The Founding generation has always loomed large in America's collective conscience. The smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton (2015) is the latest iteration in that tradition. It manages, like previous popularizations of the Founding, to create a "new" Founding that suits its time and audience. Yet despite the genius of its novel artistry and casting, Hamilton more often than not reinforces the traditional popular narratives, updated to contemporary upper-middle-class sensibilities, and thus in some ways fails to live up to its developing reputation as iconoclastic. Like the Founding itself, Hamilton is a complex phenomenon open to numerous and often contradictory interpretations.
The popular American ideals of independence, liberty, self-determination, opportunity, standing on the right side of history, and the manifestation of justice all have deep roots in the Founding and are central to how it has been employed in historical writing and popular culture for more than two hundred years now. Historical mythologies such as the American Founding evolve over time and are developed to suit the needs of contemporary users. The heated debates in popular culture and the academy in recent decades over the "truth" about certain aspects of history tend to obscure in polemical rhetoric the deeper problem of trying to re-create narratives and interpretations based on, by necessity, enormously diminished and oversimplified details (see, e.g., Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob 1994 and Hughes 2004). It is important to remember, as Richard Hughes (2004) points out, that understanding these stories as mythologies does not necessarily condemn them as falsehood or fantasy but rather helps us realize that they are narratives constructed by subsequent generations to suit particular purposes. Each of those subsequent generations, authors, and popular figures has its own interpretations, biases, agendas, and gaps in knowledge. Another way to think about it is the old saying "history is written by the victors." In a fluid society such as America, new "victors" keep emerging to question the status quo interpretation. In that sense, Hamilton is both novel and ordinary.
The long-standing, predominantly heroic narrative of the Founding generation goes something like this:
Unfortunately for the British--and fortunately for America--the generation that emerged to lead the colonies into independence was one of the most remarkable group of men in history--sensible, broad-minded, courageous, unusually well educated, gifted in a variety of ways, mature, and longsighted, sometimes lit by flashes of genius. It is rare indeed for a nation to have at its summit a group so variously gifted as Washington and Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams. And what was particularly providential was the way in which their strengths and weaknesses compensated each other, so that the group as a whole was infinitely more formidable than the sum of its parts. They were the Enlightenment made flesh.... Great events in history are determined by all kinds of factors, but the most important single one is always the quality of the people in charge; and never was this principle more convincingly demonstrated than in the struggle for American independence. (Johnson 1997, 127-28)
Paul Johnson's praise probably represents something of the apex of the contemporary hagiographic tradition toward the Founders and the Founding. Here we see Johnson engaging in the creation of a "greatest generation" mythology employed most successfully in recent popular history by Tom Brokaw (1997). Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation captured and reinforced the popular celebration, almost deification, of the World War II generation around the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war in the mid 1990s. This time frame also coincided with a new generation of popular works on the Founding. Brokaw's work carried on a well-worn tradition in popular historical writing by creating a "golden age" that the present generation could look back on with nostalgia and sadness at a sense of lost greatness and by combining it with a nationalist/patriotic celebratory revelry. His approach contributed to the national mythos by reinforcing the narrative of American exceptionalism while also casting a disapproving glance at how that exceptionalism was being squandered or lost by the current generation and providing a guiding ideal for future betterment.
Brokaw's celebration of the "greatest generation" fifty years after the end of...