I had the opportunity to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton during its national tour in San Francisco in 2017. I fell in love with it – it's an amazing, truly modern musical with a timeless story. It made me realize that there's a lot of American history that I didn't know or remember from high school, so I left the theater amazed and inspired to (re)learn more, especially given current American political events.
Since then, not only have I been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on an interminable loop on Spotify, but I've been reading and listening to a number of books to satisfy my curiosity. I have gained a greater appreciation for the unique historical, cultural, and political position the United States of America holds and for the incredible people who made the seemingly impossible come to pass.
- Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the biography that inspired the musical
- 1776 by David McCullough
- Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
- Grant by Ron Chernow
- Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
I have previously read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and watched John Adams on HBO, both of which are fantastic. I also have a few more books I want to read in this vein, but I'll stick to my recent reading list for this.
It is worth noting that women weren't allowed to play a publicly significant role in American politics up until the 20th century; in fact, they were actively barred from doing so. We're already well into the 21st century and it's clear we still have a long way to go.
Alexander Hamilton was a genius whose impact on the United States continues to be felt to this day. The first verse of the musical shows how unlikely his rise was.
Beyond his educational and military accomplishments during the American Revolution, he helped shape the United States Constitution and was the primary author of the Federalist Papers. As the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, he established the national bank and the framework for our modern financial system, the U.S. Mint, and the Revenue Cutter Service (which became the U.S. Coast Guard). Due to his political rivalry with Thomas Jefferson, they became the heads of opposing political parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, which established the ongoing two-party system that we have today. He died prematurely at the age of forty-seven due to a fatal bullet wound received in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. He was mourned as a national hero with the largest funeral ever held in New York City, his adopted home.
His wife, Eliza, outlived him by another five decades and did everything she can to preserve Alexander Hamilton's legacy, established the first private orphanage in New York City, and helped get the Washington Monument built.
George Washington wasn't so much a genius as an extraordinary military and political leader who displayed incredible integrity and talent for choosing strong lieutenants. After an unremarkable military career he became an active politician, playing a key role in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In the War for Independence, he received unanimous support to lead the nascent colonial army, leading a ragtag army to victory over a professional British force. With a well-earned national hero's reputation, he easily gained broad support to become the first American President, naming Alexander Hamilton as Treasury Secretary and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State.
After eight years of precedent-setting leadership of a new, Republican Form of government, he set one of the most amazing, global precedents by willingly giving up power peacefully after democratic elections. Unfortunately, Washington didn't use his considerable influence to fight the shameful practice of slavery, opting to leave it to later generations.
In 1799 he died, sixty-seven years old, at his home in Mt. Vernon after getting sick from the cold and wet and being treated by the medieval medical practice of bloodletting. He was mourned a national hero, recognized as the father of his country.
Benjamin Franklin is broadly appreciated as America's first well-known genius, a true polymath, demonstrated by being an accomplished scientist, author, businessman, and politician who was intellectually, if not physically, active until his death at the ripe old age of eighty-four; a stable genius, if you will. He was a primary contributor to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was a key diplomat to France during the American Revolution, was the first U.S. Postmaster General, helped establish the University of Pennsylvania, and invented the lightning rod and bifocal lenses, among other things.
He died in 1790 of pleurisy. His funeral was the largest Philadelphia had seen.
Ulysses S. Grant, like George Washington, wouldn't be considered a genius but rather as someone who rose to the challenge and, through personal integrity and effort, made an enormous impact. He went from being a poor veteran of the Mexican-American War to become the undisputed Commanding General of the Union Army that defeated the Confederate Army, ending the Civil War. Despite what you may have heard, the Civil War wasn't fought over states' rights, it was over the institution of slavery, a moral issue that the country avoided at its founding. Grant was a consistent abolitionist and, as the 18th U.S. President, inherited a bitterly divided country from the embarrassing administration of Andrew Johnson before him.
Grant's administration then passed the 14th and 15th Amendments, giving freed slaves the rights of citizenship and voting. Unfortunately, inconsistent federal enforcement meant a century of Jim Crow laws that kept blacks subservient in a shameful racial caste system that held sway until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-1960s.
He died in 1885 of throat cancer, fighting through the pain in his last few months to write his memoirs, paid for and published by Mark Twain, in order to guarantee financial security for his family. His death was mourned by North and South alike, with his funeral attended by a million people in New York City.
Donald J. Trump, the current and 45th President of the U.S., was born in privilege and wealth, then built a (larger) real-estate and media fortune. He has written multiple bestselling books (whose authorship has been questioned), became the star of a popular reality TV show, and won the most unexpected victory in modern U.S. Presidential election history despite well-documented evidence of the candidate's mysogyny, sexism, racism, and narcissism. He has been shown to lie and cheat with abandon, a practice he has continued as president. His conduct has done more to normalize white supremacists and nationalists, the vilification of journalists, racism, and xenophobia than any other president in a generation.
Early 2017 he tweeted:
....Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2018
....to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius....and a very stable genius at that!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2018
His annual medical exam included a cognitive test on which he boasted about receiving a perfect score of 30 out of 30. This was on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test which, according to their website, "is a brief cognitive screening tool for Mild Cognitive Impairment" where a score of 27 or above is considered normal. I am glad that our president can proudly identify drawings of a lion, rhino, and camel; I don't know if he was asked to color them for extra points. It does not test whether someone is psychologically, intellectually, or morally qualified to hold public office.
Despite his statements to the contrary, he is not a genius, and if we are to believe what we see and hear, he isn't very stable, either. He is, however, the oldest elected president, being seventy years old when he took the oath of office.
Hamilton, Washington, Franklin, and Grant have contributed to the American promise of opportunity, that success is here for the taking for those willing to work for it. Despite their flaws, many of which were already known during their lifetimes, they achieved things much greater than themselves and quite literally put their lives on the line for what they believed. We have reaped the benefits of their efforts.
We have yet to see the full impact of President Trump on our political and social fabric, but it's clear that history is being made. I can only imagine that "Trump: The Musical" or a satirical play called "A Stable Genius" will make its Broadway debut a generation or two from now.