Joanne Freeman on Why We Need Historians During this Election Cycle

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Here is a taste of the Yale historian‘s recent piece at The Washington Post:

Historians have been busy in recent months, and for good reason. Almost every day brings a stream of political questions from all quarters: Has this happened before? Is it truly unprecedented? Is it dangerous? What are the implications?

History has been used in two ways to answer these questions. First, it has been yoked to ongoing debates, with public figures deploying historical precedent (imaginary and otherwise) as needed. Front and center in this dialogue have been the Founders, a seemingly uncontestable source of authority for any and every claim.

Second, history has been a shorthand source of consolation in the face of an onslaught of wrongdoing and corruption that is evading, perhaps defeating, the rule of law.

Justice may not prevail at present, this argument goes, but the eyes of history will expose the ugly truth, a phenomenon that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) branded “history’s rebuke.”

Historians have played a major role in both conversations. Well aware of the importance of understanding the roots of the current crisis, and faced with an onslaught of bogus historical claims, they’ve had much to say in the public sphere — and it matters. The New Yorker registered the trend last month with an article on “#twitterstorians,” historians on Twitter who engage with one another and with the public to “de-Trumpify American history.” There has been blowback against this trend, with some claiming that historians are scholars, not pundits. Others contend scholars who engage with the public aren’t “serious” about their work, an idea that is thankfully fading — albeit gradually. But in truth, given the unprecedented nature of our crisis, there could be no better time — indeed, no more urgent a time — for historians to engage the public with gusto.

Read the rest here.

Last Night’s Reality Television Show (Also Known as the State of the Union)

State of the Union

What happened last night?  This was by far the most divisive, strange, sensational State of the Union Address I have ever witnessed. Think about it:

  • Donald Trump did not (refused?) to shake Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s hand.
  • Nancy Pelosi broke with tradition when she introduced Trump.  Instead of saying it is a “high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States,” she decided to say “Members of Congress, the president of the United States.”  Ouch.
  • Donald Trump, an impeached president, then proceeded to deliver a speech that made no effort to bring the country together.  It was a Trump rally speech constrained by the teleprompter.  It was filled with lies and half-truths.
  • Nancy Pelosi was visually upset through much of the speech and appeared to be doing everything in her power to control herself.
  • Mike Pence sat behind Trump and nodded approvingly in response to everything Trump said.
  • A 100-year old former Tuskegee airman was honored.
  • The conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, one of the most divisive men in America, was given a congressional medal of honor by the first lady of the United States, a former super model.  I wish Rush well as he struggles with lung cancer.  I also hope that his health issues will lead him to think deeply about how he has contributed to the lack of civil discourse in the country.
  • A sergeant first-class on his fourth deployment in the Middle East surprised his wife and children in the middle of the speech.  It was a nice moment, but it also fed into the reality-show flavor of the night.
  • Democratic members of the Congress stood up and shouted at the president about a drug bill.
  • When the speech was over, Nancy Pelosi ripped-up her copy of the speech before a nationally televised audience.

This was a very partisan night.  The Democrats did not always behave well, but the president sets the agenda and tone of the night.  He deserves the most blame.

But let’s not pretend what happened last night was even close to the kind of chaos seen on the floor of Congress in the decades prior to the Civil War.

 

“Mr. Dershowitz is an expert on civil liberties and criminal law and procedure, not constitutional law generally”

Dershowitz

Steven Harper is a lawyer, graduate of Harvard Law School, and an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University.  While at Harvard he took a class with Alan Dershowitz, a member of Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team.  I think it is fair to say that Harper speaks for the overwhelming majority of legal scholars in the country.  Sure, Dershowitz might find someone who supports his defense of Trump, but this would be like a climate-change denier trying to find a legitimate climate scientist who says climate change is a hoax.

Here is a taste of Harper’s post on Dershowitz at The New York Times:

Two months before President Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings began in 1998, Larry King asked Mr. Dershowitz whether he agrees that “some of the most grievous offenses against our constitutional form of government may not entail violations of the criminal law.”

“I do,” he answered. If those offenses “subvert the very essence of democracy.”

In the same interview, Mr. Dershowitz also said: “It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime if you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty. You don’t need a technical crime. We look at their acts of state. We look at how they conduct the foreign policy. We look at whether they try to subvert the Constitution.”

But on Sunday, Mr. Dershowitz was acting as one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers when he said to George Stephanopoulos that abusive or obstructive conduct is not impeachable and that an “actual crime” is required. And although the evidence demonstrates that Mr. Trump has committed crimes, Mr. Dershowitz asserted that, unless those crimes are explicitly stated in articles of impeachment, they cannot lead to Mr. Trump’s removal from office.

Mr. Dershowitz said that he was defending Mr. Trump to protect the Constitution, but serious constitutional scholars didn’t buy his argument. Another of my former professors, the constitutional law expert Laurence H. Tribe, responded with an op-ed essay in The Washington Post. “The argument that only criminal offenses are impeachable has died a thousand deaths in the writings of all the experts on the subject,” he wrote. “There is no evidence that the phrase ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ was understood in the 1780s to mean indictable crimes.”

Mr. Tribe likewise debunked Mr. Dershowitz’s argument that the president could not be impeached for “abuse of power,” noting, “No serious constitutional scholar has ever agreed with it.” Among those scholars is the Republicans’ designated constitutional law expert, Jonathan Turley. He testified before the House Judiciary Committee that impeachment could result from conduct that was not technically a criminal act.

Mr. Dershowitz is an expert on civil liberties and criminal law and procedure, not constitutional law generally. Facing widespread criticism and trying to reconcile his 1998 statements with his new position, he now says that Congress doesn’t need a “technical crime” to impeach, but there must be “criminal-like” conduct, or conduct “akin to treason and bribery.” To the extent his earlier statement “suggested the opposite,” he retracts it.

Read the entire piece here.  I am not an expert on the legal profession, but it seems like this is the equivalent of picking a historian of China to provide expert testimony on Alexander Hamilton.  I am sure Jonathan Spence would be great in court, but if you had to pick a true expert wouldn’t you go with someone like Joanne Freeman or Ron Chernow?

On John Roberts and Pettifogging

Pettifogging

Watch Chief Justice John Roberts here.  (For some reason You Tube will not let me access its embedding codes today).

Pettifogging: “worrying too much about details that are minor or not important.”  It was often used a derogatory statement about lawyers.

Charles Swayne was a U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of Florida.  He was appointed by Benjamin Harrison in 1889 and confirmed by the Senate in 1890.  The House of Representatives impeached him on December 13, 1904 for “filing false travel vouchers, improper use of private railroad cars, unlawfully imprisoning two attorneys for contempt outside of his district. (Sounds like pettifogging to me! 🙂 ) Swayne admitted to the charges and called his lapses “inadvertent.” The Senate found him “not guilty” on February 27, 1905.

You can read the excerpt from the trial, including the use of the word “pettifogging,” here (p.188).

You can also read an edited excerpt of the proceedings from Hinds’ Precedents of the House of Representatives.

A few thoughts:

First, we can always use more civil discourse.  Of all the House Managers, Nadler is the most obnoxious.  Cipollone and Sekulow seems to be performing for Donald Trump.

Second, John Roberts came to the Trump impeachment trial prepared.  He anticipated this kind incivility and was ready with the “pettifogging” quote from the 1905 Swayne trial.  Nice work.  We will see what he has up his sleeve today.

Third, is Roberts right when he says that the Senate is the “world’s greatest deliberative body” because “its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse?” This is how the framers may have envisioned the Senate, but American history suggests that Roberts may be too optimistic about this legislative body.  Here is Yale historian Joanne Freeman in Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War:

…the Senate was generally calmer than the House.  Smaller in size, with its acoustics in working order and its members a little older, more established, more experienced, and sometimes higher on the social scale, it was a true forum for debate….Debate in the Senate was thus more of a dialogue–long winded, agenda-driven, and something of a performance, but a dialogue just the same. That doesn’t mean the Senate was a haven of safety.  It wasn’t  There were plenty of threats and insults on the floor. Henry Clay (W-KY) was a master.  His attack in 1832 on the elderly Samuel Smith (J-MD), a Revolutionary War veteran and forty-year veteran of the Senate, was so severe that senators physically drew back, worried that things might get ugly.  Clay called Smith a tottering old man with flip-flopping politics; Smith denied it and countered that he could “take a view” of Clay’s politics that would prove him inconsistent; and Clay jeered “Take it, sir, take it–I dare you!”  Smith defended himself, but when he later sought the advice of John Quincy Adams (clearly Fight Consultant Extraordinaire), Smith was do deeply wounded that he was on the verge of tears.

The Twitterstorians and Trump

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Historians on Twitter have caught the attention of The New Yorker.  Check out Lizzie Widdicombe’s piece “The Twitterstorians Trying to De-Trumpify U.S. History.”  It covers a Twitterstorians reception at the recent meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.

The piece includes references to Kevin Kruse (of course), Kevin “The Tattooed Prof” Gannon, Jason Herbert, Robin Mitchell, Heather Cox Richardson, Joanne Freeman, Kevin Levin, Aidine Bettine, Leah LaGrone Ochoa, Ed O’Donnell, and David Trowbridge.

Here is a taste:

“I think it’s a real opportunity for us,” Gannon, who teaches at Grand View University, and whose Twitter handle is @TheTattoedProf, said. “We’re in these public spaces and, to quote Liam Neeson in ‘Taken,’ we have a very particular set of skills.” Gannon, whose burly arms are heavily tattooed, has almost seventy thousand followers and has tangled with D’Souza, too. He has reservations about Twitter as a teaching forum. “It’s not a deliberative space,” he said. “The real struggle for me is it’s very easy to be angry online all the time. But, if all you’re doing is yelling, there’s nothing of substance there.”

David Trowbridge, an associate professor at Marshall University, said, “It’s not us at our best.”

“Well, sometimes it is,” Edward T. O’Donnell, an associate professor at the College of the Holy Cross, said. O’Donnell, whose Twitter handle is @InThePastLane, is the creator of the annual Weemsy Awards, for “the biggest history fails of the year.” He crowdsources the nominations from Twitterstorians. Last year’s winners included President Trump, who said during a Fourth of July speech that George Washington’s army “took over the airports” from the British, and the conservative writer Erick Erickson, who, in criticizing the Times’s 1619 Project, opined about “the cost white people paid to free slaves.”

Gannon argued, “We’re at a particularly dangerous moment, historically speaking,” noting the way that “history, or versions of it, have been weaponized against marginalized communities.” He went on, “When people are reading history and thinking, ‘I wonder what it would be like to live during the Civil War? I certainly would have been one of the good guys,’ well, what you’re doing now is probably what you would have done then.”

“Somebody said that on Twitter a while ago,” O’Donnell said. “It was, like, ‘Remember that time in history class when you were reading about the abolitionist movement and said, ‘I definitely would have stood up’? Well, now is one of those times.”

Trowbridge cleared his throat. “My small viral moment was that one,” he said.

“Oh, that was you?” O’Donnell said. “I instantly retweeted that!”

Trowbridge looked pleased. “I think I went from five followers to five hundred.”

Read the entire piece here.

Joanne Freeman on Federalist No. 76 and the Whitaker Lawsuit

Trump and Whitaker

A group of Senate Democrats–Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii)–has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration.  The suit challenges the constitutionality of the appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general.

The suit invokes the Constitution’s Appointments Clause and references Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 76:

The Constitution’s Appointments Clause requires that the Senate confirm high-level federal government officials, including the Attorney General, before they exercise the duties of the office. The Framers included this requirement to ensure that senior administration officials receive scrutiny by the American people’s representatives in Congress. The Appointments Clause is also meant to prevent the President, in the words of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 76, from appointing officers with “no other merit than that of…possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.”

“Installing Matthew Whitaker so flagrantly defies constitutional law that any viewer of School House Rock would recognize it. Americans prize a system of checks and balances, which President Trump’s dictatorial appointment betrays,” Blumenthal said. “President Trump is denying Senators our constitutional obligation and opportunity to do our job: scrutinizing the nomination of our nation’s top law enforcement official. The reason is simple: Whitaker would never pass the advice and consent test. In selecting a so-called “constitutional nobody” and thwarting every Senator’s constitutional duty, Trump leaves us no choice but to seek recourse through the courts.”

On Twitter, Yale historian Joanne Freeman provides some context:

Blame Gingrich

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According to McKay Coppins, Newt Gingrich “turned partisan politics into bloodsport, wrecked Congress, and paved the way for Trump’s rise.”  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic, “The Man Who Broke Politics”:

There’s something about Newt Gingrich that seems to capture the spirit of America circa 2018. With his immense head and white mop of hair; his cold, boyish grin; and his high, raspy voice, he has the air of a late-empire Roman senator—a walking bundle of appetites and excesses and hubris and wit. In conversation, he toggles unnervingly between grandiose pronouncements about “Western civilization” and partisan cheap shots that seem tailored for cable news. It’s a combination of self-righteousness and smallness, of pomposity and pettiness, that personifies the decadence of this era.

In the clamorous story of Donald Trump’s Washington, it would be easy to mistake Gingrich for a minor character. A loyal Trump ally in 2016, Gingrich forwent a high-powered post in the administration and has instead spent the years since the election cashing in on his access—churning out books (three Trump hagiographies, one spy thriller), working the speaking circuit (where he commands as much as $75,000 per talk for his insights on the president), and popping up on Fox News as a paid contributor. He spends much of his time in Rome, where his wife, Callista, serves as Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican and where, he likes to boast, “We have yet to find a bad restaurant.”

But few figures in modern history have done more than Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump’s rise. During his two decades in Congress, he pioneered a style of partisan combat—replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism—that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction. Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution—an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence.

Read the entire piece here.

Coppins is probably right about Gingrich, but let’s be careful making too many grandiose claims about Newt as the originator of political bloodsport. As I read Coppins’s piece I was reminded of Yale historian Joanne Freeman’s new book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War.

A Historian of Dueling in Early America Uncovers a 7th Grade History Paper

Most of our readers know Joanne Freeman.  She teaches history at Yale, is a co-host at Backstory Radio, and is the author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic and editor of the recent The Essential Hamilton.

I am a regular reader of Freeman’s always entertaining twitter feed.  (You should be too!) Yesterday, she tweeted the first page of an essay she wrote in 7th grade.

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Historicizing Violence Against Members of Congress

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Yale historian Joanne Freeman reminds us that violence against members of Congress has a long history in the United States.  In a recent op-ed at The Washington Post, Freeman takes us back to the contentious decades before the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

When House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and four others were shot during baseball practice at a park in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday morning, it was the third incident of violence involving legislators in recent weeks, and by far the most extreme. On May 24 in Montana, only hours before being elected to the House, Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about health-care policy. Five days later, during an immigration policy protest in the Texas House, Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R) caused a scuffle when he confronted Latino members of the chamber about protesters in the gallery.

This is hardly politics as normal in America. But it’s not unprecedented. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, legislative violence was far more common. State legislatures and Congress sporadically erupted into violence. Lawmakers assaulted each other during debate — in one case in Arkansas, resulting in a death. And occasionally, aggrieved citizens assaulted lawmakers.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Congress was ground zero for legislative violence because it was the epicenter of the nation’s fraught slavery debate. In those two decades alone, there were scores of violent incidents in the House and Senate, including shoving matches, fistfights, guns and knives drawn, canings and the occasional mass brawl.

Read the entire piece here.

“Hamilton” Minus Music?

FreemanYale University historian Joanne Freeman recently released her Library of America volume The Essential Hamilton: Letters and Other Writings.  In a short review at The New York Times, John Williams described it as “Hamilton Minus Music,” or, “a more direct (if less rhyming) way to learn about Alexander Hamilton.”

Over at The Anxious Bench, Agnes Howard of Valparaiso University worries that “Hamilton Minus Music” sends the wrong message.  Here is a taste of her post, “Does Hamilton Have to Sing?”:

My disquiet over Williams’s idiom of praise stems from questions about what Americans ought to know about their country’s history, or really, what they ought to want to know. One can’t know everything, and I have observed enough U.S. history survey courses to see that much over which teachers enthuse falls through the cracks in students’ interest. But still, some U.S. history topics, including Revolution, Constitution-making, and early nationhood, should clear that bar without overmuch enhancement. We should want to know about Hamilton’s career because it’s interesting. It’s also curious, formative, fascinating, and–in a way that Freeman is particularly good at bringing out–full of personalities, some deservedly famous and some stuck obscure, entirely as entertaining as television, often more so, and more significant. Those eighteenth-century arguments, the way they were framed and the way they tilted, shaped the country we all are sitting in.

Read the entire post here.

*Hamilton* in the *Journal of the Early Republic*

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Over at Professor Park’s Blog, historian Benjamin Park calls our attention to a historian’s roundtable on Hamilton published in the latest issue of The Journal of the Early Republic.

Joanne Freeman, Andrew Shocket, Heather Nathans, Marvin McAllister, Benjamin Carp, and Nancy Isenberg contributed to the roundtable.

Here is a taste of Park’s post:

But is Hamilton historically accurate? Benjamin Carp says that might be the wrong question to ask. Attendees should know that it’s not accurate history–the characters are breaking out into song and dance, after all. Rather than wondering if it is “good history,” we should rather ask, “is it good for historians?” (292) At its best, the play asks intriguing questions regarding how history and myth are constructed. It is left to historians to take advantage of the doors that are opened.

Nancy Isenberg, as you might expect, is not as optimistic. She worries that by merely celebrating the play, historians are abdicating their duty to hold popular memory accountable. She says the historical errors in Hamilton are not peripheral, but “massive” (296). The play distorts Hamilton’s personality and, especially, his commitment to power structures. (I especially enjoyed her discussion of the “faux-feminism” politics in the play [299].) Hamilton is not helping the promotion of accurate and useful history. “Americans ought to feel uncomfortable about their collective past,” she concludes. “We look foolish otherwise, as cheerleaders of American exceptionalism” (303).

Read the entire post here.

Big Changes at “Backstory”

 

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Backstory with the American History Guysthe popular American history radio show and podcast, is going to have to make a slight alteration to its subtitle.  That is because Yale historian Joanne Freeman has joined the show.   Freeman will join Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh beginning February 3, 2017.  In addition to Freeman, Johns Hopkins history professor Nathan Connolly will also join the cast.

Peter Onuf, one of the original “American History Guys” is stepping down from his regular hosting slot, but he will continue to contribute to the show.

Here is a taste of the press release from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities:

Freeman is a professor of History and American Studies at Yale, author of the award-winning “Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic,” and editor of “Alexander Hamilton: Writings.” A specialist in revolutionary and early national American history, her work focuses on political violence and the culture of politics. Her extensive knowledge of dueling and research into the life of Alexander Hamilton influenced Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of Broadway’s “Hamilton” the musical.  In a New York Times story, Miranda credited Freeman’s book “Affairs of Honor” and her edited volume of “Alexander Hamilton: Writings” as “indispensable.”

Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida.” Connolly’s research and writing focuses on the “interplay between racism, capitalism, politics, and the built environment in the twentieth century.” A self-described desegregationist, Connolly is the first African American author to win either the Kenneth T. Jackson Book Award from the Urban History Association or the Bennett H. Wall Award from the Southern Historical Association. Connolly is also the co-author of “Trump Syllabus 2.0” and the first black U.S. historian to earn tenure at Johns Hopkins.

Longtime host Peter Onuf will continue to contribute to the program.

“Peter Onuf’s rambunctious sense of humor, iconoclastic insight, broad vision, and passion have given BackStory much of its energy, irreverence, and relevance,” said Ayers. “We’re delighted that Peter will remain a part of BackStory, with guest appearances on the show, and we know our listeners will always be happy to hear his resonant voice.”

BackStory’s audience is already familiar with the voices of both Freeman and Connolly as guests and as co-hosts. This year, Connolly guest-hosted “Well-Regulated Militias” and Freeman guest-hosted “Judaism in America.”

“I can’t wait to start working with Joanne and Nathan on a weekly basis. It’s about time that they earned an honest living,” Balogh said. “All kidding aside,” he continued, “I am honored to work with two such fine scholars, who have advanced their fields but not lost sight of the big picture.”

Joanne Freeman on *Hamilton: The Musical*

Yale’s Joanne Freeman is one of the best scholars of Alexander Hamilton in the business.  Anyone interested in the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel at Weehawkin, New Jersey on July 11, 1804 must read her Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic.  She also edited the writings of Hamilton in the Library of America series.

Freeman recently saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway show Hamilton.  Here is a taste of her review at Slate:


…Miranda has taken some liberties for clarity and flow. Time is condensed and historical events are shifted in time; for example, the presidential election of 1800 didn’t lead to the Burr-Hamilton duel, nor did Hamilton’s son Philip fight a duel before that election. Big-name characters take the place of lesser-knowns: Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison didn’t solicit Hamilton’s 1798 adultery confession. Representatives Frederick Muhlenberg, James Monroe, and Abraham Venable did. Some events are invented: John Adams didn’t fire Treasury Secretary Hamilton, who resigned under Washington in 1795, but this invention handily explains Hamilton’s opposition to fellow Federalist Adams’ bid for re-election as president in the election of 1800, highlighted later in the play.

Such creative license makes sense, particularly given that Hamilton is not a formal work of history. It’s a play centered on one man’s rise and fall, framed to enhance the qualities that made him notable. Even so, Miranda’s telling of that life contains a remarkable amount of historical fact, even concerning policy debates that hardly seem suited to the Broadway stage, let alone a musical. The creation of a national bank, the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, the “dinner deal” that moved the United States’ capital south: All receive their due in rap battles and ballads. Part of Washington’s Farewell Address is quoted—or rather sung—verbatim. Indeed, quotes from Hamilton’s writings are sprinkled throughout the show. One of the play’s many achievements is its blend of an inclusive present with a historical past that is rooted in fact.
In many ways, Miranda’s Hamilton is also true to life, propelled by the same driving ambitions, rough edges, and loose-cannon character as his historical counterpart. Much like the real Hamilton, he’s a committed nationalist who fears the riotous upset of revolutionary France and strives to give the new nation a market-driven commercial future. Jefferson, in contrast, is depicted as a Virginia-centric slaveholder singing the praises of agrarianism. In Miranda’s telling, Hamilton is forward-looking and Jefferson clings to a pastoral slavery-bound past.
And here is Miranda talking Hamilton on Jimmy Fallon: