Today is January 16th.
It’s not an important day. Unless it’s your birthday or something. But should it be? Is there a story about this day that we never learned?
I’d like to give you a moment to absorb this song.
On January 16th, 1776, the Continental Congress approved George Washington’s order to enlist freed black men who had served as militia during the Siege of Boston. It forced black men who had been freed from enslavement and then chosen to defend their city into the Revolutionary Army. This doesn’t sound awesome… in fact, it sounds downright horrible.
But it was a political stepping stone.
We just never built the rest of the staircase.
At the time, Alexander Hamilton was serving George Washington, writing most of his correspondence to Congress and strategizing with him. Later, Hamilton and John Laurens would use this same order to argue that enslaved black men should be able to earn their freedom through serving in the Army.
So much of the Founding Fathers’ decisions were wrapped in personal conflict and interpersonal politics at the time. Not unlike life in theatre.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has written a masterpiece with Hamilton — a cultural slice of history both representing our past, present and future. Hamilton has a Broadway cast, two national tours, and a West End production which opened only a few weeks ago. Its intentional diverse casting is not the only thing about it that makes it simultaneously ground-breaking and rooted in history. A sung-through musical on Broadway hasn’t seen this much success since Les Miserables. And while any YouTube video of firemen saving cats can get my waterworks going, not every musical can do that every time I listen to it. There is something magical not only about this musical as it is, but also about when it is.
The ability to build the future lies in being able to see the past, and see it clearly. History is watching all of us.
There is a national obsession with the vision of the Founding Fathers. We are told that they knew what they wanted America to be, and that we’re living that vision today. Often, arguments for change or perspective will be countered with questions of what the Founding Fathers wanted. But we forget their personal struggles, the way they fought and played against each other, and how their own conflicts weren’t resolved with compromise, but with coercion.
No matter how aware they were of the weight of history on their shoulders, they still had their eyes on each other.
So what happened to Hamilton’s proposal that enslaved black men be able to earn their freedom through military service? It never got a single vote, and Hamilton’s past transgression with a mistress was used against him as a political tool.
So today, January 16th. What are you doing, and who tells your story? Because history has its eyes on you.