“… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” — Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, #1
Alexander Hamilton might never have come to this country if it were not for a horrific hurricane and his precocious mastery of rhetoric as a teenager.
That’s one of the many remarkable things I learned when I took my mother to see the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Broadway play, “Hamilton,” a retelling of the founding father’s life, loves, and losses entirely in rap and song. Unless you’ve been unintentionally abandoned on Mars, you probably know that the musical was written and scored entirely by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a MacArthur genius award-winner who also plays the lead role.
Sunday night, Hamilton won 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Leslie Odom Jr. won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Hamilton’s fatal frenemy, Aaron Burr. Odom said last week that what playing Burr has taught him is to ask the question: “What is the future going to say about us now, what are our kids going to look at us and say, ‘how could you not stop that person from getting into power, how could you not stop that environmental disaster that you saw coming a mile away’?”
Lin-Manuel Miranda won two Tonys, including Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics). In accepting that award, he read an original and moving sonnet:
Buy the soundtrack — if you are someone who cares about words, who cares about politics, or who just wants to know how unimaginably far one can push the boundaries of the human imagination. Your kids will fall in love with it, as my daughter did, and actually want to know more about the early history of this nation.
Hearing and seeing Hamilton is one of those rare ‘aha’ moments in life — like visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time — that actually exceeds the ridiculously-high expectations you have for it. The musical, like the Canyon, beggars all description, as Shakespeare might say.
“Hamilton” is probably as close as we can get to an original work by the Bard of Avon — and not just because the story of Hamilton’s rise and fall is in many respects Shakespearian in its scope and tragedy, as well as in its discourse on power. The language of song, and rap in particular, is like Shakespeare’s language in his plays, relying as they both do on mastery of the many, many figures of speech.
And that makes sense since the figures of speech (aka “rhetoric”) were themselves derived from the memory tricks used by the great bards, like Homer, to remember their long epic poems and to make those poems memorable and emotionally compelling to the audience — as I discussed in my 2012 book on the figures, Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.
Not coincidentally, we might never have heard of Alexander Hamilton were it not for his mastery of rhetoric — and for the “most dreadful hurricane known in the memory of man,” as the Royal Danish American Gazette described the storm that devastated St. Croix the evening of August 31, 1772.
The Gazette wrote that the devastation wrought by the storm “would beggar all description.” But in fact there was one young man on the island, the illegitimate son of a father who abandoned him and whose mother died soon after, whose facility with words belied that claim.
“The roaring of the sea and wind — fiery meteors flying about in the air — the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning — the crash of the falling houses — and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels.” So wrote Hamilton in a letter to his father that masterfully combined the literal and the figurative.
Hamilton personified the storm as Death itself: “Death comes rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke.” And he extended the metaphor, “On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: Calamity on his left threatening famine disease and distress of all kinds.”
Hamilton was only 17 years old! The letter ended up being published by the Gazette. Ron Chernow, whose authoritative 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton was the source material for the musical, explains what happened next:
Hamilton did not know it, but he had just written his way out of poverty. This natural calamity was to prove his salvation. His hurricane letter generated such a sensation — even the island’s governor inquired after the young author’s identity — that a subscription fund was taken up by local businessmen to send this promising youth to North America to be educated. This generosity was all the more remarkable given the island’s dismal state.
Such is the power of rhetoric and the figures of speech to alter the course of a life that in turn altered the course of a nation.
The Dark Side Of Rhetoric
The greatest speech-makers of all time from Jesus and Cicero to Shakespeare to Lincoln and Churchill used the figures of speech and fully understood their power. For instance, while a soldier in India, a prescient 22-year-old Winston Churchill wrote an unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” that explains:
Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king…. The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to a very few…. the student of rhetoric may indulge the hope that Nature will finally yield to observation and perseverance, the key to the hearts of men.”
At the same time, the masters of rhetoric understood how easily it could be misused for demagoguery — something we’ve seen Donald Trump do.
Donald Trump May Sound Like A Clown, But He Is A Rhetoric Pro Like Cicero“An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is…thinkprogress.orgAristotle, in “Rhetoric,” the first in-depth study of the subject, wrote, “An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.” Plato warned that a rhetorician could persuade any audience, no matter how intelligent, that he was more of a doctor than a real doctor.
“But when a certain agreeableness of manner — a depraved imitation of virtue — acquired the power of eloquence unaccompanied by any consideration of moral duty,” wrote a 21-year-old Cicero in a handbook for orators, “then low cunning supported by talent grew accustomed to corrupt cities and undermine the lives of men.”
Sound like anyone we know today?
Churchill explained in the opening paragraph of his 1897 essay on the kind of person who abuses the power of rhetoric:
He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable…. A meeting of grave citizens, protected by all the cynicism of these prosaic days, is unable to resist its influence. From unresponsive silence they advance to grudging approval and thence to complete agreement with the speaker. The cheers become louder and more frequent; the enthusiasm momentarily increases; until they are convulsed by emotions they are unable to control and shaken by passions of which they have resigned the direction.
This abuse of power is a key reason founding fathers like Hamilton feared men “commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants,” as he wrote in the “The Federalist #1” the first of the 85 “Federalist Papers” that promoted ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The Papers were Hamilton’s idea, and he wrote most of them. He recruited John Jay who wrote a handful, and James Madison who wrote the rest (a few jointly with Hamilton).
In a March Washington Post op-ed headlined, “Trump is the demagogue that our Founding Fathers feared,” Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, quotes Federalist 10: “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”
A demagogue who betrays the interests of the people poses a considerably graver risk today than two centuries ago because the threats we face, including nuclear war and human-caused climate change, are more existential in nature.
On Climate, Trump Promises To Let The World BurnClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast President Obama’s climate change policies would be undone. Regulations…thinkprogress.orgTrump has declared that if elected President, he would use all the powers of the office to block both national and global action on climate change — including EPA’s Clean Power Plan, all domestic climate-related regulations, and the Paris climate agreement.
The result, as I’ve discussed, would be a world with dozens of Syrias and Darfurs and Pakistani mega-floods, of countless environmental refugees — hundreds of millions before century’s end — all clamoring to occupy the parts of the developed world that aren’t flooded or Dust-Bowlified, including this country. And the worst impacts would be irreversible on a timescale of centuries if not millennia.
It would be the end of America as we have come to know it, an end of the America that the founding fathers strove to create and protect. What would the future say — what would our children say — if we did not prevent this disaster that we can all see coming a mile away?