Monday, July 13, 2020

#195 / I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot

I have been thinking some more about Hamilton, the Broadway musical that Disney+ has now made available as a film. I wrote about the production a week or so so, on the Fourth of July, emphasizing my belief that the failure of the American Revolution to bring about the objectives so magnificently proclaimed in The Declaration of Independence should not lead us to conclude that our nation is not able, in fact, actually to realize them now. 

Our past is flawed, and we do need to face that fact. The leaders we have traditionally celebrated, and even venerated, were flawed as well. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was not only a slave owner during his life; when he died, he perpetuated the institution of slavery by treating the human beings he purported to "own" as if they were, indeed, mere chattels and part of his estate, to be sold just as land, furniture, and farm animals would be. There are many ignoble chapters in the history of our nation. We can, however, write some new chapters, starting now. That was the message of my earlier blog posting

Since then, revisiting Hamilton the musical, which I consider to be a work of great artistic and political merit, I have had a different thought. This thought has to do with one of the themes that recurs throughout the entirety of Hamilton, encompassed in the song, "I am not throwing away my shot."

One of the themes in Hamilton is Alexander Hamilton's struggle to rise into social and political prominence; although he comes to America as a penniless immigrant, and from a dubious personal background, Hamilton will not, he consistently proclaims, ever give up on his chance to make a name for himself, and a place for himself in history. He works ceaselessly to do so. This story of the personal advancement of a poor, immigrant "nobody" is one of the main themes in the musical. Hamilton the musical says that this is one thing that America is all about.

Dueling is another theme in the musical. The competition between Aaron Burr and Hamilton is also a persistent theme, and it is not only a "personal" rivalry. As someone who still identifies as a "politician," I see the Burr/Hamilton conflict as a conflict between two approaches to politics. Burr steadfastly refuses to take a position on any important matter, so he can be on the "winning side," when it becomes clear which side will prevail. Burr's political objective is to be "in the room where it happens." Burr is, in other words, a political "player" without much commitment to any set of principles.

Hamilton takes the opposite approach, always working to achieve a particular result that he thinks is "right." That includes independence from England, in the first half of the musical, and it includes the establishment of a truly strong "federal" government that can prevail over a less unified approach, which emphasizes the rights of the states. Jefferson is Hamilton's consistent antagonist in this debate over how to configure American government, and yet, near the end, when Hamilton must indicate his preference as between Jefferson and Burr, Hamilton chooses Jefferson because Jefferson at least stands for something, which Burr does not. Hamilton's endorsement of Jefferson over Burr in the presidential contest in which Jefferson prevails (thanks to Hamilton's endorsement) leads Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel, and in that duel Burr kills Hamilton.

I have not read Ron Chernow's biography, Hamilton, on which Lin-Manuel Miranda based his musical, but it is definitely on my list. Because I don't know the real history, I am not absolutely certain that in that final duel, Hamilton raised his gun to the sky, indicating to Burr that he would not attempt to kill him, with Burr then taking the advantage of killing Hamilton, instead. I tend to believe that this is, actually, the true story, since Hamilton the musical is faithful to the part of Hamilton's history that I do know about.

The "poster" that advertises the musical, which is pictured at the top of this blog posting, depicts the gesture that Hamilton makes throughout the story. Hamilton's hand is elevated to the sky, configured as if it were a gun, and with the gun pointed to the heavens. Hamilton has never ceased to claim, throughout the entirety of the musical, that he is "not throwing away my shot," and yet, in the end, it is Hamilton who doesn't shoot. Burr does.

As Hamilton the musical makes clear, as it rehearses more than once the "rules" of dueling, honor commands what Hamiton did. So Hamilton acted honorably. But there is something more. The fact that Hamilton did not shoot, and that Burr did, is what elevated Hamilton to the pantheon of American patriots, and consigned Burr to the role of American villain. In other words, by abstaining from the use of deadly force, rather than by using deadly force, Hamilton achieved what he wanted to achieve, and became the "somebody" that he had hoped to be from the very beginning, when he disembarked in New York harbor as an impoverished immigrant.

That is the thought that I have been having, after watching Hamilton one more time. We, today, are as deeply engaged in political strife and opposition as were Hamilton and Burr. We act, sometimes, like what we should do is to "kill" those who hold political opinions contrary to our own, so polarized is our political life. We are not, we consistently tell ourselves, going to "throw away our shot."

But, in the end, maybe Hamilton the man, and Hamilton the musical, have a better lesson to teach us. However deep our political divisions, in the end we are in this life together, and we will advance, and we will prevail, not by extirpating the other side, those with whom we have such profound disagreements, but by doing the opposite. We will prevail, as Hamilton demonstrated in one of the central plot points in the musical, only the extent we are able to come to a compromise despite our conflicts, despite our deepest, strongest beliefs.

See Hamilton, please! As an entertainment, I am certain you will find it to be a superlative experience.

As a lesson for our times, it is no less compelling!

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