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There are two types of history that you can study: events vs. legacy and legends.
Events are the things that undeniably happened. For example, the North American colonies won their war of independence from Great Britain in the late 18th Century. Nobody can change that.
Legacy and legends are the stories of individual people who were involved in history. There once was a guy named Abraham Lincoln. He was an actual white supremacist. “…there is a physical difference between the white and black races,” Lincoln said in 1858, “which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” Lincoln was also a frightening religious fanatic who used his second inaugural address to blame God for the surprising length of the Civil War and the unexpected level of bloodshed.
But Lincoln’s actual awfulness doesn’t matter because that isn’t the Lincoln on Mount Rushmore and the five-dollar bill. We don’t admire Abraham Lincoln for who he really was; we revere his legacy for what it represents today. We revere the legendary hero who kept the union together and freed the slaves. It really doesn’t matter that the 13th Amendment was ratified after his death.
This is why the vandals who are toppling statues are such perfect nitwits. They want to change history but they don’t know how. You can’t bludgeon history with your fists; but you can rewrite a man’s legacy with your pen.
That’s what the mega-hit play “Hamilton” is all about. “Legacy is planting seeds in a garden that you never get to see,” says Alexander Hamilton (Manuel Lin Miranda).
The opera introduces us to young Alexander Hamilton: a penniless orphan immigrant. He moved to New York, fought in the Revolution, and rose to become the second most powerful man in the new United States of America.
Interestingly, Miranda’s Hamilton is a revolutionary without any ideals. He does not care about British taxes and he never mentions the Enlightenment. Our hero joins the rebellion because he sees war and statecraft as his ticket to fame.
Manuel Lin Miranda’s decision to present the early years of US history in a series of hip-hop dance numbers was completely out of left field. But it works pretty darn well, even though you will need to turn on Close Captioning to follow everything the characters are singing.
My favorite scenes are the rap battles between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton wants a central bank to make the US competitive and Jefferson wants the states to remain as independent economic entities (Hamilton won). Hamilton wants the new country to stay out of the war between Britain and France and Jefferson wants us to help Paris since the French helped us during our revolution (Hamilton won).
Viewers expecting (or fearing) that “Hamilton” is a Woke musical for the Resistance will be surprised. Manuel Lin Miranda shares nothing in common with the people toppling statues. The statue vandals are trying and failing to alter history in the crudest way possible.
Miranda has successfully changed history with hard work and ingenuity. With sheer force of will, Miranda changed the legacy of Alexander Hamilton. He is no longer a dead white guy who owned slaves. Hamilton is now a cool Hispanic rapper with a goatee and ponytail.
“Hamilton” is a splendid reminder that the vandals of our age are nothing to worry about. Book burners and statue topplers are intellectually lazy and ineffectual and their movement will run out of steam. History, as always, belongs to the creators and the writers and the visionaries.