The company of Hamilton: An American Musical ends the show by directly asking the question repeatedly emphasized throughout the musical: “who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
Hamilton and history – Who tells the story?
Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson
September 15, 2020
“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” This is the question that Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame asks. Central to this question is the perspective of privilege and power because one’s position in the story dictates whether that story will be viewed as patriotic or traitorous. And it matters because “History has its eyes on you.”
In 1774, the Rev. Samuel Seabury, writing pseudonymously as A.W. Farmer, argued against restrictive trade agreements adopted by Congress. These agreements prohibited the exportation to and importation and consumption of goods from Great Britain, Ireland, and the West Indies. Seabury argued for the status quo which affirmed the sovereignty of Great Britain. He warned that Congress’ actions could risk retaliation by Britain. He also argued that the actions could lead to ruin for domestic farmers unable to export goods, households unable to import necessities for their livelihood, and merchants in Great Britain, Ireland, and the West Indies who could neither import to nor export from the colonies. Most stridently, however, he argued against the establishment of committees to ensure compliance. Specifically, committee men could be dispatched for the purposes of search and seizure. For Seabury, such unwelcomed inspections to prevent the use of British tea, molasses, and manufactured goods was tantamount to enslavement.
It was Alexander Hamilton who responded. In a 35-page letter entitled A full vindication of the measures of Congress, Hamilton argued that it was not Congress’ actions but rather forced subordination to the sovereignty of Parliament that was enslavement. Elected representatives lawfully protested the unjust infringement upon American rights but adopted restrictive agreements because there were no other options. Hamilton’s words, “the exigency of the times requires vigorous and probable remedies,” not only vindicated Congress’ actions, but also justified civil disobedience. When Boston citizens destroyed private property, a parcel of tea, by throwing it into the harbor, Parliament ordered a naval blockade of the port of Boston. Rather than find the perpetrators, the British government punished the entire colony of Massachusetts. For Hamilton, this excessive use of force was the kind of injustice against which Americans were fighting. And his response was regarded as patriotic. He argued for compliance to restrictions for the cause of freedom and civil disobedience for the cause of justice.
Why is this important now? With the release of Hamilton on the Disney+ streaming platform, we are titillated anew with the phenomenon of this epic Broadway production set to rap. However, blackwashing the story – that is, using a cast comprised predominantly of people of color – does not change the fact that Hamilton is His-story. It is the story of white men asserting their right to freedom and self-governance. Moreover, it is heralded as a patriotic story because those who are in the majority are the protagonists.
The musical Hamilton asks, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” But I would also ask “Whose story will we revere and embrace as patriotic? Countless people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community and others who have cut against the grain of the majority are speaking out. Too often their words and actions are regarded as traitorous. But in this pivotal historical moment, we have an opportunity to be better.
But when others have advocated for the same freedoms, were their actions received so patriotically? I think not. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, he was labeled a traitor. When protestors toppled Confederate monuments erected during the Jim Crow era to assert white supremacy, they were called a mob. And as protestors in Portland, Oregon have continued to march against the killing of George Floyd, they have been labeled anarchists. In fact, this labeling seems to be the justification for the dispatchment of federal agents against the crowds.
The musical Hamilton asks, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” But I would also ask “Whose story will we revere and embrace as patriotic?” It was Congressman John Lewis who said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something, to stand up, speak up, speak out.” This is what Alexander Hamilton did. As a white man, born of Scottish and French ancestry, his words were retained, his story was told, and he was championed as patriotic. Countless people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community and others who have cut against the grain of the majority are speaking out. Too often their words and actions are regarded as traitorous.
But in this pivotal historical moment, we have an opportunity to be better. First, we need to recognize that Black Lives Matter. When we hold dear the most marginalized, we are moved to embrace their experiences and care about their stories. So, rather than seeing a Puerto Rican, an African American and an Asian American portraying Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, respectively, we can collectively clamor for the stories of unsung, unmentioned, and overlooked people of color. It was by their hands that this nation was built; therefore, we need to hear their stories because they help us more fully understand ourselves.
Then I want to see us commit to getting into “Good Trouble” as John Lewis said. It was the shared belief of justice and freedom that motivated Hamilton and his contemporaries to write, rail, and war. In like fashion, the public execution of George Floyd moved the world to embrace the cause of justice and freedom for all. Was the cause of 1776 any more just or noble than the cause of justice today? No. One’s gender or skin color cannot be the determining factor of importance, for our own Declaration of Independence affirms that all “are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This is our moment. Let us rise to the occasion. What was right and just at this nation’s founding is right and just now. We cannot settle for the status quo when the status quo systematically oppresses and denies freedom for all. I pray that we will be found as faithful advocates. More than that, I pray that we will courageously get into good trouble when we fail to live up to our founding principles. Let it be so because history has its eye on us.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is the Director of Operations for All Girls Allowed, a faith-based non-profit that restores life, value, and dignity by empowering and educating women and girls and engaging outreach partners for global impact. She was previously the Director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her newly released book Meant for Good: Fundamentals in Womanist Leadership, is available through Judson Press.