James Madison

My Take on Hamilton

After my sister and niece saw the play Hamilton, they gushed with praise. My nephew asked an excellent question: “What happens in that theatre?” 

All I knew about Hamilton was that it was based on Ron Chernow’s book, that most of the cast were black actors and actresses and that the music was rap. A musical based on a Chernow biography with actors that look nothing like the real-life characters they portrayed in a rap musical all sounded like a questionable combination at best. Additionally, several people wondered if I would have problems with its historical accuracy. So, with some reticence, I saw Hamilton in London recently. The answer to my nephew’s question is “I am not entirely sure what happens in that theatre, but it is amazing.”

To deal with the preliminaries, using diverse actors and actresses is not yet another strained effort by the entertainment industry to show how inclusive it is, but instead is part of the essence of the play. Race is one small part of the import of the show. And the rap music (which isn’t usually my thing) goes from odd to enchanting by about the third line. Rap is really used as the bridge between some incredibly original and engrossing songs. Rap tells the story, the songs reveal the characters. 

In terms of history, while I might quibble with a few discrete pieces, Hamilton is a well-informed documentary. I was a little distraught about its treatment of Thomas Jefferson (the actor who played Jefferson was short while Jefferson was quite tall for his day and the actor who played James Madison could have been an NFL linebacker while Madison was all of 5’ 4”). That, however, was not the point. The point was that Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were debating the critical issues of the late 18th century, irrespective of what they looked like. And that debate was not recast to fit our modern notions of acceptability, it was about the issues that they actually debated. For example, monetary policy for the new country is debated (or rapped about) in surprisingly faithful terms. Imagine being entertained by an argument about monetary policy that pays homage to the importance of monetary policy. Yes, I know, hard to imagine.

While it is easy to get multiple messages from Hamilton,I was most taken with the fact that, in the end, the play is 1) a primer on the passage of the United States Constitution and 2) gives George Washington the adoration that is his due. I am often asked who I think our greatest President was and I always respond with “Easy. It’s George Washington. There never would have been a second President if he had not been humble enough to recognize the need to step aside after two terms. He also believed it was vital to hear competing points of view to make sound decisions. So, he put Jefferson and Hamilton in his cabinet and had them fight it out, to their frustration, but to his (and the country’s) benefit.” This is a large part of the genius of Hamilton. There are several scenes where Jefferson and Hamilton debate and maneuver while Washington thoughtfully listens. It may not sound gripping, but, it is. When Washington’s character sings “Teach Them to Say Goodbye,” I wept.

The star of the show, however, is the Constitution. There is little effort made to “dumb it down” or make it something other than what it was and is. At the time of its passage, it was controversial and not particularly popular. But it was the compromise that was needed to bring disparate states together that gave them some hope of survival. The play conveys this but also gives a preview of how the brilliance of the document would come to define us as a nation. In a remarkably subtle fashion, you realize long after you have forgotten that the actors and actresses are mostly people of color and are telling the early history of the United States through rap music that, without the Constitution, those actors and actresses would not be able to tell the story they are telling. 

It is all the fashion today to discount our founders because many of them were slaveholders, an indisputably horrible practice. Nonetheless, it was common throughout the world at that time. But the Constitution that those same founders crafted was also the beginning of the end of slavery and most of those founders (including Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison) knew it. The Civil War was a tragedy of human loss, the causes of which can also be debated. But, among its causes, it resulted from the tension created by a Constitution that ultimately could not coexist with human bondage.

What happens in that theatre is a tribute to what is exceptional about our past with little gloss or distortion, just accessibility. Hamilton is a history lesson about our shared values. No liberals, no conservatives. Just a celebration of why they exist.  

The Presidents blog

Welcome to my blog. Those are four words I am surprised to type. Almost as surprised as I am that I am having a book published. My historical novel, A Presidents Story, will be out in April. The publisher and my son with the Masters Degree in Marketing said authors have websites and, if they’re smart, blogs or newsletters. A blog sounded less intimidating because I don’t have to decide if something is “news” or not.

This will be my main blog. If you click on “Blog" in the upper right corner, you will see that I hope to eventually build blogs on Music and Fly Fishing, the other two things I can never seem to get enough of. For the Presidents Blog, in addition to occasional commentary, I will post (hopefully) interesting anecdotes and book reviews (both of my book and other books on Presidents). If you sign up for the email list, I’ll alert you to new content on the blog from time to time. Don't worry, I’ll be judicious with the number of emails to avoid morphing into spam.

But, back to the book. Why did I write A Presidents Story? Initially, it was because I could. In the mid-90s, PCs came out. I bought a turbo-charged 80-megabyte-of-memory beauty and thought, “Wow, with all this capacity, I could write a book!”

Around the time I bought the computer and started having those thoughts, I read William Safire’s Freedom. It’s a great Civil War novel based on a lot of actual history. It occurred to me that it might be the type vehicle I could use to convey some of the things I’ve learned about the Presidents over a lifetime of study. So, I started doing the research and writing as time allowed over the next 5 years.

Then, time did not allow for close to 15 years. When I retired in 2015 and ran across my old notes, I decided I would finish the book. I did so and sent it out into the world of agents and publishers. The nice folks at History Publishing Company responded and said they would like to publish A Presidents Story.

As I say in the “Author’s Note” to the book, this “is a work of fiction based on many factual events." Over the last 50 years, countless people have told me that whoever was President at that time was “the worst ever” or, occasionally, “the best ever.” I’m often tempted to ask, “How do you think he compares with, say, Zachary Taylor?” I typically don’t because I am usually talking to someone I like and would rather get to see them again than prove a point. That point, however, was part of my motivation in writing the book.

A Presidents Story is about the mostly forgotten Presidents between Washington and Lincoln. Just as most of us can readily think of actions that, for example, LBJ and Nixon and Reagan took that impacted the issues that Bush and Obama confronted, so it was with Lincoln. His predecessors had a profound impact on the issues he confronted. A Presidents Story attempts to illuminate the Presidents before Lincoln in a way that will make it easier or, better yet, harder, for us to say a President is the “best” or “worst.”

The book should be available in hard copy shortly after its April 2018 publication date. In the meantime, it can be pre-ordered as an eBook on Amazon or on Barnes and Noble (and probably other places as well). I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please post a review online. The publisher and my son say that’s important too.