Note: This piece is filled with spoilers about the musical Hamilton, including a detailed description of how the show ends. If you have not yet seen Hamilton and don’t want the story spoiled, come back to this piece later.
Election Day 2020 is finally here.
It’s been a rough four years. I’ve had a hard time holding onto even an ounce of any patriotism I may have felt in the past. I’ve struggled to continue to see any good in this country, its leaders, even the overall process of our democracy.
But then, a few months ago, I tasted the tiniest bit of patriotism again, and it came from a fairly unexpected place.
Hamilton, the musical, was put up on Disney+ over the July 4th weekend. Watching it made me feel the patriotism that I hadn’t felt in three and a half years. Every time I’ve watched Hamilton since that July 4th weekend (many, many times now), I feel a spark of love for my country again.
Not only do I believe Hamilton can teach us in 2020 a lot about patriotism, but I believe it can help instruct us when it comes to casting our ballots on this Election Day.
One of the things I appreciate most about the Hamilton musical is that, despite the fact that so many are quick to look at our Founding Fathers as infallible, or even elevate them to a deity-like status, we’re shown and reminded that the Founding Fathers were just people — fallible and imperfect.
The character of George Washing (who is quoted in the title of this piece) tells Alexander Hamilton during the song “History Has Its Eyes On You” about how he had previously failed as a military leader.
I was younger than you are now
When I was given my first command
I led my men straight into a massacre
I witnessed their deaths firsthand
I made every mistake
And felt the shame rise in me
And even now I lie awake
Knowing history has its eyes on me
The real George Washington also wrote in his famous farewell speech,
The impressions with which I first undertook the arduous trust were explained on the proper occasion. In the discharge of this trust, I will only say that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome.
Then, of course, there are the errors made by the main character of this musical, Alexander Hamilton.
While perhaps the lapse in judgment that first comes to mind is Hamilton’s extramarital affair with Moriah Reynolds, I believe the greatest failure on Hamilton’s part was his arrogance and pride. That pride is referred to often by other characters and first appears at the very end of the first act, during the song “Non-Stop.”
Aaron Burr’s character speaks throughout the song about how Hamilton simply does not slow down, for anything, but also about how he seemingly thinks very highly of himself, perhaps even placing himself above others. One of the repeating refrains from the song is Burr asking Hamilton, “why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?” and then warning, “soon that attitude may be your doom.”
Aaron Burr is not the only character that admonishes Hamilton for his arrogance and pride — Thomas Jefferson and James Madison take a few jabs at him, as well.
Hamilton’s issues with Jefferson and Madison start more or less at the beginning of the second act. Not only does Hamilton disagree completely with Jefferson’s beliefs and positions on the issues they both face as members of Washington’s cabinet, but it gets personal between the two.
Following another policy dispute during the second cabinet meeting in the show, Jefferson, Madison, and Burr all scoff at Hamilton’s support from Washington, and Jefferson even tells Hamilton, “you’re nothing without Washington behind you.”
There are many more grievances between the two aired during the song “Washington On Your Side,” in which the three aforementioned characters talk about Hamilton’s unbearable arrogance.
I get no satisfaction witnessing his fits of passion
The way he primps and preens and dresses like the pits of fashion
Our poorest citizens, our farmers, live ration to ration
As Wall Street robs ’em blind in search of chips to cash in
This prick is asking for someone to bring him to task
Somebody give me some dirt on his vacuous mask
So we can, at last, unmask him
I’ll pull the trigger on him, someone load the gun and cock it
While we were all watching, he got Washington in his pocket
It must be nice, it must be nice
To have Washington on your side
So he’s doubled the size of the government
Wasn’t the trouble with much of our previous government size?
Look in his eyes
See how he lies
Follow the scent of his enterprise
Centralizing national credit and making American credit competitive
If we don’t stop it, we aid and abet it
I have to resign
Somebody has to stand up for the South
Well, somebody has to stand up to his mouth
If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse
You can’t put it out from inside the house
I’m in the cabinet, I am complicit
And watching and grabbing the power and kiss it
If Washington isn’t gon’ listen to disciplined dissidents
This is the difference, this kid is out
Following this song, Jefferson (Washington’s Secretary of State) gives his resignation, as he is no longer to work in the same cabinet as Alexander Hamilton, and makes it known that he intends to run for president.
Jefferson actually runs for president twice in this musical (he’s runner-up the first time, which makes him the vice president), and the second time Jefferson runs, after John Adams’ catastrophic time in office, he is running against Aaron Burr.
Burr, who is the overall narrator of this musical, is perhaps the most flawed of all our Founding Fathers.
At the very start of the story this musical tells, when Burr first meets Alexander Hamilton, he gives some advice: “Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” This advice winds its way through the narrative, reappearing at critical moments, and it eventually makes its way to the ending, when Jefferson and Burr are running against one another for president.
Seemingly going against his own advice, Burr starts to openly campaign against Jefferson, but then it quickly becomes known that his mantra, “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” is actually the theme of that campaign.
Jefferson and Madison actually discuss Burr’s reluctance to take a stand on any issue in the song “The Election of 1800.”
Every action has its equal, opposite reaction
John Adams shat the bed, I love the guy, but he’s in traction
Poor Alexander Hamilton, he is missing in action
So now I’m facing (Aaron Burr) with his own faction
He’s very attractive in the North, New Yorkers like his chances
He’s not very forthcoming on any particular stances
Ask him a question, it glances off, he obfuscates, he dances
And they say I’m a Francophile, at least they know I know where France is
Burr’s refusal to take a stand on any issues is another recurring theme throughout the musical, from beginning to end, and it eventually causes other characters to accuse Burr of having no values.
Early in the musical, while discussing the seemingly inevitable revolution, Burr is asked “what do you stall for?” when he refuses to get on board the fight. Hamilton also asks Burr, “if you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” which echoes a true quote from the real Alexander Hamilton that makes the claim, “those who stand for nothing fall for anything.”
Later, Hamilton goes to Burr, asking him to help him write what would eventually be known as The Federalist Papers, but Burr refuses to help create any such documents to defend the United States Constitution, because, in the words of his character, “I am waiting to see which way the wind will blow.” Hamilton begs of Burr “for once in your life take a stand with pride,” and then concludes, “I don’t understand how you stand to the side.”
Burr’s lack of values is also portrayed during the song “The Room Where It Happened,” during which Hamilton asks again, “if you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” Burr responds, “I want to be in the room where it happens.”
When Aaron Burr wins the New York Senate seat that previously belonged to Philip Schuyler (Hamilton’s father-in-law), Hamilton, in disbelief, tells Burr “no one knows who you are or what you do,” to which Burr responds, “they don’t need to know me, they don’t like you.”
It’s also explained that, in order to win Schuyler’s Senate seat, Burr had to switch political parties. Hamilton asks, “Burr, since when are you a Democratic-Republican?” and Burr responds, “since being one put me on the up-and-up again.” This exchange shows, again, Aaron Burr’s lack of values and beliefs, which has allowed him to change parties so easily, just to secure power and his place in “the room where it happened.”
However, in the end, this lack of values on Burr’s part creates both his and Hamilton’s downfall.
The aforementioned details surrounding the failures of our Founding Fathers and the characters portrayed in Hamilton begs the question:
If these people were so flawed and made so many mistakes, how could this show ever make you feel so patriotic?
My answer is simple.
Because, despite every one of their flaws, THEY KEPT TRYING.
Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson… they weren’t perfect, not by a long shot, but they never stopped working towards creating a better, stronger, more fair country. They all knew the work they were doing was so much bigger than themselves, and Washington and Hamilton even comment in the show about how, after the were gone, the country and the work they did to create it would “outlive them.”
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he didn’t say we were “a perfect union.” Instead, he wrote about creating “a more perfect union,” because he understood that he and all the other Founding Fathers — as well as the leaders who would come after them — were nothing more than men (and, eventually, women) and were simply human: fallible and imperfect.
The Founders understood that fallible, imperfect men could never create anything to perfect standards, but they included the language about creating “a more perfect union” in our founding documents as a call to action, as instructions for all Americans to constantly keep trying, despite any and all flaws, to bring us as close to perfection as is humanly possible.
With the exception of Burr, all of the characters in Hamilton work tirelessly to create a more perfect union and choose to put the good of the country ahead of their own selfish desires. That decision, to always put country first, is what ultimately caused Alexander Hamilton’s death.
During the election of 1800, when Jefferson and Burr were competing for the presidency, Hamilton, the figure head of the Federalist party, had to decide which candidate he would endorse for the position.
While Burr is campaigning, Hamilton asks, “is there anything you wouldn’t do [to win the presidency]?” and Burr responds, “no, I’m chasing what I want.” This exchange is just one more example of Burr’s lack of values and willingness to do whatever it takes to get himself “in the room where it happens.”
This exchange also sets up what is arguably the biggest surprise in the show: Hamilton endorses Thomas Jefferson for president.
As Hamilton’s character puts it,
The people are asking to hear my voice
For the country is facing a difficult choice
And if you were to ask me who I’d promote
Jefferson has my vote
I have never agreed with Jefferson once
We have fought on like seventy-five different fronts
But when all is said and all is done
Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none
Of course, given the fact that Hamilton has known and been friends with Burr for years, and given that Hamilton and Jefferson have fought each other mercilessly in the political realm, everyone (including Jefferson) is shocked by the endorsement.
However, I’m not sure they should have been socked.
Hamilton had spent his entire life fighting for freedom and “a more perfect union.” He openly displayed his values and beliefs (even to Burr’s dismay) long before he ever entered politics.
Mr. Vice President
I am not the reason no one trusts you
No one knows what you believe
I will not equivocate on my opinion
I have always worn it on my sleeve
Even if I said what you think I said
You would need to cite a more specific grievance
Here’s an itemized list of thirty years of disagreements
Hey, I have not been shy
I am just a guy in the public eye
Tryna do my best for our republic, I don’t wanna fight
But I won’t apologize for doing what’s right
It’s Hamilton’s choice to do what’s right for the country over the political career of his friend that leads to Aaron Burr challenging him to a duel, because, as Burr’s character says,
How does Hamilton, an arrogant immigrant, orphan
Somehow endorse Thomas Jefferson, his enemy
A man he’s despised since the beginning
Just to keep me from winning?
I wanna be in the room where it happens
The room where it happens
The room where it happens
You’ve kept me from the room where it happens
For the last time
Hamilton accepted the challenge to duel, because he believed, whole-heartedly, that his decision to support Jefferson for president was best for the wellbeing of the country, no matter the cost.
The cost turned out to be his life.
Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr in their duel.
Like many before him and many still to come, Alexander Hamilton was willing to give his life in order to further America’s sacred mission to “create a more perfect union.” If that’s not patriotism, I don’t know what is.
How can we take the messages of both the Hamilton musical and our Founding Fathers and apply them to today’s election?
Today, we are deciding between two men, one of whom will become the 46th president of the United States of America, and the personalities, beliefs, and values of these two men could not present a more stark contrast.
- Devout Catholic, attends mass regularly
- Wants healthcare to be an American right, not a privilege
- Supports LGBTQ+ rights and same-sex marriage
- Has a national plan to combat COVID-19 and save lives
- Wants wealthy Americans and big corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, wants to cut taxes for middle- and lower-class Americans
- Wants to get rid of preposterous tax loopholes
- Wants the minimum wage to be a living wage
- Will stop the child separation policy at the border
- Wrote laws to protect domestic abuse victims
- Supports increased funding for public schools
- Wants to make higher education more affordable and attainable
- Wants to ensure women maintain their autonomy
- Supports our veterans and troops
- Has a plan to reform our criminal justice system
- Supports the right to protest
- Respects American political norms
- Respects the office of the presidency
- Believes in science
- Wants to move us toward more renewable energy
- Has worked time and again with both political parties and has found ways to bridge the divide and pass legislation
- Has an infrastructure plan that will create millions of jobs
- Supports unions and workers’ rights to organize
- Believes in and has a plan to address climate change
- Has worked towards finding cures for cancer
- Grew up in a middle-class, blue-collar family
- Knows the pain of loss and grief
- Knows what it’s like to have a child serve in the military
- Has empathy
Donald J. Trump:
- Cozies up to authoritarian leaders and dictators
- Is okay with bending rules whenever it benefits him
- Refuses to condemn white supremacists, KKK, right-wing extremists
- Implements yes-men in top government positions
- Disregards every American political norm
- Broke nepotism laws to hire family members in the administration
- Says he has never needed to ask God for forgiveness
- Uses properties he owns for official government business, to make money
- Openly breaks and ignores emoluments laws, uses office to enrich himself
- Holds political events in tax-payer funded facilities (the White House)
- Lies about the severity and seriousness of the COVID-19 virus
- Refuses to create a federal plan to combat COVID-19
- Attacks our doctors and other healthcare workers
- Called our troops and veterans “losers” and “suckers”
- Threatened to disown his son if he enlisted in the military
- Fighting to take away healthcare, has no plan to “replace” the ACA
- Calls the free press the “enemy of the people”
- Passed tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans
- Used tax loopholes to only pay $750 in taxes some years, despite bragging that he is a “billionaire”
- Publicly degrades women
- Calls majority black countries “shit hole” countries
- Calls black Americans “thugs” for protesting for their rights
- Has stripped away rights from LGBTQ+ Americans
- Ordered the Justice Department to violently attack peaceful protesters for a photo-op moment he wanted
- Has told Americans to not believe the things they see and hear
- Cheated on all three of his wives
- Pays hush-money and forces people to sign non-disclosure agreements
- Implemented the “Muslim ban”
- Incites racial violence and antisemitism
- Ripped children, including breastfeeding babies, away from their families
- Relentlessly calls people childish names
- Has refused to even speak with Democratic leadership for more than a year now
- Called for the end of negotiations regarding COVID-19 relief/aid
- Starts fights with and disparages our allies
- Spreads conspiracy theories
- Constantly lies, about everything, big and small
- Stokes division
- Says he welcomes foreign assistance in elections
- Chose to believe Putin’s lies about meddling in American elections over proven facts gathered by American intelligence agencies
- Has never once displayed an ability to emphasize, with anyone
- Openly admitted he will declare victory today, election day, before all of the votes are counted
When you compare the two candidates, it is abundantly clear that Donald Trump has no values or moral compass. We could forgive those flaws, and he could still be a decent leader if he chose to put the country first and foremost. Hamilton teaches us the people we elect to lead our country can and probably always will be flawed, but that’s okay, as long as they make the decision every day to strive towards making this a more perfect union.
… Therein lies our problem in 2020.
Over the last four years, Trump has repeatedly chosen himself and his pocketbook over the wellbeing of our country and its citizens, much to America’s detriment.
Trump has also completely taken control of what was once known as the Republican Party, and many traditional Republicans have learned the hard way that, unless they fully embrace Donald Trump and his corrupt brand of politics, they will lose their jobs. Trump knows this and has used it to seek revenge on many politicians supposedly in his own party.
It’s no wonder that Republicans with a spine (though they seem to be a dying breed) have left the party. We’ve seen a lot of anti-Trump Republican groups come into existence lately, such as The Lincoln Project, many of which cling to the traditional values of our leaders from the past.
It’s also no wonder that many prominent Republicans, as well as many military officials (which traditionally tend to lean right), have very publicly endorsed Joe Biden.
I cannot help but believe that Alexander Hamilton, and probably the majority of our Founding Fathers, would endorse Joe Biden, as well.
Donald Trump resembles Aaron Burr in all the worst ways. Both men have made the choice, time and again, to place themselves and their personal interests over whatever is best for America, our democracy, and the very people they made an oath to protect and serve.
Alexander Hamilton took a stand for America and everything it represents by endorsing Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr, and he was willing to lose his life over it.
I stand by what I said, every bit of it
You stand only for yourself, it’s what you do
I can’t apologize because it’s true
Today, Election Day 2020, we have the opportunity to do the same.
We can choose to stand up for our country, our democracy, and our quest to “create a more perfect union” by voting for Joe Biden; or we can forfeit everything to a self-absorbed, self-interested conman with no values, no beliefs, and no moral compass by voting to re-elect Donald Trump.
Unlike Hamilton, our lives may not be at stake, but just about everything else, including our rights and the very existence of America, is.
When all is said and all is done,
Joe Biden has beliefs,
Trump has none