Cultural Revolution vs. Constitutional Culture: The Relevance of Hamilton: An American Musical

Lin-Manuel Miranda greets the audience after taking part in his last performance with Hamilton in New York City in 2016. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
The Hamilton musical shows the true nature of the American founding.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S ome of those protesting and rioting in cities across the country see themselves as fighting to uphold the principles of liberty and equality that undergirded the American founding. As a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from China, I worry that my adopted country may be following a different path: that of my native country’s Cultural Revolution. My co-author, who has taught Chinese students for a number of years, shares my assessment that America’s current cultural upheaval has much more in common with China’s dark decade between 1966 and 1976 than with the American Revolution.

Mao’s young Red Guards, oftentimes joined by workers and farmers, looted and vandalized the homes of ordinary citizens under the rubric of “purifying” people’s minds. At one time, Mao’s radical warriors waged militia wars against each other and inflicted great casualties nationwide. They coerced confessions and levied harsh reprisals to crimes never committed, forcing people to hide their real political opinions and personal views.

All authorities, except Mao’s, swiftly eroded. The country ended up in deep chaos, sometimes verging on anarchy. More importantly, the “revolution” created only social turmoil and terror among the general public. It offered no constructive, social solutions.

A ruined generation in China has carried the historical scars of the Cultural revolution into top leadership positions in the CCP.

What terrifies many Chinese-Americans is the memory of the tactics widely used in the Cultural Revolution to “purify” the mind of common people by forcing a universal confession. Chinese-Americans fear, and China’s leaders undoubtedly hope, that this wave of destruction and intolerance signals the decline of our great country.

Cultural revolutions, beginning with the French Revolution, are too often campaigns to ruin a country’s cultural heritage and individualism. In the end, they either solidify a single ruler, as in Mao’s China, or produce a single, reactionary strongman, as in Napoleon’s France. Both the Chinese Cultural Revolution and today’s American cultural revolution are offspring of the French Revolution.

Those who think that the current “Cultural Revolution” is an extension of the American Revolution could not be more wrong. Unlike the French Revolution, the American Revolution preserved and extended the culture of the West. The American colonists fought for independence because they were being denied the rights of Englishmen.

What has bound the United States into a union of different races, ethnicities, and religions has been the rule of law under our Constitution. The great achievement of Hamilton the Musical has been to turn a dead, white male — and the Constitution he and other founders gave us — into a hip, modern phenomenon. A crew almost entirely of black and brown actors playing various founders, dialoguing through rap music, displays the continuity between the founding and the present day.

Until Disney’s release of the musical the day prior to July 4, only “the privileged” had seen it, thanks to its record-setting ticket prices. Now, the masses can experience this masterpiece.

They will see an ardent opponent of slavery — born a bastard in the Caribbean — work for, collaborate with, and outsmart other founders, who owned slaves. Hamilton was the closest of advisers to General and later President Washington. He collaborated with James Madison to write The Federalist Papers, which advocated the adoption of the Constitution. He outmaneuvered his political opponent, Thomas Jefferson, in creating the economic infrastructure that set the US’s destiny as a commercial — rather than agrarian — nation.

As George Will has said, “Americans love Jefferson, but they follow Hamilton.” He later quipped, “That was true even before he became a rap star.” The Constitution and the financial structure created by Hamilton eventually doomed the slave-based, agrarian economy of the South.

White, black, brown, and yellow peoples around the world admire or resent “American Privilege.” Americans of all colors who have not travelled internationally have little or no idea of how privileged we are. Our currency, in particular, which Hamilton established on a sound footing, has been essential for the U.S.’s unmatched economic prosperity. Although Nixon dropped the dollar’s gold backing, the greenback’s status as the world’s reserve currency has endured. Without gold backing, however, the value of our currency, and, more broadly, our national prosperity, depends on the faith that foreigners have in the US.

The initial reaction to George Floyd’s tragic death — peaceful protests and calls for reform — resonated worldwide. The burning, looting, and cultural destruction that followed have made many in the US and abroad fear for America’s future. A loss of faith in the United States would be devasting for democratic self-government, for the protection of individual rights, and for the rule of law everywhere. Hopefully, Disney’s release of Hamilton the Musical will remind us of the promise of the American founding.

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