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I didn’t even know what a rap battle was until I heard Hamilton, and now I’m trawling through YouTube looking for the ones I like best. Insult humor has never done much for me before, maybe partly because what I saw of the dozens, or as we called it as kids, “yo’ mama jokes,” was just that: kids’ stuff. The put-downs were just put-downs, without much zing because they weren’t clever. Watching grownups do the dozens, or their heir, battle rap, is a whole other thing. And once you know how sharp and funny battle rap can be, framing an intra-Cabinet argument about financial policy as a rap battle is one of those ideas that is so obvious and right that you can’t believe no one’s done it before.

Washington’s opening is like Miranda’s wink at the audience: “You’re watching a musical about the country’s first Treasury Secretary, and the joke’s on you because it’s actually terrific!” The president doesn’t say that, of course. Instead, he delivers the show-biz patter:

Ladies and gentlemen, you coulda been anywhere in the world tonight, but you’re here with us in New York City. Are you ready for a cabinet meeting?

If the prospect of an exciting cabinet meeting puts a disbelieving smile on any face in the audience, it’s been wiped off within a few bars. This is hot stuff. They’re posturing, strutting their credentials:

Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness,
We fought for these ideals, we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ’em,
Don’t act surprised, you guys, ’cause I wrote ’em.

Trading innuendo and insults:

Jefferson: Now place your bets as to whom that benefits
The very seat of government where Hamilton sits.

Hamilton, later: And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment

Hamilton again: Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President
Reticent—there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison
Madison, you’re mad as a hatter, son, take your medicine
Damn, you’re in worse shape than the national debt is in

Hamilton wins the battle of rhetoric, though not the policy argument. His plan won’t pass without enough votes in Congress, and it hasn’t got them–yet.

Other moments:

  • Madison is such a flunky, I’m embarrassed for him.

Jefferson: Such a blunder sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder

Madison: Why he even brings the thunder…

  • It’s been less than two years since Hamilton and Madison worked on the Federalist Papers together. I would love to know what made them hate each other so much. Was it that process itself?
  • Both Hamilton and Jefferson are too brilliant to get away with taking the just-plain-folks side in the culture war between the experts and the anti-experts, but Jefferson goes for it, with a little laugh in his voice when he says of Hamilton’s plan, “It’s too many damn pages for any man to understand!” I wonder if the “I’m less expert than you” contest really existed then.
  • Washington, showing superhuman patience, gives Hamilton a crash course in political necessity.

Washington: You need the votes

Hamilton: No, we need bold strokes. We need this plan.

W: No, you need to convince more folks

H: James Madison won’t talk to me, that’s a nonstarter

W, echoing his line in “Right Hand Man”: Ah, winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.

H: They’re being intransigent

W: You have to find a compromise

H: But they don’t have a plan, they just hate mine!

W: Convince them otherwise.

My daughter wanted to know what Hamilton’s debt plan was. I didn’t know anything about it besides what was in the play, but the question led to a conversation about something I and anyone else who follows U.S. politics knows plenty about, the tension between the various states, and between the authority of the federal government and that of the states. Jefferson has a point, I told her, and we’re still arguing the same one today, since most laws and policies benefit some states more than others, and therefore basically benefit some at the expense of others. And Hamilton has a point for the same reason: the states with free labor did have a huge advantage over the ones that insisted on paying all workers, and we still have states running that race to the bottom when it comes to workers’ rights, health and safety laws, and environmental protection–we’ve just raised the bottom a bit so that it can’t include chattel slavery as it did in the days when free states had to compete with free. (Hamilton’s argument is a little anachronistic, by the way; slavery would still be legal in New York for another 10 years. But the state’s economy wasn’t as dependent upon it as Virginia’s.) And we’re still very much wrestling about how much power should inhere in the federal government. Few of us are very consistent; most U.S. Americans, left, right, and center, tend to cite the principle of states’ autonomy when we like a state’s policy in defiance of the federal government, and uphold a strong central government when we want to overrule a particular state law. So within us, and among us, the rap battle battles on.

Incidentally, listening to Hamilton and looking up the terminology has clarified what I’ve wondered for some time: is “federalist” the position advocating a strong central government, or a weak one? The answer is the former.  So I have no idea why the Federalist Society calls itself that, when it is a small-federal-government, states’-rights organization. Lots of other people also call themselves “anti-federalists” when they mean they favor a strong federal government, and they have it backwards, at least if “federalist” means Federalist. Hamilton, the Federalist, argued strongly for a strong central democracy, and against the idea that the states were or should be sovereign entities.

Another echo of today is Jefferson’s specious comparison of empire-imposed taxes to self-imposed taxes:

Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky
Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky

He sounds just like the Tea Party, every member of which has three representatives in Congress (unless they live in our resident colonies, D.C. or Puerto Rico), yet which likens us to the colonists who had to pay a tax on tea without representation in Parliament.

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We’re in Act II! I’m curious about the way the chorus gives the date this time, not in its usual straightforward way, but stuttered–“Se-se-seventeen, se-se-” until Burr cuts in and completes it. Anyone have any ideas why?

Of the several intros of the “How does a . . . ” variety, this is my favorite to sing along with, with its fast tempo and easy transitions between rapping and song. “You haven’t met him yet, you haven’t had the chance, ‘Cause he’s been kickin’ ass as the ambassador to France . . . You simply must meet Thomas, Thomas . . . !”

We’ve met the actor already; Act II ushers out four characters and bring in four new ones played by the same actors. Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette make a great pair of roles to be doubled because Lafayette is French, Jefferson a Francophile; each wrote his country’s declaration of independence, and just as the song says, Lafayette consulted Jefferson as he was writing “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”; Jefferson was, yes, ambassador to France before becoming the United States’s first Secretary of State. Oh, and the kicker, Hamilton was friends with one of these men, enemies with the other. It’s fun to hear Daveed Diggs move from one to the other, drop his French accent and drop into the slightly southern, distinctly condescending voice of Jefferson (I find his voice as Jefferson enjoyably annoying). It’s fun for us, that is; not so much for Hamilton, though he holds his own.

Anyway, we’re not to their first argument yet; that’s the next track. “What’d I Miss?” is just Jefferson coming home in a whirlwind of activity, to music that’s way out of date. He’s still doing boogie-woogie while the country he’s returning to has moved on to hip hop, which is one way Miranda tells us things are changing fast in the new nation. (In reality, Jeffferson did not miss the war on account of being “off gettin’ high with the French” (“Cabinet Battle #1”); he was quite busy stateside as governor of Virginia, a state that, according to Sarah Vowell, was notably stingy with support for the Continental Army, and therefore partly to blame for the soldiers’ having frequently gone shoeless and hungry even as they marched into battle right there in Virginia.)

His pal James Madison is another doubled role and another surprise and pleasure. Listening to Hercules Mulligan and James Madison side by side (so to speak) fills me with admiration for Okieriete Onaodowan’s versatility. His Mulligan is all roughness, toughness, and bluster, who mostly raps his lines and holds his own with the older* Laurens, Lafayette, Hamilton, and Burr, while his Madison is a soft-spoken second banana with a lovely singing voice.

You can see right away why Hamilton and Jefferson are not going to get along, even before we learn of the differences in their political philosophy. Both are arrogant, and two people this full of themselves are bound to clash (just look at Ed Koch and Donald Trump). Their arrogance takes different forms, each expressing their social class and status. Hamilton, the illegitimate, orphaned immigrant, knows he “amaze[s] and astonish[es]” (“My Shot”) with his hard work and genius; he’ll lobby George Washington to develop his gifts (“honor, a tolerance for pain, a couple of college credits and [a] top-notch brain,” as he says in “Helpless”), yet be tickled when they land him a spot as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He’s pushy, as you can see in the staging of this song. Listening to the bit where Washington sings “Mr. Jefferson, welcome home,” I figured Hamilton just stands next to Washington and eagerly, even politely, introduces himself, but not so: he cuts in on the president–the president–as Washington tries to shake Jefferson’s hand. Jefferson’s arrogance is no less, but has a different feel. He is to the manor born (pun intended) and he takes his honors as his due: “It says the president’s assembling a cabinet and that I am to be Secretary of State–great!” Jefferson is an aristocrat and a snob, predisposed to think himself superior to Hamilton because he was born to money and land. He no doubt despises Hamilton for being pushy, a failing Jefferson himself is not heir to because he’s always been on the top of the heap Hamilton wants to climb. (Later, in “Washington on Your Side,” he criticizes Hamilton’s “new money”–no one hates new money more than old money does.) And that “what’d I miss?” is so arrogant in itself, almost assuming that he can’t have missed much of importance. As if he just stepped out for a moment and can be filled in over a drink.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I want to like Jefferson–he was a quasi-Unitarian and praised the church highly in his time–so it’s a bit of a hair shirt at first to hear him being such a jerk. But it’s also fun to see him cut down to size. And although we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Miranda’s Jefferson is the true Jefferson, or his Hamilton the true Hamilton, the real Thomas Jefferson totally deserves the dig here about the woman commonly called his mistress, but more correctly called the survivor of rape and sexual slavery at his hands, Sally Hemings: “There’s a letter on my desk from the president . . . Sally, be a lamb, darlin’, would you open it?” The most touching line in the song, the one where I feel the most affection and empathy for Jefferson, is “Looking at the rolling fields, I can’t believe that we are free”–how that must have felt after all of the work and dreaming and sacrifice! And it’s equally infuriating, because he’s just returned to his plantation full of slaves and has a hell of a nerve reveling in freedom. “What’d I Miss” delivers the whole complex package of Jefferson from the get-go: brilliant, patriotic, racist, revolutionary, reactionary, hardworking, respected, hypocritical.

 

*That’s in the world of the play. Miranda sketches his character as “a tailor’s apprentice,” with the others “in loco parentis,” but in reality he was considerably older than the other four.

 

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