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”).