Go to any American elementary school and ask the students to name the Founding Fathers, and it’s likely that Thomas Jefferson will come up, right alongside George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson is on the nickel. Jefferson’s face is one of the four on Mount Rushmore. Jefferson has his own monument in Washington, D.C. Jefferson got to be president.
But Jefferson’s star may be fading. Democrats are erasing his name from political dinners because of his slave-owning history. Abraham Lincoln, almost everyone’s favorite president, “hated Thomas Jefferson,” a Gettysburg College professor explained this summer. After the independent historian Henry Wiencek published a controversial book criticizing the Virginian in 2012, The New York Times called Jefferson “The Monster of Monticello.”
The newest knock to Jefferson’s reputation comes in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, which has been drawing critical praise and raking in profits since it transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater this summer. The show, based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, depicts Alexander Hamilton’s life through an amalgam of rap, hip-hop, and traditional Broadway melodies that explain the circumstances of his birth, his drive to succeed, his role in the Revolutionary War, and his subsequent family life and career. The show is replete with clever rhymes and modern-day slang, which help freshen a story that might otherwise seem familiar (at one point, Jefferson quotes Biggie Smalls, saying “If ya don’t know, now ya know”).
The eponymous hero of Hamilton, played by Miranda, is an orphan “son of a whore,” who, by dint of hard work and determination, becomes a right-hand man to George Washington, the driving force behind the Constitutional Convention, and the creator of the financial system that runs America today. He’s the hero of the show, and though he may be less famous that the other Founding Fathers (and an adulterer to boot), he has the same rags-to-riches story as Oliver Twist. The audience roots for him as he earnestly raps about the principles he believes in, while surrounded by less honest men.
Hamilton is cast without regard to race—none of the actors who play Aaron Burr, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are white—which makes it easier to forget that this is a retelling of history. It seems more a drama about the petty rivalries boys experience at school—the setting, in this case, being the American colonies. But the boy who has the biggest rivalry with Hamilton, in Miranda’s telling, isn’t Aaron Burr, played brilliantly by Leslie Odom, Jr., who serves as a sympathetic narrator. Instead, it’s Thomas Jefferson, who’s played by Daveed Diggs. In Miranda’s telling, Jefferson is a well-dressed dandy who avoided fighting in the war and—for a man who wrote the phrase “all men are created equal”—holds hypocritical positions about slave ownership and women’s rights.
“Hey neighbor. Your debts are paid because you don’t pay for labor,” Hamilton snaps at Jefferson during one of their two cabinet face-offs. Arguments about war in France and national debt are structured as rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, complete with ribald insults and, in one case, the dropping of a mic. That these are presented as verbal duels make the stakes seem higher, and it’s significant that they pit Hamilton against Jefferson, not against any other Founding Fathers. Their mutual animosity is on full display.
If Alexander Hamilton represents everything currently in the zeitgeist—he’s an immigrant, he’s an orphan, he’s a self-made man, he doesn’t want the country to get into foreign wars—Jefferson represents everything that’s out-of-fashion. He’s a slave-owning aristocrat whose father was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and who left him two-thirds of his estate, including 60 slaves, 25 horses, and 7,500 acres of land. Despite promises to free his 175 slaves upon his death, Jefferson only freed five—those related to his mistress Sally Hemings.
Popular history may see Jefferson as the man of the people and Hamilton as the creator of Wall Street and a monarchist. But in the musical (and Chernow’s book), the opposite is true. If Hamilton is the 99 percent, Jefferson is, in the show at least, the one percent. If Hamilton is Barack Obama (who told Jon Stewart he thought the show was “phenomenal”), Jefferson is Mitt Romney.
Jefferson doesn’t show up in Miranda’s show until the second act, after the American Revolution is over, when he returns from Paris. “What’d I miss?” he sings, dressed in a foppish, purple velvet outfit, dancing across the stage like a dilettante. This is one of the more traditional show-tune numbers, and it serves to emphasize just how out of touch Jefferson is with the new country and what’s happening on the ground. “I’ve been in Paris meeting lots of different ladies. I guess I basically missed the late ’80s.”
After Jefferson resigns as secretary of state, he and James Madison start scheming, looking for dirt on Hamilton to ruin his reputation and erode any political sway he may still have, to “get in the weeds, look for the seeds of Hamilton’s misdeeds.” They eventually find evidence that Hamilton is paying funds to a man named James Reynolds—seeming proof that he’s corrupt. In reality, Hamilton was paying blackmail to hide an extramarital affair. Chernow writes that Reynolds likely instructed his wife, Maria Reynolds, to seduce Hamilton so that the couple could blackmail him.
The affair could be one of the reasons Hamilton isn’t remembered as fondly as the other Founding Fathers, the show suggests. It begins his downward spiral, as his son dies in a duel defending his father’s name, and both Hamilton and his wife are plunged into their own separate ennui. And there’s little doubt that Jefferson’s scheming bears some of the blame (it’s especially ironic that Jefferson was having an affair with his slave, Sally Hemings, which would have been a much more incendiary scandal at the time).
“Every other Founding Father story gets told. Every other Founding Father gets to grow old,” a character sings in the finale.
In a 1996 article for The Atlantic, Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote a criticism of Jefferson, reminding readers that the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing had claimed Jefferson as an inspiration, particularly his maxim, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Jefferson held hypocritical positions about slavery and diversity, O’Brien writes, and encouraged militias in a way that might have inspired the Ku Klux Klan. Jefferson, he concludes, will soon have no place in American history:
I believe that in the next century, as blacks and Hispanics and Asians acquire increasing influence in American society, the Jeffersonian liberal tradition, which is already intellectually untenable, will become socially and politically untenable as well.
It may be two decades later, but Miranda, who is Puerto Rican and who has cast black, white, and Latino actors as the Founding Fathers, has made Jefferson seem socially and politically untenable. O’Brien’s wasn’t the first call for the nation to take another look at one of its favorite Founding Fathers, nor will it be the last. But maybe, with the help of Miranda and a little bit of rap, the urge to reexamine an American icon might start to catch on.
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