I do not despair of this country.... The fiat of the Almighty, "Let there be Light," has not yet spent its force.
— Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
The astonishing success of the Broadway musical Hamilton is something to behold. Somewhere between 3 and 4 million people have seen it in New York since it opened in the summer of 2015. At least another 5 to 6 million have seen an off-Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play as touring companies performed the show throughout the world. Another 3 million people saw it on the small screen in just the first two weeks following Disney's release of the musical on their streaming service on July 4, 2020. It's hard now to even attempt to estimate the number who've enjoyed the thrilling experience of Lin-Manuel Miranda's phenomenal musical.
I have to admit that when I first heard someone was setting the story of the nation's first Treasury Secretary to hip hop music, I was skeptical. Now, I'm hard-pressed to think of another evening during which I've been so deeply delighted, richly edified, emotionally stirred, and durably inspired than when our whole family saw the show on Broadway in 2015.
In addition to the incredibly moving personal story of the orphaned immigrant "ten dollar founding father" and the memorable music—at turns energetic, clever, and edgy, then equally beautiful, sorrowful, and redemptive—the show has also reminded multitudes about some of the core facts of American history. When, for instance, the Schuyler Sisters sing, "we hold these truths to be self-evident (look around, look around) that all men are created equal (how lucky we are to be alive right now)," when Thomas Jefferson sings, "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—we fought for these ideals we shouldn't settle for less," or when King George III sings, "They say George Washington's yielding his power and stepping away. Is that true? I wasn't aware that was something a person could do?" we were reminded how absolutely revolutionary the American Revolution was.
Hamilton reminded us how the Declaration of Independence changed the course of human history. Hamilton reminded us that the United States was first among nations to create a government free of monarchy. Hamilton reminded us that no nation's founding documents had ever spoken of equality as if it were a self-evident fact. Hamilton reminded us that no nation had ever been established upon the powerful idea that our rights are God-given, pre-existing government itself. And finally, Hamilton also reminded us that, at the time of our founding, our most noble aspirations were just that—aspirational rather than fully realized.
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, a former slave, a brilliant orator, and an indispensable moral force, in an address to an antislavery society in New York entitled, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," first praised our founding fathers as "great men—great enough to give fame to a great age," but then pointedly asked his audience, "Are these great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us all?"
As we gather to celebrate July 4th this year, hold in one hand the inspiration Hamilton gives to us. Hold in the other, the words of Frederick Douglass. Many say our country's future is dark—that we're divided in an unprecedented way and that it's likely to get worse. Without downplaying the many challenges we now face, I don't believe this. First of all, in the time of Hamilton, in the time of Douglass, we faced far greater odds. Second, this country, our country, is still full of an exceptional people—people of enormous generosity and tremendous good will for one another. In 2020, Americans gave 471 billion dollars to charities and nonprofits. Almost 70% of that came from individuals, individuals of all stripes and particularities. This sort of giving by individuals has, in fact, grown in 5 of the last 6 years.
This week, look around, look around—and look up. Thrill to the story of Hamilton again. Read the entirety of Douglass's unflinching address. Look through the brilliant aspirations of the Declaration of Indepence itself. But whatever you do, express also your gratitude to God who gave us Hamilton and Douglass. And as you do, take heart from a former slave's concluding remarks to his listeners at the meeting of the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York:
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented... I do not despair of this country.... The fiat of the Almighty, "Let there be Light," has not yet spent its force.
— Greg Funderburk