The 4th of July is a beloved holiday, but most of us spend more time planning our celebrations than thinking about what we are commemorating. The birth of the United States was a world-changing event, but it was also a complicated, messy project accomplished by real people who were struggling, with varied success, to solve complex problems.
Because of the ways our brains have evolved, they were wired, just as we are, to protect themselves and the things they cared about, and try to change circumstances they found unfavorable. However, they were also influenced by the social values of their time, some of which we no longer agree with, and others we are still grappling with. By looking at their success, and their failures, we can gain insight into coping with the challenges we face some 250 years later.
While it is a fictional account of the founding of this country, the musical “Hamilton,” written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, allows us to look back at the founding of this country through a modern lens. The most striking feature of the production is that the cast members represent a variety of racial backgrounds. Since the founding fathers were white males who were unable to abolish slavery when establishing the country, this casting choice is particularly thought-provoking and encourages us to think about the way our past is shaping our future.
Much of the show focuses on the personal struggles of men like Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Although they loom large in our imagination, their struggles weren’t that different from ours.
Balancing the desire to live a comfortable life, to make a difference in the world, and to build caring connected families is never easy, especially when insecurity, greed, hubris, and jealousy enter the mix. While we would like to assume that they knew exactly what they were doing when they formed this country, the truth is that you can never be sure of how things will turn out when you are living through them.
When newscasters today announce that the country has become more polarized than ever before, it is worth noting that we became a nation because of a civil war, which divided families and communities and resulted in significant suffering, trauma, and death. When things look dire, it is worth drawing perspective from the past. The revolutionaries didn’t know if they would succeed but they were willing to keep trying to reach their goals.
The musical also highlights the fact that many of the things that happened during the founding of this country were the result of compromises, backroom deals, and shifting alliances. If you have ever wondered why our nation’s capital was built from scratch, in a southern state instead of operating out of an existing city like Philadelphia or New York, it is worth turning to a history book.
One major difference though, between that era and ours, is the changing media landscape. While the revolutionaries made ample use of printing presses to create newspapers and fliers, they didn’t have to contend with a 24/7 news juggernaut that captured and replayed their every action every hour on the hour, to a worldwide audience. Under this relentless gaze, it is harder for people to hide their personal foibles, or to compromise with their opponents.
In addition, there are so many media sources available that it is increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction. This puts the onus on us as consumers to research and evaluate the veracity of the news we hear, and to stop supporting content producers who don’t hold themselves to the standards of reputable journalism.
It is also easy to assume that the Founding Fathers worked as a team to implement shared goals. The truth is that some of them couldn’t stand each other, their alliances changed over time, and some of their failures have had lasting consequences. Their failure to abolish slavery created a legacy of conflict and inequity we still haven’t resolved.
But recognizing that they were not romantic heroes should remind us that even regular people can be a force for change. You don’t have to be a gifted orator or writer to volunteer to teach children to read at your local school, participate in local politics, or work to support causes you care about. You just have to get involved. Great leaders like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King can emerge just when we need them, but we all have the potential to make a difference in our own corner of the world.
We would like to make a 4th of July declaration. Since we are already used to making resolutions about the things we want to do to improve our own lives on News Year’s Eve, perhaps we could make more civic-minded resolutions on Independence Day. None of us can change the world alone, but there is power in numbers. Even small efforts from picking up litter in public places, to registering people to vote, to volunteering to use our skills or resources to help others, can add up.
We argue that the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) of this country deserve our thanks. But we also have an obligation to make things better for the future. If each of us resolved to do just one thing to make that happen, it could make Independence Day even more meaningful. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, let’s all “rise up” to make a difference.