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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