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!
1. Your question about pride in our country brings to mind a question asked by David Farina Turnbloom of the University of Portland: “Should we be proud of our nationality, or should we be proud of how we use our national resources to serve others?”
2. While I love “America the Beautiful”, my favorite patriotic song is “This Is My Song” set to the music of Finlandia.
“This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hope, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”
The next two verses are equally stirring!
Dear Doris, Thank you for your response. The question from Turnbloom is a good one to reflect on. And I too love “This is my song” set to “Finlandia.” We sing it at our parish sometimes. But I already used it in a post a while ago, so I opted for “America the Beautiful.” I agree that the words to “This is my land” are very “stirring” and remind us to think beyond our national borders and national interests. Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie
I went to You Tube and listened to Joan Baez sing, “This is My Song”. What if all lands adopted this as their national anthem? We would surely all live in peace. Thank you, Doris, for introducing me to the English translation of Finland’s anthem. It is beautiful!
Dear Jean, What a great idea! I wonder how we would go about doing that? Any ideas? Thanks to your comment, I included Joan Baez singing “This Is My Land.” Thank you so much! Sr. Melannie
We sing Finlandia frequently at St. Pat’s. It thrills me every time. I’d like to see “America the Beautiful” be our national anthem. I’ve never heard the 2nd and 3rd verses before. Thank you for a beautiful and thought-provoking mediation. I’m also inspired to read “Hamilton”. Kathleen
Dear Kathleen, I know there are others who share your wish that “American the Beautiful” might become our national anthem. It’s less militaristic and far easier to sing. Thanks for responding! Sr. Melannie
Thank you, Sister.
You’re welcome, Patty!
Dear Sister Melanie
I think I will try to read Hamilton too! I love history and think we sometimes forget our Founding Fathers were quite human. Human nature doesn’t change over the years, no matter the improvements in living, technology etc. The human heart was meant to give love and receive love to all. Having been raised in the south and witnessed segregation in action and the struggle by many to do away with the hate and violence; to live through Vietnam and all the lives lost. I long for Liberty and justice that sometimes seem to be going in reverse…..as long as people try to right the ship we have hope for a better world, through God’s sweet Grace. Loved the music….and you, dear Sister. God Bless America ❤️
Dear Rosemary, I certainly agree with your words about human nature. And I, like many others, share your longings for peace, liberty, and justice. Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie
Your post makes me realize that this political year may not be the worst ever, it just follows in the footsteps of others in the same vein.
Dear Chyrl, History has a way of giving us a broader perspective on contemporary times. It was good hearing from you! Sr. Melannie
Thank you for this brief summary of Hamilton. I had the great honor of seeing the musical in Chicago. What struck me was not only was it a look at the genius and frailties of our founding fathers, it also showed us the role of women, particularly Hamilton’s beloved wife Elizabeth Schuyler, who lived 50 years past her husband’s death and had many accomplishments, considering the role of women. For me, this was not only a story of men in our history, but also of women. We are often forgotten in the history of our nation.
Dear Anne, How lucky you are to have seen the musical! Yes, Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth, was an incredible woman who was deeply devoted to “my Hamilton,” as she affectionately called him. At the same time, the political world back then was essentially male. This book helped me to appreciate the movement of women toward greater equality. In the Broadway play, the characters of Washington and Jefferson are played by African-American actors. There’s great irony there since both men owned slaves. Thanks for writing, Anne! Sr. Melannie
Thank you for your comments and historical reminder of our gifts and flaws. Your remarks are helping me with accepting the results of last night’s
election. I am so sad about the results and trying to see the possible good in it. Lots of prayers needed for all.
Dear Julie, Yes, no matter how we may feel about the outcome of our election, we must always pray for our leaders and do our own part to work for greater love, peace, and justice in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. And we trust that everything is ultimately in God’s hands. Thank you for your comment! Sr. Melannie
Thank you, Sister. I am reading this week’s post after our election, which indeed shocked many millions here and around the world. By far, this was the most rancorous presidential campaign I can recall, and mirrored by many local campaigns. It is sometimes disheartening to witness this ugliness. However, I saw an interview with noted presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in which she recalled many campaigns that were extremely nasty. As she pointed out, our great nation survived them, and we shall bind up 2016s wounds. Three days after our election, we celebrated Veterans Day, a day dedicated to remembrance and healing. In spite of the many issues we face in our land, we are still a great nation. Peace and Blessings.
I would like to read this book. I have read other Biographies by Ron Chernow (“TITAN” – the one on Rockefeller is outstanding!) and I am always similarly struck: although these were great men in some respects, they each had flaws and demons too. I am always suspect of a media that either 100% endorses or 100% vilifies a public person or candidate. As we all saw in this Election, the flaws were in full view to all, despite the media attempts to “spin”. By the grace of God, we all have the capacity for greatness – and having flaws does not preclude that.
P.S. America the Beautiful is my favorite patriotic song. My father could not sing it without weeping – that is its power.