Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the American Revolution may not be accurate history, but it is valuable political theory, and it finds an eloquent echo in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

Arendt argues that the American revolutionaries began by seeking liberty, which they didn’t define sharply but which mainly meant negative individual freedom (On Revolution, p 20). (On this point, Phillip Pettit disagrees, arguing that the founders were motivated by opposition to “domination,” or subjugation to another person’s discretion.) In creating new institutions that would protect negative freedom, the revolutionaries discovered “public freedom”—the freedom to create together. And they found that this was a source of happiness for them. “They were enjoying what they were doing far beyond the call of duty” (p. 24).

Freedom, for Arendt, is in no tension with equality, because political equality can only exist among equals, free people who decide together what to do. She writes, “Freedom was understood as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man required the presence of others. Freedom itself therefore needed a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper” (p. 21). Equality is not natural but is created by people who decide to govern themselves on terms of freedom (pp. 30-1). Aristotle calls equals who govern together political friends.

A strong word for the kind of excellence and flourishing that the founders discovered in revolutionary action was “glory” (p. 196). Arendt is not a deliberative democrat who understands public discussion as a quest for consensus about the right thing to do. She is more of a performative democrat who sees politics as a place for demonstrating excellence to friends and to posterity.

In retrospect, we can explain the founding of the American republic in terms of contingent causes: France and Spain gave military support to defeat Britain, Parliament was divided, the size of the colonies made them ungovernable, etc. That is the perspective of a spectator. But the founders saw themselves as agents (p. 52), initiators of a story whose end was not determined.

The hard question posed by the Revolution was how to make the “public happiness” enjoyed by the founders in Philadelphia in 1776 or 1788 available to all Americans across time: the question of scale and sustainability.

In Miranda’s Hamilton, these themes are pervasive. The whole story is about Hamilton’s quest for glory and his discovery of freedom among friends (and Burr’s exclusion from the “rooms where it happens”). The themes of freedom, equality, friendship, glory, story-making, and expanding the scale of the revolution come together neatly in the the tavern scene where Hamilton and his friends sing “The Story of Tonight”:

[HAMILTON]
I may not live to see our glory!
[LAFAYETTE/MULLIGAN/LAURENS]
I may not live to see our glory!
[HAMILTON]
But I will gladly join the fight!
[LAFAYETTE/MULLIGAN/LAURENS]
But I will gladly join the fight!
[HAMILTON]
And when our children tell our story…
[LAFAYETTE/MULLIGAN/LAURENS]
And when our children tell our story…
[HAMILTON]
They’ll tell the story of tonight
[MULLIGAN]
Let’s have another round tonight
[etc]
[LAURENS]
Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
No matter what they tell you
Raise a glass to the four of us
[LAURENS/MULLIGAN]
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us
[MULLIGAN/LAFAYETTE/LAURENS]
Telling the story of tonight
[HAMILTON]
They’ll tell the story of tonight
[LAURENS/MULLIGAN/LAFAYETTE]
Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
[etc.]

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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