How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter
So starts the opening number of the musical Hamilton, just released as a film by Disney on 3rd July. It is a contemporary tribute to Alexander Hamilton, perhaps (as you can probably surmise from those lyrics) the most unlikely of the founding fathers of the United States of America, and possibly the most gifted, although that is debatable when you place him in the company of such men as Franklin, Adams and Jefferson.
I triggered my two week free Disney + trial yesterday, at the start of the weekend, and spent my Saturday binge watching The Mandalorian, and then caught up on a few recent Simpsons episodes (since the advent of digital TV, I have lost track of when new episodes show and rarely watch it anymore). Today I decided to give in to the hype and watch Hamilton, which was released two days ago on that streaming service.
I must say that Alexander Hamilton has never captured my imagination. His rival and eventual killer, the more colourful adventurer Aaron Burr, pricked my interest from an early stage, and I have read both Gore Vidal’s wicked novel Burr, and Nancy Isenburg’s biography of the fallen founder. But this musical has triggered my curiosity, and I want to know more about this talented and flawed statesman.
At the moment, America is in a crisis. There is significant economic and social malaise, which has been eating away at the foundations of the nation far before the Pandemic came along to capture attention. There is a president who seems, at best, rather erratic, and at worst extremely petulant and irresponsible. The alternative, Biden, appears to be on the edge of dementia, or at least noticeable cognitive decline. There are riots tearing their way across the major cities of the nation. Outside its borders, allies are suffering economic disarray and social lockdown due to the Pandemic, whilst the source of the Pandemic, China, appears to be flexing its muscles to replace the USA as global hegemon.
Things do look dire for America. But America has always had one thing going for it which other nations tend to lack, even others which enjoy Anglophonic political values and a Magna Carta based Rule of Law, a national Will To Power which has constantly propelled it from a few starving villages of Puritan ‘pilgrims’ on the Atlantic seaboard into the most powerful nation in history.
Going back to the Puritans, as Frances Fitzgerald observed over 30 years ago in her book Cities On A Hill was: ‘a tradition of radical dissent, separation, and heroic struggle to build a new world on hostile ground’. Dissent, separatism and struggle are not concepts which are alien to the American mindset today, and nor is the Calvinism which has driven Americans over the past four hundred years in the building of their unique and different society, so disturbingly similar and yet so alien from that which I, an Italian-Australian committed to the ideas of the Scottish enlightenment, dwell within.
Whether Americans believe in God or not (and most do), that Calvinism that drove the Puritans has hardwired most of their society to strive in a similar way, a protestant work ethic which drives their capitalist spirit long after the spirituality (as Max Weber suggested in Germany over a century ago) has been forgotten.
Which takes us back to those introductory lyrics above, which were first heard on Boardway five years ago. A bastard son of a whore and a Scotsman, got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter. Hard work, individual merit, initiative. These are the virtues which, in rap style, the Hispanic American composer (and star) of the musical puts into the words he places in the mouth of the black American playing Aaron Burr.
These are American values, the austere yet optimistic self-belief which has served as the dynamism of that nation for so long.
And the world is gonna know your name
What’s your name, man?
My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait, just you wait
Composed and first performed in 2015 by a multi-racial American cast, released by Disney as a movie two days ago, do these values appear dead to you now? I would say not. When people in a nation, regardless of their race or ethnicity or class origins, still believe in and express those values, and indeed celebrate them, I consider that those values remain alive and well in that nation.
Just consider the lyrics:
When America sings for you
Will they know what you overcame?
Will they know you rewrote your game?
The world will never be the same, oh
The ship is in the harbor now
See if you can spot him
Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom
One of the things which has been a strength in Western Civilisation, and in America, has been its sense of questioning and self-doubt. This comes from the Ancient Greeks, particularly Socrates. You learn to ask the question ‘What if I am wrong?’ The answer is another question ‘In case I am wrong, who can I learn from to become right?’
This self-doubt is a cultural strength, because it promotes learning from societal mistakes, inclusion of and generosity to outsiders, and adoption of new beliefs or practices from other cultures and civilisations. A culture which is totally self-assured has a misplaced arrogance which makes it weaker than those that self-doubt.
There are riots and protests in America. These are signs that America is doubting itself and starting to realise some mistakes in how its society is run. These are the first steps to recognising and rectifying those mistakes. America is not about to lay down and die. There is still a lot of strength and vitality to it.
Just you wait.
Very well written piece and excellent points raised, Ernest. Unfortunately (well, fortunately, actually) I wont be watching it. I simply hate musicals. For want of better words, they shit me to tears.
Bono was once asked in an interview what he saw as the biggest difference between the American and Irish mindsets. He replied ‘the American said “son, see that big house on the hill? Work hard and one day it will be yours.” The Irishman said “son, see that house on the hill? One day we’re going to kill the bastards who live there and take it for ourselves.”
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