This week the citizens of the United States will be electing new leadership on the national, state, and local levels. Interestingly, for the past few weeks, I have been reading Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton. The massive book (it’s 818 pages long) has won numerous awards. And it is the book upon which the extremely popular hip-hop musical, Hamilton, is based. (The play won 11 Tony Awards.) The book describes the origins of the United States, focusing particularly on Alexander Hamilton. In doing so, the book sheds light on current events in this country 240 years after its founding.
I won’t go into detail about the book, but I will share a few things that stood out for me. First, Alexander Hamilton was a truly amazing man. Born in the British West Indies, he was orphaned and destitute by age eighteen, yet he became a successful businessman a few years later. He emigrated to the Colonies in his early twenties and immediately threw himself into the fight for independence. By age 22 he was George Washington’s chief of staff who organized the Revolutionary Army and who also fought bravely in battle.
After the war Hamilton became a successful New York lawyer and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. A prolific writer, he wrote most of the Federalist Papers, a series of 58 essays that is still revered as one of the best commentaries on the U.S. Constitution ever written. In 1780 he married Elizabeth Schuyler from one of the richest and most politically influential families in New York. They had eight children. President Washington named Hamilton the first Secretary of Treasury. In that cabinet position, Hamilton became one of Washington’s closest advisors. He also designed the country’s financial and economic systems that still exist today.
The book gave me a renewed appreciation of the genius of Hamilton and our founding fathers: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, to name a few. But despite their brilliance and nobility, most of these men were flawed. They were regularly characterized by jealousy, meanness, pettiness, and duplicity. They subscribed, for example, to those beautiful words, “All men are created equal,” but many of them were slave owners. And Hamilton himself, though he could be extremely devoted to his wife and children, carried on a lengthy affair with another mans’ wife.
Our founding fathers, often at odds with one another, published scathing articles against one other. Among Hamilton’s enemies were Jefferson, Adams, and Aaron Burr, the vice-president under Jefferson who eventually killed Hamilton in a duel. (Our libel laws were originally designed to deter dueling. If someone slandered you, instead of taking their life, you could take their money.)
The book describes the origin of the two party system, the growth of Wall Street (Hamilton actually lived on Wall Street while it was still a dirt road), and the deep differences between the North and South—especially concerning slavery. The founders glossed over the issue of slavery in order to establish the new nation. Some of them naively hoped that the slavery issue would just go away. They did not foresee the horrific Civil War that would erupt a few decades later and almost rip their young nation in two. And to this day our headlines remind us that we are still dealing with the aftermath of this grave injustice.
But what does all of this have to do with spirituality? First, history recounts our human
capacity for goodness and nobility while also reminding us of our potential for evil and injustice. This “law” applies to ourselves as individuals and to society in general. Secondly, history proves that grave injustices cannot be ignored. They must be addressed. And thirdly, as Christians we believe that our God is involved in human history—not outside of it. That’s precisely what discernment is all about. It’s our attempt to detect and respond to the Spirit’s movement in the specific circumstances of our time and place.
The song today is “America the Beautiful” sung by Annie Karto. I hope my non-American readers won’t mind listening to this lovely song. No matter what country we call home, we must be aware of our countries’ flaws as well as our countries’ beauty and achievements.
Does anything in this reflection stand out for you?
What makes you proud of your country? What are your country’s flaws?
I welcome your response!
PS: After reading the first two comments to this blog, I decided to include here Joan Baez singing “This Is My Home” (“Finlandia.”)
PS: On another level, I extend my congratulations to all you Chicago Cub fans out there on your World Series win. You waited a long time for this championship. And I extend my sympathy to all Cleveland Indian fans (of which I am a member!) Maybe next year!