I saw "Hamilton" last week, the Broadway musical that chronicles the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The acclaimed show, with its hip-hop beat and powerful storyline, celebrates America’s founding, while featuring challenging questions about race, immigration, privilege and human frailty. The play delivers cultural criticism with fun, style and even grace. The Fourth of July offers a great time to ponder America’s founding and our “lived experience” as we seek a more perfect union.
Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham authored a book titled, "The Soul of America_._"The book chronicles America’s history of racism, immigration, women’s suffrage and economic inequality. Meacham says, “The United States, through its sporadic adherence to its finest aspirations, is the most durable experiment in pluralistic republicanism the world has known.”
Meacham doesn’t sugarcoat our history. He writes, “Our national greatness was built on explicit and implicit apartheid.” We rise and we fall, ever mindful of the greatness and imperfections in our national polity.
The U.S. Constitution speaks of an aspiration to “insure domestic tranquility,” a phrase that runs counter to many experiences today. There’s no domestic tranquility in the squalid conditions found in our immigration detention centers. There’s no quietude in the reinstatement of uranium enrichment in Iran and a president who tweets about the country’s obliteration. There’s no comfort found in Russian interference in U.S. elections. And, there’s no peace found in devastating local news stories of the past several weeks.
Still, I find optimism in Meacham’s interpretation of U.S. history and ideas about our future. He says we have an inclination to “open our arms rather than clench our fists; to look out rather than turn inward; to accept rather than reject.” Meacham quotes Ronald Reagan and his reference to John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” a place Reagan idealized his entire political life. Reagan defined that city in this way:
It was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get there.
Drawing from Abraham Lincoln, Meacham says, “The better angels of our nature have prevailed just enough to keep the national enterprise alive.” We are an imperfect union, but we are ever striving. We endure moments of disappointment, we choose hope instead of fear, and we hold strong to our national creed that all men and women are created equal.
Meacham shares several pieces of advice I find useful as we celebrate Independence Day.
First, he encourages us to enter the arena. Meacham says, “The battle begins with political engagement itself.”
Second, he says to resist tribalism. In Meacham’s words, “Don’t let any single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think.
Third, he encourages us to respect facts and deploy reason. Meacham says, “There is such a thing as discernible reality.”
Fourth, he encourages us to find critical balance. Being informed is more than knowing all the details. According to Meacham, “It also entails being humble enough to recognize that only on the rarest of occasions does any single camp have a monopoly on virtue or on wisdom.”
Finally, he implores us to keep history in mind. Meacham writes, “For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings, and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight.”
In the "Hamilton" musical, Alexander Hamilton asks and answers, “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” I will be forever grateful for our founding fathers who planted the seeds of this extraordinary country. I’m also grateful for the American spirit — so imperfect and so free.