On what will endure

17 February 2017

At any given hour in my household, there is a not insignificant chance one or both of said household’s inhabitants are listening to the soundtrack to Hamilton. My daughter and I came late to this particular fandom, and even then her sparked interest lagged behind mine—although she has made up for that amount of lost time with greater fervor. She was tolerantly indifferent until I took her to see the musical’s Chicago production. Around three months later, she wears Hamilton buttons, draws fan art and knows every lyric by heart.

It’s hard to say exactly what it is about Hamilton that captured a tween girl’s attention so thoroughly (an often difficult task to accomplish), but, in my case, the appeal is easy enough to pinpoint. I’ve always been a history nerd. Growing up in a male-dominated household, history was the chief alternate to sports as an acceptable pursued interest, and I pursued it. True to American dad form, however, we focused primarily on the Civil War. I’ve been to several Civil War battlefields, including Gettysburg twice. I know the generals and the decisions and the losses, and I know how they all fit into the sweep of history. There is a certain romance to the American Civil War, the tale of brother against brother, and, as a native northerner, there is also a certain moral superiority in hailing from the land of the Union (although the truth of that, like many instances of assumed moral superiority, is far more complicated). I remained relatively ignorant, however, of the history of my country prior to the War Between the States, beyond the cursory checklist I got during schooling.

Which is a rather large and very unfortunate gap of understanding. Hamilton has neatly plugged into my own fascination with history, aggravated my curiosity for what I never fully learned and proved to have kept pace with my social consciousness. And so I have been inspired to study.

The primary lesson I have learned so far is that the history of the origin of our country is shockingly haphazard when you take a closer look at it. Of course, maybe the instability lies not in the historic events themselves but how we look at them from a lofty position of hindsight, which fools us into thinking our nation was inevitable, its formation as solid as memorial marble. Of course, maybe it’s not just our history but all of history that appears as this mirage. Whenever you examine it more carefully, you realize that history is little more than the same human desires and foibles played over and over again, distinguished only by circumstance and the odd bit of justice or progress. History is random. But humans are not.

This revelation serves two purposes: first, that history, as human stories, is something that can be understood, and second, that the perspective history gives us can soften our fears and reaffirm our values. Because while it may have been haphazard, it happened, and humans who believed in ideas built it. Our history not unassailable, it’s not to go unexamined and uncritiqued. But neither is it to be forgotten, overlooked or deliberately used towards contrary ends. There is something here that continues to exist, and will continue to exist, after empty rhetoric and pompous desecration crumbles away. More to the point, this something will continue to grow, and evolve, and progress. And that’s what I think, after everything else is gone, is what will endure.

Find your history however you can. Figure out how it got you here and where it can take you and what really matters about it. Find your way to it through books, movies, musicals, battlefields, bronze plaques on brick walls that note nothing more than the fact that someone else was here before you and someone will be here after you. There’s a thread that ties us together, that always leads back to the foundation. Do whatever you need to do to find it, and hold on tight.


See all essays