Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

“You’ll Be Back”: Hamilton’s King George III Got It Right

Jomathan Groff as King George III (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com)

I attended the opening night of Hamilton on Broadway. It was easy. The tickets went for sale at 9:00. At one second after 9:00, I was on the website. The theater was empty. I had my choice of seats as none were taken. I could have bought as many as I wanted…and for as many performances as I wanted. If I had known better, I would have cashed in my IRA!

At the opening performance everyone was excited. The buzz was palpable. Ron Chernow was there looking somewhat shell-shocked that his book was a Broadway musical. Then the musical began. Suddenly something strange happened. A white guy appeared on stage. He was singing British pop not hip hop. He was King George III. The song he was singing was “You’ll Be Back.” He brought down the house. Apparently, it was the first song Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote for Hamilton and he did so on his honeymoon. Even though Jonathan Groff’s performance lasted a mere nine minutes per show, he received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

The tone and much of the language for this song appears to come from an actual address King George III made to Parliament on October 27, 1775. In the address, as in the song, George uses the words “loyal” and “subject” several times, followed by a proclamation that he will use force to put a speedy end to the revolt in America. From the address:

They have raised troops, and are collecting a naval force; they have seized the public revenue, and assumed to themselves legislative, executive and judicial powers, which they already exercise in the most arbitrary manner, over the persons and property of their fellow-subjects: And altho’ many of these unhappy people may still retain their loyalty, and may be too wise not to see the fatal consequence of this usurpation, and wish to resist it, yet the torrent of violence has been strong enough to compel their acquiescence, till a sufficient force shall appear to support them.

King George III may yet prove right. As we approach the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence from England, the desire for a monarchy, a life-long position where you are legally untouchable, looms large with the current president.

Let’s look at the record as Shepard Smith would have reported it.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce We the People under absolute Despotism, it is our right, it is our duty, to impeach such Government, and to provide new Constitutional and statutory guards for our future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of We the People; and such is now the necessity which constrains us to impeach the current Government. The history of the present President of the United States of America is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over We the People. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has disparaged the first President of the United States because he did not name anything after himself the way the great kings of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia had.

He has asserted that Article II gives him the authority and power to do whatever he wants.

He has asserted that as President he cannot even be investigated yet alone indicted, tried, or convicted.

He has asserted that as President he and he alone can decide what checks and balances are to be adhered to.

He has asserted that as President he and he alone can decide what subpoenas to obey and what legislative requests to follow.

He has asserted that as President he and he alone can decide if an impeachment inquiry is valid.

He has asserted that as President that he cannot be guilty of obstruction since everybody who works for him or who is directly connected to him or by six degrees of separation is connected to him is covered by executive privilege and not subject to Congressional subpoenas.

He has asserted that whistle-blowers are traitors and should be treated as spies who should be executed.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A President whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of the Country, solemnly publish and declare, That We the People are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent People; that We are Absolved from all Allegiance to this President, and that all political connection between We the People and Donald Trump, is and ought to be totally dissolved. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Not exactly. On a recent Erin Burnett show, Kim Wehle, author of How to Read the Constitution and Why, expressed the view that Americans should be familiar with the Constitution. We are not a monarchy. She was correct to point out that was true in 1776 but that does not mean it is true in 2019. Maybe Hamilton’s King George III was right after all and we do want a king…or at least many Americans do.

A judge found the behavior of the current President to be “repugnant” and at odds with the Constitution – but where were the lawyers to tell their client the President that it was repugnant and in gross violation of the Constitution?

A judge regurgitated the Fox talking points in legalese in a 2-1 defeat of the President – but suppose there were more Trump-appointed judges on the bench were called upon to rule in such cases, who would win then?

Trump-appointed judges still have cases to adjudicate – how will they rule on ‘L’etat c’est moi’ cases?

Suppose ‘L’etat c’est moi’ cases reach the Supreme Court – how will the Court rule?

Already people speculate on how the Supreme Court judges might rule. It is taken for granted that the Trump-appointed judges will rule in favor of their leader. It is taken for granted that the Republican-appointed judges also will rule on behalf of THE DONALD…except maybe for the Chief Justice in an otherwise tie. It may well be that the continued existence of the United States as a Constitutional country depends on the continued existence of RBG.

King George III demanded loyalty. So does THE DONALD. King George III demanded loyalty to him as an individual. So does THE DONALD. As we begin the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, we have the opportunity not only to remember what happened but to relive it. We know there are many LOYALISTS. We have just seen them in Minnesota and Louisiana. They are united. They are passionate. They are committed. They are dedicated. And just maybe they will demonstrate that Hamilton’s King George III was right.

The American Revolution and Presentism: The Triumph of Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson's The Patriot

In 2000, Mel Gibson released The Patriot. On one level, one could view the movie as another stirring action story in the tradition of Braveheart. If the characters in the movie weren’t exactly historical that was OK; it was set in a real war with real locations and the good guys won. The movie wasn’t intended to be “the true story” of some specific individual or individuals, so relax and enjoy the entertainment.

There were certain caveats which rendered the escapism troublesome. Certainly the British didn’t fare too well as human beings. They were more in the tradition of Romans or Nazis in the Gibson universe. More troubling perhaps was Gibson’s presentism. Presentism refers to the retrojection of cultural values of the present into the past. It is the judgmental equivalent of having Washington use satellite imagery to locate the British troops or having Elliot Ness read Al Capone his rights. Typically, presentism is used to cast negative judgment against people in the past, to knock them off their pedestal, to take them down a notch, to make the judge, jury, and executioner of reputations in the present superior to the targeted person in history. It is not such much about setting the record straight as it is in being morally superior and self-righteous. There is no “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” or sensitivity in presentism.

Gibson used presentism in a different sense. Instead of retrojecting politically correct values to condemn someone in the past, he retrojected the values to create a community living in accordance with them. Gibson’s secret hideaway for fugitives from the British was a kumbaya community of people living in harmony with each other regardless of race or gender. Except for the fact that there was a war going on out there somewhere in the real world, Gibson’s “Gilligan’s Island” exemplified life as it should be lived in an idyllic setting. As one might expect, Gibson was taken to task for this artificial reality he created in the American and southern past.

Artists, unlike honest biographers, have choices to make about what to include or exclude in an artistic creation.  After all, everything can’t be included. In the commencement address last spring at the University of Pennsylvania, Lin-Manuel Miranda discussed the power of stories to shape our lives and expressed the realization that story-telling is an act of pruning the truth, not representing it in its entirety. Miranda said:

Every story you choose to tell by necessity omits others from the larger narrative. One could write five totally different musicals from Hamilton’s eventful, singular American life … For every detail I chose to dramatize, there are 10 I left out. I include King George at the expense of Ben Franklin. I dramatize Angelica Schuyler’s intelligence and heart at the expense of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal. James Madison and Hamilton were friends, and political allies-but their personal and political fallout falls right on our act break, during intermission. (The Pennsylvania Gazette July/August 2016, 15)

Miranda’s Hamilton in one striking inclusion and one striking omission demonstrates that Mel Gibson is alive and well in the portrayal of the American Revolution. In his commencement address, Miranda referred to one of the defining stories this presidential election year.

In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again immigrants get the job done. (The Pennsylvania Gazette July/August 2016, 15)

Miranda is to be praised for reminding us that America from the start has been an unfinished experiment and that the journey continues. That expression is part of why Hamilton is the great sign that the journey will continue to be a successful one, that the work that still needs to be done, will be done. But he can be faulted for going overboard on Hamilton the pro-immigrant person based on politically correct values in the present. In the musical, the line “immigrants get the job done” generates the loudest applause. There is no doubting its theatrical effectiveness in New York City in 2015-2016 and beyond. There also is no doubting it is an example of Mel Gibson kumbaya.

In the musical, Hamilton and Lafayette high-five each other as they exclaim this thought. Technically, of course, Lafayette, was not an immigrant but a visitor. The musical does not specifically identify him as an immigrant but it is easy to infer that he is if one didn’t already know better. Immigration during the war wasn’t a big issue.  There was more concern about Loyalist Brits returning and participating in the American political entity than about non-British immigration. It would be decades before immigration would become an issue with the arrival of America’s first “Moslems,” the Catholics who pledged loyalty to a foreign master and who were going to infiltrate and take over the country. Do you know how matter Catholics there are on the Supreme Court today? And as Republicans!? One may raise legitimate issues about how welcoming Federalist Protestant Hamilton would have been of the arrival of multitudes of riff raff. But not in the musical Miranda chose to write.

In honor of Schuyler Slaves
In honor of Schuyler Slaves

Similarly there is a race problem. Hamilton was not a slave owner and he did join John Jay’s manumission society. On the other hand, he did marry into a slave-owning family. Just recently, there was ceremony at Schuyler Flatts in Colonie, just north of Albany, of the remains of 14 of the Schuyler slaves. They were first discovered during a construction project in 2005 and then analyzed by the New York State Museum in 2010. I tried to go there as part of Teacherhostel/Historyhostel, but was informed by the New York State archaeologist that there was nothing to see at Schuyler Flatts. It just was flat piece of land. Now there are artistically-created burial coffins for these people. So while Hamilton casts some of the Schuyler daughters as black it does not address the slaves those daughters owned through their father. Not an easy subject for Miranda’ musical but an essential one for a biography by a historian.

Gibson’s presentism continues on in the AMC series Turn, another American Revolution story with 21st century values. I refer here not to John Graves Simcoe, the future founder of York, now named Toronto. In the TV series he is cast in the Darth Vader role as a “ruthless attack dog” according to the website. I am referring to Anna Strong, the older married woman with children who is transformed into a sexy tavern wench lusted for by men on both sides of the conflict. But at the Turn panel discussion at the New-York Historical Society last spring, the audience was informed that the character’s position would take a turn for the better in season three. She would be transformed this time into an active participant in the spy ring who travelled about and contributed to the decisions made. Her travels take her to John André’s black servant, Abigail, a former slave in the Strong household. The scenes involving Anna, Abigail, and her son are dangerously reminiscent of Gibson’s kumbaya community in The Patriot. One might wonder if the enhanced role for the lead female figure was due to some new discovery or scholarship but that would be foolish. The decision, of course, was a marketing one to provide a character to appeal to the desired demographic. If changing this bewitching female into a witch would help ratings then that might be considered too except The Legend of Sleepy Hollow already has that niche covered for the American Revolution.

Overall, it is good that there is such interest in the birth of the country. After all, we never were a country of one ethnicity or religion. That demographic diversity is part of the reason why we have continued to exist even as the number of ethnicities (Palatines-Irish-Italian-Indian) and religions (Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Moslem) continues to grow. We are better as a country if we continually return to the story of our birth as country to make the story relevant to We the People today. Take a look at the story of the Exodus and see how many times Moses climbs up and down the mountain and all the activities at the mountain and you see examples of Exodus Midrash, the Jewish tradition of retelling the story of the foundation of the people, a tradition which continues today both in the different Passover ceremonies which are held and the different Exodus movies which are made. Mixed multitudes and diverse demographics become one in the ideas that constitute or covenant them as a single people. To stop telling the story of that birth is to die as a people, to cease to exist as a culture. But there are limits. The presentisms of Mel Gibson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and AMC are not the first time the story of the American Revolution was retold and won’t be the last. In fact, part of the story of America, is the recognition that we are telling and retelling the story of our birth again and again.