In a minute I’m going to inject a non sequitur into this post, but I promise it will make sense eventually. Just brace yourself.
A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a story about the election and the unpleasantness that surrounds it with the comment, “What’s happened to this country of ours that I love so much?” She was talking about the hateful rhetoric that the two major campaigns and their backers are spewing in their quest for the presidency. Okay, she was only talking about ONE of the campaigns, I admit it. You can decide which one for yourself.
That’s not the non sequitur. It’s still coming. Hang on.
Like many people, I hate election season. I hate the mudslinging and counter-accusations, I hate the campaign ads all over my news feed and newspaper, I hate the polarizing effect it has on everyone. This election seems especially virulent, but as I recall, so did the last four. So what has happened to this country of ours?
Here comes the non sequitur.
Have you listened to “Hamilton” yet?
Omigod, if you haven’t heard the Original Cast Recording of “Hamilton” yet, you should stop reading this and go listen to it! It is an AMAZING piece of work! I know, I know, I was skeptical too at first. I’m a middle aged white man, so what do I want with a musical (strike one) that sets the story of the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton (strike two) to hip-hop music (strike three, yer OUT!)? But this past summer it has been my almost constant soundtrack, because it is recognizably a masterpiece. You will come away from it changed, and you will know so much more about our nation’s history than you did before you heard it, and you’ll LIKE it!
Ooh! There’s these rap battles, see, between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson that represent the differences of opinion in George Washington’s cabinet, right, and Jefferson keeps losing to Hamilton. So Jefferson laments, in the song “Washington On Your Side”:
Ev’ry action has its equal, opposite reaction.
Thanks to Hamilton, our cabinet’s fractured into factions.
Try not to crack under the stress, we’re breaking down like fractions.
We smack each other in the press, and we don’t print retractions.
And I got to thinking, this sounds a lot like what we’re hearing today, during the election. I got curious, so I started reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, on which the musical is based. You know what? It turns out that elections and policy debates in the United States have ALWAYS been acrimonious and vicious. Where today we have political pundits and spin doctors and internet trolls, in Hamilton’s day there were partisan newspapers that would print ANONYMOUS screeds, generally full of lies and half-truths, about both sides. And there was no Politifact, no Snopes, no FactCheck for people to rely on for the truth.
Furthermore, politicians would write most of these articles themselves (as Hamilton did) or would start newspapers outright specifically for the purpose, as Thomas Jefferson did. He set up a guy named Philip Freneau as a printer so he could publish the National Gazette, which in Chernow’s words, “soon became the foremost Republican organ in America.” (Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Press 2004, p. 396) Chernow goes on to say, “These papers tended to be short on facts…and long on opinion. They more closely resembled journals of opinion than daily newspapers. Often scurrilous and inaccurate, they had few qualms about hinting that a certain nameless official was embezzling money or colluding with a foreign power.” (pp. 396-397)
Does this strike you as familiar? Often, a person whose reputation was sullied in such a way had only one recourse, and that was to challenge the author (if they could find out who wrote the piece) to a duel. Can you see our candidates in an affair of honor at dawn versus Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow? I’m not sure it would be an improvement . And let’s not forget the consumers of such rhetoric: the people themselves. This was a time when people would hold rallies so they could burn their opponents in effigy, a time when people might get tarred and feathered for their opinions. And let's not forget, these patriots were often men (and only men) who owned slaves. Politics attracted the most vocal, activist, and often the most reprehensible sections of the electorate and whipped them into a frenzy.
Alexander Hamilton himself--a guy who fought in the Revolution, served as aide-de-camp to George Washington, helped write the Constitution and interpret it for future generations, founded the financial institutions that are the bedrock of the United States economy, founded the Coast Guard and contributed in a hundred other ways--this man was branded a traitor, a monarchist, a corrupt speculator by his political foes, who spread lies about him through the press which people swallowed, part and parcel. His reputation was forever tarnished. (It's all in the book and mostly in the musical.)
What has happened to this country of ours?
It looks to me like it has remained true to the ideals and example of our founding fathers. God bless the United States of America.