worried that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and English hate” each other in time of war. In one town, when a Republican neighbor died, a Federalist declared, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I wish they were all there.”’ Taylor tops this point off by noting contemporary reports that three-quarters of duels arose from political disputes. 

Rap is of course also rich in poetic pugilism. A denunciation and a diss track, or a debate and a rap battle, are fundamentally pretty similar. In fact, two of Hamilton’s best tracks depict meetings of George Washington’s Cabinet as rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

However, the greatest advantage of having eighteenth century characters rapping and singing hip-hop is that it is so anachronistic. It immediately and totally disabuses the audience of our preconceptions about what a period piece will be like. Freed from these constraining expectations, Miranda can create a musical of astonishing brio and bravado. It is defined by its big dramatic moments but is also wickedly funny. This latter quality is perhaps best depicted by a set of tracks which depict King George III (played by Jonathan Groff AKA Special Agent Ford from Mindhunter) as America’s psychotically entitled ex delivering lines like: “And when push comes to shove // I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!”

It is also a wonderfully multi-layered. Take just one line. “I am not throwin’ away my shot”, which first appears as the chorus line for the third song and then recurs multiple times throughout the show. At different points ‘the shot’ represents: a single bullet in a dueller’s pistol, a shot of spirit, Hamilton’s ambition, the narrowness of the new nation’s path to survival and a nod to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.

The room where it happens

Obviously, for all its richness and complexity, it cannot possibly convey the same historical detail as the 800-page book it is based on. Plus, it is historical fiction rather than history. And even when it is dealing with historical facts, its representation of them is frequently abstract rather than literal; as we have already mentioned no one in the 18th century rapped. There does seem to be a bit of a dispute about the interpretation of history it presents. I have not really studied this period in any detail, so mostly avoid that discussion. That said, I do want to say two things in its favour on that score.

First of all, it is commendably sophisticated in the way it thinks about history. Indeed, at points it manages to deal with historiography as well as history. As it recounts past events it also comments on how they are remembered. Indeed, there are two tracks built around gaps in the documentary record. Both serve not only to acknowledge this uncertainty to the audience, but also illustrate important moments for characters.

 In addition, having worked in politics for a while – admittedly at a rather less elevated level than the characters in Hamilton – the depictions of politicians ring true. For example, Jefferson and Maddison gleefully throwing copies of the Reynolds Pamphlet into the audience, captures well the unsightly joy of a team of politicos realising their opponent has screwed up. I suspect this feeling of authenticity is why it seems to resonate so much with politicians.

There is also a substantive question underlying all the theatrics: Hamilton is a musical meditation on the place of personal ambition in politics. Miranda’s version of Alexander Hamilton is a pathological striver. This serves to make him into a great man but also a tragic figure.

The drive to distance himself from a childhood in St Kitts and Neves marinated in bereavement, humiliation and disaster propels him not only to travel all the way to New York, but to rise socially; it also imbues him with the desperate energy which makes him so charismatic; and ultimately it is what leads him to become a Founding Father: in a new nation, to command the ship of state, he first had to build it.

Yet Hamilton’s own sister-in-law explicitly likens him to Icarus: a figure whose non-stop ascent destroys him. Growing up amidst constant death and loss leaves him haunted and conditioned to expect not to survive. This fatalism in turn feeds into recklessness. He is wracked by survivors’ guilt and crushed by the weight of his own and others’ expectations; too harassed to ever be comfortable or content. His opponents are able to exploit these doubts and drive him to catastrophically bad decisions. These repeatedly put him in conflict with Aaron Burr – who is depicted as sharing Hamilton’s hunger for power but not his ideals – with disastrous results for them both.

The eye of the hurricane

In a celebrated lecture delivered in Munich in 1919, the great sociologist Max Weber, addressed an audience of students. He spoke to the backdrop of a world overturned by the First World War. People were rising up, empires were falling, and young, scrappy and hungry countries were being born. Like Hamilton and his drinking buddies singing “My Shot”, these students could be forgiven for thinking: “Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me”. Therefore, Weber turned to poetry to instil realism in them:

I wish I could see what has become of those of you who now feel yourselves to be genuinely ‘principled’ politicians and who share in the intoxication signified by this revolution.

It would be nice if matters turned out in such a way that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102 should hold true:

Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.

But such is not the case. Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness

What Miranda manages in Hamilton is to somehow turn Weber’s dictum that “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards” into a musical romp where the hope for the growth of riper days and the polar night of icy darkness and hardness both get their dues.

Bonus:

This version of Hamilton as sung by the Muppets is a pure joy

Joseph McCarthy never sat on the House Un-American Affairs Committee

Senat

Senator Joseph McCarthy

The ‘Red Scare’ of the Nineteen Fifties is one of the most resonant parts of American history. From the Crucible to Good Night and Good Luck it’s something that’s recurs in its culture.

The hunt for largely imagined communists is strongly associated with one institution and one man. The House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) was notorious for dragging Hollywood figures before it and demanding they either implicate others or be blacklisted. The man is Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose claim to have a list of communists working in the State Department kicked the panic into overdrive and who gave the movement its other name “McCarthyism”.

I’d not realised until I heard a podcast on the Red Scare by Stuff You Missed in History Class that HUAC and McCarthy were largely separate. HUAC and McCarthy were both working in Congress but in different parts of it. HUAC was a committee of the House of Representatives while McCarthy was (of course) a Senator. Therefore, he would have been ineligible to sit on it.

He was instead chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Government Operations. This was generally a bland institution for investigating government waste and fraud. However, its mandate was broad enough that McCarthy could bend it to include hunting for communists. This he did. His campaign cost many people their jobs and  reputations, and pushed some to suicide. However, he overreached when he began insinuating that their were traitors in Eisenhower’s White House. He also came up against opposition from two indefatigable campaigners: journalist Edward Murrow and the US Army’s head counsel Joseph N. Welch who famously demanded of McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” As a result, public opinion turned on McCarthy and in 1954 he was eventually censured by his Senate colleagues.

This is where the distinction between McCarthy and HUAC becomes important. The House committee did not stop when McCarthy fell. It’s prestige did take a big hit but HUAC carried on to subpoena potential subversives throughout the 1960s.

Update: In a comment on FB, my friend James King pointed out by way of addition that “HUAC’s predecessor, the Dies Committee, was active pre-war. This contradicts the comforting idea that McCarthyism was entirely a moment of madness after the fall of China, rather than reflecting something rather more fundamental.”

America’s clapped out constitution (America Week)

The Wright Brother's plane. Like the US constitution it's a miracle of invention, you'd be made to use in the present day.

The Wright Brother’s plane. Like the US constitution it’s a miracle of invention, you’d be mad to use it in the present day.

In America’s civil religion, the constitution is the sacred text and the Founding Father’s are the prophets. They even have temples like Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Both the document and its authors are held up as paragons and models with huge rhetorical power.

Yet when a nation’s constitution prevents the rubbish in its capital city being collected, that constitution is clearly broken. The sheer absurdity of what is happening in America at the moment is staggering: the government of the most powerful nation on earth has voted to spend more than it raises in taxes and now has to (but can’t) separately vote to borrow the money to plug the gap. This Washington Post article observes “countries like Pakistan and Colombia have had civil wars, coups, financial crises, even defaults but never a government shutdown.” In fact a Commonwealth guidance note on debt management for its developing members warns them that legislative involvement in specific lending decisions “adds a potentially cumbersome, time-consuming and overpoliticised step in the decision-making process when time is often of the essence for market borrowing” and that ideally “an annual borrowing limit is set consistently with the financing requirement implied by the annual budget.” The way the US handles its debt thus falls far short of what would be expected of any nation let alone a superpower.

The reality is that debt management is far from being the only area where the US constitution is antiquated. What makes the US constitution so remarkable is that is that it is the first example of creating a supreme law for a democratic nation. However, this is the source of its weakness in the present day. You are not getting to get things right on a first attempt and since the constitution was written in 1787, we have learnt a lot more about how to govern a country.

While prototypes in other fields are likely to be replaced or substantially improved, the constitution is entrenched and extraordinary hurdles must be cleared before it can be amended. So it remains riddled with problems that later constitutions have at least to certain extent solved such as:

  • It protects the wrong rights. The hallowed Bill of Rights is a strange document to 21st century eyes and not just because of the right to bear arms. It includes a right not to have soldiers garrisoned in your house but – unlike the ECHR – no protections for the right to marry, to receive an education or live free from discrimination. Many individual decisions are also dodgy, for example, the Citizens United decision that concluded that preventing unlimited corporate spending on advertising during elections was a breach of freedom of speech!
  • A lack of legislative accountability. It is often unclear to voters what branch of government is responsible for what outcome. So for example, the Democrats were punished in the 2010 mid-terms for Barack Obama’s percieved failure to get the economy moving even though it was Republicans in congress who shrunk his stimulus bill.
  • It politicises the judiciary by the combining an expansive role of the Supreme Court with requiring congressional approval for judicial appointments.
  • It’s undemocratic. Wyoming (population: 500,000) and California (population: 38,000,000) have the same representation in the US Senate.
  •  It’s a vested interests dream. You get loads of opportunities to block measures you don’t like. Take the healthcare industries effort to block Obamacare: it had to be voted through by the house, get a supermajority in the Senate, not be vetoed by the president, survive a challenge at the Supreme Court and Republican controlled states have dragged their feet on implementing it.
  • It makes solving social problems harder to solve. This is related to the point above. Because there are so many ‘veto points’ in the American political system that means it is hard to assemble a political coalition behind policies that might solve problems: universal healthcare is the obvious answer. In fact, much social science research has suggested that the more veto points in a nation’s constitution, the higher its poverty rate will be.
  • Inability to resolve impasses democratically. A constitution heavy in veto points assumes that it is possible to default back to the status quo. This isn’t always possible and then a dangerous impasse can result. The most tragic example in US history is the Civil War: slavery had to be either permitted or not in states acceding to the union, there was no status quo to default back to. The Northern dominated House and Southern dominated Senate couldn’t agree on this matter, and so the two sides resolved the matter on the battle field. In general, it seems that democracy fairs better in parliamentary systems because they avoid this kind of impasse.

To move on from this Model-T constitution,  the constitution should be made easier to change, so that it can evolve. Furthermore, the constitution should stop being used as a normative standard: the fact its in the constitution doesn’t stop the right to bear arms being a stupid idea.