“The Hamilton that theatregoers are paying scalpers’ prices to see is a progressive, not the father of Wall Street”

Perhaps the first cosmopolitan élite in American history was Alexander Hamilton: an immigrant, an urbanite, a friend of the rich, at home in political, financial, and journalistic circles of power. Hamilton created the American system of public and private banking, and for two centuries he was a hero to conservatives, while his archrival Thomas Jefferson—founder of the Democratic Party—was taken as the champion of the common man. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” Jefferson once wrote. “The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” But Democrats now embrace Hamilton for his immigrant background and his modern ideas of activist government. Meanwhile, the name of the slave-owning, states’-rights champion Jefferson has been removed from Democratic fund-raising dinners. The Hamilton who distrusted popular democracy is now overlooked or accepted—after all, today’s cosmopolitan élites similarly distrust the passions of their less educated compatriots.

If there’s one creative work that epitomizes the Obama Presidency, it’s the hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” whose opening song was débuted by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the East Room of the White House, in 2009, with the Obamas in attendance. The show has been universally praised—Michelle Obama called it the greatest work of art she’d ever seen, and Dick Cheney is a fan. It succeeds on every level: the score playing in your mind when you wake up; the brilliance of its lyrics; its boldness in giving eighteenth-century history contemporary form and in casting people of color who, during Hamilton’s time, were in bondage or invisible. Miranda’s “Hamilton” suggests that the real heirs to the American Revolution are not Tea Partiers waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags but black and Latino Americans and immigrants.

Miranda’s triumph is, itself, a coalition of the cosmopolitan élite and diversity. The Hamilton that theatregoers are paying scalpers’ prices to see is a progressive, not the father of Wall Street. Meanwhile, far from Broadway, Jefferson’s ploughmen are lining up at Trump rallies.

“Hamilton” coincided with an important turn in American politics. Occupy Wall Street had come and gone, and while the ninety-nine and the one per cent didn’t disappear, black and white came to the fore. There was a growing recognition that a historic President had cleared barriers at the top but not at the bottom—that the Obama years had brought little change in the systemic inequities facing the black and the poor. This disappointment, along with shocking videos of police killings of unarmed black men, produced a new level of activism not seen in American streets and popular culture since the late sixties.

George Packer, “The Unconnected”, The New Yorker (31 October 2016), 55.