Tag: George Washington

Hamilton and what makes a healthy republic

My wife’s surprise typewritten handiwork. I’m a lucky guy.

The Show

Ready for a hot take? Hamilton: An American Musical was really good.

I assumed I wouldn’t see it for years, as tickets are prohibitively expensive in Chicago. But it was a surprise anniversary gift from my wife (musical theater tickets are the traditional Year 3 gift, right?) along with a special ticket she made to stand in for the digital ones. Best of wives, best of women!

It was a funny thing to finally see before my eyes what for years had only streamed through my ears. Since the cast recording basically is the whole show, I knew the plot and what to expect from song to song. But I also knew the staging would add a whole new layer to the story the music itself tells so well. It definitely did.

Several songs were even better on stage. “It’s Quiet Uptown”, which I usually skip over on the album, was devastating in its simplicity. And “The Reynolds Pamphlet” made kinetic use of the double-turntable floor, the pamphlet props, and the whole cast and chorus.

Special shout-out to Jamila Sabares-Klemm, who played Eliza with stunning range and vocal power, and Colby Lewis, who played LaFayette and Jefferson with a delightful flair.

The Book

After seeing the show I checked out Hamilton: The Revolution from the library. It’s essentially book-length liner notes accompanied by essays about the cast and creation of the show. The highlights of the book are the lyrical annotations by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He clearly delights in paying homage to the artists and works he quotes in the show, and adds great insight to his creative process. (“Farmer Refuted” is a short but brilliant burst of layered lyrical ingenuity.)

He also calls attention to certain lines that deserve a deeper reading. I know it’s easy for me to lose the meaning of words I’ve listened to a lot unless I really try to think about them. That was the case for the excerpt from Washington’s actual Farewell Address, featured in “One Last Time”:

I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.

The benign influence of good laws under a free government are, I realize now, an excellent triad of ideals that characterize a healthy republic.

An unhealthy one, conversely, would be an oppressive government that institutes bad laws with malignant influence on its citizens. What exactly constitutes oppression and bad laws and malignant politics is a debate as old as America itself, as Hamilton so brilliantly shows. Particularly in Act II with “The Room Where It Happens” and “Cabinet Battle #1” and “The Election of 1800”.

Ron Chernow rightly calls the show “American history for grownups” because it doesn’t sanitize the people in it, nor their methods for achieving their political goals. I’m so glad I got to see it, and recommend it if you ever have the chance to see it somewhere near you.

From defeat, not victory

In his book Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fisher writes about how the colonists responded to the dark days of the American Revolution in 1776:

This great revival grew from defeat, not from victory. The awakening was a response to a disaster. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who had a major role in the event, believed that this was the way a free republic would always work, and the American republic in particular. He thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible. “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity,” Rush wrote. “We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.”

Rush, a sort of honorary Founding Father and very distant relative of mine, was speaking to his present times but I think he also speaks to ours. I’ve said before that if we make it out of our current darkness alive, we’ll be better for it.

Been Reviewing

Happy to report that two of my most recent reviews for Library Journal are now online. I wrote about Edward Lengel’s First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His—and the Nation’s—Prosperity and Charles Rappleye’s Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the PresidencyFirst Entrepreneur is already out, and the Herbert Hoover biography, which I gave a “starred” review, comes out in May.

My first two reviews are also up, but paywalled: Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA by Amy Shira Teitel here and Industries of the Future by Alec Ross here, which is for Booklist.

Reviewing for two publications at once has been fun but strange. Sometimes I’ll have several books at once and have to power through them, and other times I’ll have just one looming in the distance, giving me some time for personal reading. The reviews are only 175-200 words, though, so they are easier to get through than the essay-like reviews in the New York Times et al. Then again, summarizing hundreds of pages in what is basically a solid paragraph can be challenging, especially when I have strong opinions (good or bad) or the book covers so much ground. Then, once I’ve submitted the review, I can’t really discuss it with anyone because it’s not released yet, and I can’t post my review because it’s for the publication.

Anyway, it’s been a fun gig thus far. Thanks to LJ and Booklist for the opportunity.