The Broadway hit musical “Hamilton” ventured out of New York late last year.

Keith Knutson mug


I saw it in Chicago July 11, the anniversary date of the famous 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. The show is exhilarating. It reinvigorated my respect for the lives of our founders, and provided insightful perspectives for understanding our American polity.

The production has received widespread accolades, from former President Barack Obama to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Young Americans have been clamoring to experience this compelling rendition of American history. The Rockefeller Foundation helped finance 20,000 New York City 11th-graders to experience “Hamilton’s” emotionally uplifting, yet tragic story, from our founding generation.

I have encountered only one criticism of “Hamilton.” Utah’s U.S. Sen. Mike Lee complains the show distorts what should be our view of the founders. However, Lee makes the conservative fundamentalists’ typical error in confronting history: he wants to confirm his own limited government ideology, and preclude anyone else’s interpretation.

As our first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton implemented a national economic program, which included the Bank of the United States. His Cabinet counterpart – Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson – opposed the program premised upon his anti-federalist (today we call it states’ rights) commitment. In the play, Jefferson acknowledges he could not defeat Hamilton’s program.

Here is where Lee and his fellow conservatives misperceive our historical legacy. The founders established a constitutional order with the capacity to adapt to Americans’ evolving demands upon the governing apparatus established in 1787. The founding generation provided wide interpretive latitude in the Constitution to determine the breadth and scope of government.

We should not limit ourselves by trying to discern whether they would concur with us in our current endeavors – they vehemently disagreed among themselves. The men who wrote our Constitution led the national and state governments for decades after its implementation. They immediately devolved into factional disputes, leading to the development of political party divisions we live with today.

In addition, personal animus too often came between them. A bitter decades-long rivalry led to Burr killing Hamilton in their renowned duel. The public’s negative reaction stunned Burr. Trying to restore his reputation consumed the rest of his life.

The most basic contribution the founders provided generations of Americans is the principle that even those who govern us are not above the law. The expectation that such public virtue would guide political leaders has been our historical legacy in the succeeding centuries. President Donald Trump poses a serious threat to this foundation of our constitutional order.

When campaigning for the Republican Party’s nomination in January 2016, Trump outlandishly proclaimed he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York, and not lose voters supporting his candidacy.

President Trump continues to premise his words and behaviors upon his notion he can act above the law. However, his supporters will not determine whether he has abided by our laws. Our constitutional system of justice will make this determination.

“Hamilton” portrays the man historians have labeled the father of the Constitution, James Madison, as a mousey underling of Jefferson. Such literary license does injustice to someone who, with Hamilton, wrote the Federalist Papers, our most significant American contribution to political theory, and the winning argument for ratifying the Constitution. At this moment, we should pay special attention to Madison’s Federalist No. 10.

In it, he acknowledges, “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may by intrigue, by corruption…betray the interests of the people.” Despite clogging up government operations, even convulsing society, Madison argued the Constitution would prevent such demagoguery from executing its violence against the American people.

President Trump presents us with such a moment. The officeholders of this Republic are now obligated to ensure the continuance of our most basic governing principle: no person is above the law.

Keith Knutson resides near Viroqua.


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