Dear Students: Rap and Revere Hamilton, But Remember to Sing A Jeffersonian Melody
Binary choices are never easy and sometimes they are completely unnecessary.
Such is the case with two of the most remarkable Americans that have ever lived, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. One is at the zenith of adulation while the other languishes in a cultural malaise of extraordinary shortsightedness. Young Americans should cherish them both.
Here’s why: 2016 will be remembered as the year that belonged to both Alexander Hamilton and Donald Trump. It is axiomatic that politics makes strange bedfellows and this year is certainly no different. As enthralling as Hamilton: An American Musical certainly is, the aftermath of the 2016 election has revealed a chasm in our political climate so cavernous and intense it would take a semi-divine power to repair it.
Granted, Alexander Hamilton is all the rage right now for a variety of good reasons: his life is a powerful testimonial to the notion that America is a nation of aspirational immigrants, his staunch abolitionism, his vision of America as an energetic commercial republic yoked together by a strong central government. Hamilton understood what America could, should, and would be. We are made in his image.
And yet, in the aftermath of this year’s fractured election results, Hamilton is not the tonic we desperately need. Ironically, in the year of Hamilton, it is the spirit of his nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, we must summon, for it is his vision of America that has the unique potential to bind the wounds of this long, destructive political season.
This is, admittedly, a curious claim. America’s esteem for Jefferson now seems to be at its nadir, fueled not only by our current love for Hamilton and the Broadway sensation his biography spurred, but also by the fact that Jefferson seems to be on the wrong side of virtually every issue the modern American mind considers to be of consequence.
Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a rural, yeoman republic simply never came to fruition. Instead, Hamilton’s hope of a vibrant, urban, commercial society has blossomed into an undeniable reality. Jefferson’s constitutional vision never triumphed and seems woefully outdated (even antiquated) for the needs of modern American society. The idea of a federal government dominated by the Congress that views the president as a mere constitutional handmaiden of legislative directives was passé, even in his own day (thanks to Hamilton’s assertiveness as Washington’s aide-to-camp). Moreover, a national government dominated and, at times, subservient to the states, is utterly archaic in a post-Civil War, post-Progressive Era, post-New Deal, post-Warren Court America. Worst of all, this Jeffersonian vision inadvertently laid the intellectual groundwork for the nullification and succession movements that precipitated the Civil War.
Most damning, of course, is the fact that our national conversation is heavily centered on issues of racial division and strife. Time and time again, Jefferson was on the wrong side of racial injustice. He has invited the ire of race conscious Americans recasting American history in ways that are damning to traditional narratives of high principal. Most contradictory, of course, is the fact that Jefferson exalted the universalism of natural law in America’s founding document yet persisted in owning slaves, and probably having sexual relations and children by them. New scholarship has even shed light on his rough treatment of slaves at his beloved Monticello. Moreover, the party founded by Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republicans, espoused a political philosophy that made it difficult for the nation to ever confront the horrors of involuntary servitude on a national level.
How could this man, a man so full of contradiction and complexity one of the best-known biographies of him is entitled American Sphinx, be the solution for so much that ails us?
First, an admission of Hamiltonian hubris: he saw little value in state or parochial political power, argued for hereditary political offices during the constitutional convention, and would have been completely out of step with both Jacksonian democracy and the progressive reforms of Woodrow Wilson. He referred to the American body politic as “the mob” and had a penchant for both bellicose foreign policy abroad and supremacy of the banking class at home.
Lincoln, on the other hand, famously wrote, “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” It is this “abstract truth” that has the power to bind and renew us in this season of palpable disunion, if we will but remember it.
This abstract truth undergirds the culture of our democracy and is the beacon of aspiration heard the world over. Jefferson understood America is more than a territory, more than the sum of its natural and human resources, more than an aggregation of historic triumphs and foibles, more than even its constitutional system or financial dynamism. America—at its core—is an idea, an “abstract truth,” perhaps the most powerful and profound idea and truth in all of human history.
Thomas Jefferson is its most artful and consistent defender.
Put simply: human beings are both naturally free and infinitely improvable. The station of one’s birth has no bearing on the exercise of one’s freedom or the potential to reach the zenith of happiness. Each citizen is equally endowed with an inviolate agency, the power to make decisions according to the dictates of individual reason or whim, inspiration or obligation. Jefferson is the American foil of Sophocles and Greek Fatalism in general, vigorously optimistic that in the arena of life, the Fates can be slayed, or at least tamed, in deference to the will of the individual.
But how does this idea play out in modern times and how can it be a catalyst for national reconciliation?
Worried about “fake news?”
There is Jefferson in 1787, serving as Minister to France, writing to Edward Carrington that “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The good sense of the people may be obscured or demagogued in the short term— perhaps the length of an entire election cycle—but Jefferson believed a society exalting objective rationality would eventually coalesce around a consensus of truth.
Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, believing that the tribunal of critical consciousness was ubiquitous and accessible to all. In such a world-view there is no “post-truth,” no radical subjectivism, no post-modern solipsism in which humans construct their own separate realities of equal validity. Such a road leads to a vacuum of authority and no hope of universal objectivity. Jefferson did his part to vanquish the powers of the political crown and the religious altar, but only in the hopes of elevating human reason. To embrace Jefferson is to rekindle our faith in human rationality and the hopes of an enlightened society.
Worried about Islamophobia and maintaining a strict separation between church and state?
There is Jefferson, the writer of The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the man with an epistolary flair who wrote to the Danbury Baptists coining the phrase, “a wall of separation between church and state,” the man who rewrote the New Testament in a project called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, removing all mention of the supernatural because he believed in Christ’s morality but not his miracles. As he writes, “…we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests.”
Jefferson prospered as a political leader despite religious views that were clearly contrary to the majority of his time. He rejected the notion of a fallen nature, believing instead that education and learning would lead mankind to a flourishing prelapsarian state of progress.
The creed of America, of Jefferson, is as universal as the mechanics of Newton and the universe he worked to described. Thus, the pantheon of American politics and public discourse must use a language that is accessible to all citizens from all religious persuasions. This is why public officials need not fulfill a religious requirement in the land of Jefferson; the Mormon, the Muslim, and the Methodist might differ on dogma, but they share a common creed of human rationality. Everyone speaks the language of Newton, Bacon, and Locke—Jefferson’s triad of greatest men who ever lived—by virtue of a shared rational faculty untethered to religious faith.
Worried about race relations and the unraveling of the American experiment itself?
Yes, even on the issue of race there is a charitable variant of Jefferson that is restorative of high American idealism. However, it is an admittedly youthful Jefferson who lyrically recognized and proclaimed the contradiction between human bondage and universal claims of Enlightenment natural law.
A spry and buoyant philosophy of freedom appears in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence as Jefferson writes, “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” This passage, which school children rarely read or even learn about today, was eventually omitted because of Southern objections.
In 1778, he led the Virginia General Assembly to ban the importation of slaves into his beloved state. Seven years later in his full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he penned a passage, a short portion of which now appears on the third panel in the Jefferson Memorial, that reads, “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it. . . .”
For all of Jefferson’s faults and foibles—and there were many to be sure—his faith in the infinite potential of America and her citizens never waned. Indeed, Jefferson was the walking embodiment of this optimism. He was a master of civilization through a life- long devotion to reading and learning that seems almost superhuman by modern standards. He read The Iliad in Ancient Greek, The Aeneid in Latin, and taught himself Spanish (on a transatlantic trip in 1784). I
In 1962, at a White House gathering for Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere, President Kennedy famously observed of Jefferson, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”
The birth of The United States was a second Eden to Thomas Jefferson, an opportunity to remake human history by abandoning European superstition and monarchical oppression. His life and writings were singularly devoted to fostering the dream of self-government and the proliferation of human happiness.
Jefferson was our Da Vinci. He understood that service of a broader ideal first requires the individual to decide what that ideal must be. An American thinks for herself, acts for himself, and feels the pulse of possibility anchored by the wonderment of freedom. We are citizens, not subjects.
Jefferson was deeply flawed and is terribly out of fashion among the American intelligentsia and urban literati. But to the average American he can be a catalyst for renewal at a time when so many Americans have forgotten the substance of our creed.
It is this creed and our tireless devotion to live it that truly makes America great.
Have you thought about America’s creed and what it means to you? Are you willing to fight for the creed to help make America great again. America is made in the image of Hamilton’s image and it grew in that image. Jefferson, being a renaissance man, directed our new democracy down a path to greatness. We are now at a tipping point and our democracy is hanging in limbo. Are we strong enough to get on the path again; to get back on Jefferson’s path? Do we believe in equality, goodness and kindness? Are we willing to give up our comfort to stand with the marginalized people? Millions of us are. I hope many more will join us in taking the fear and suffering out of being an American.