The day was the kind of hot baked sidewalk day that wilts you and we had walked the kids in our South Bronx mentoring program to one downtown New York historic site after the next: City Hall, Frances Tavern, Trinity Church, the Battery, The New York Stock Exchange. The script for the day had been that, in pairs, they would look up a site beforehand and tell the others about it when we got there.
As the July sun proceeded higher and hotter, instead of complaining, they got more and more interested in these personal encounters with history that New York has in abundance, but few of them had seen.
"How come no one ever showed us this stuff before?" I overheard one teen-age boy say almost edgily to another, as we trudged lower Broadway.
The "us" in this case was a mentoring program, Health People's Kids-Helping-Kids, for kids with sick, deceased and otherwise missing parents, about one-third of whom were in foster care---a program located in the poorest urban Congressional District in the United States. The teen's tone expressed an abrupt realization that it would not be widely considered that such historical abundance was meant for kids like him.
This was almost ten years ago, well before the musical which made Alexander Hamilton a unique historical and hip-hop phenomenon but there is no doubt that Hamilton's grave in the Trinity Churchyard, was the most important place for these kids. I had specially gone into the Hamilton history before we left the Bronx, explaining that the first Secretary of the Treasury, although in appearance a white man in a ponytail, had everything in common with them and kids they knew: he came from a Caribbean Island, his mother had died and his father wasn't there for him; he had barely an eighth grade education, but he'd come to the United States, entered college, become Washington's chief aide and then the first Treasury Secretary.
There was, of course, another aspect of Hamilton that impressed them. "He's on the ten dollar! He's on the ten dollar!" they exclaimed.
When we arrived at Hamilton's grave, it was clear how deeply they felt the unexpected reality of this grave, holding this man, viewable in front of them. They looked questioningly at several other tourists and visitors who had walked right up to the grave. When I said they could quietly go closer, as a group, they went on tip-toe, expressing a respectful wish not to disturb Hamilton even as they edged nearer. This was the first history tour for our mentoring group---which has become an annual outing---but those tip-toed moments of deep respect for a Founding Father who was much like them remain forever in my mind.
"How come no one ever showed us this stuff before?" Not many places have the vibrantly available walking history that New York City does but even with that availability, few of our kids had seen any of these sights. But the question of the teenage boy was larger, of course. Between the political correctness that poor kids aren't supposed to learn from dead white men and the pervasive indifference that supposes they can hardly learn at all, a sense of trying to make American history belong to all American youth in a vibrant, absorbing fashion hardly exists. That American history, especially in its founding era, could ever have been, as is so often the case, made dull is bad enough. But that so little effort is made to translate the Founding era into something emotionally and personally absorbing for youth---especially youth left out of the mainstream---is just an historic injury and waste.
They may be now called "Founding Fathers", but so many, like Hamilton, were young. They were trying to find their way through a terribly difficult and dangerous landscape---something unfortunately too familiar to many American youth today. Who were the soldiers who stuck to a rag-tag Army and who froze at Valley Forge other than the young?
They were, also, like Hamilton, terribly familiar with the loss of parents and terrible family upheavals. Aaron Burr, himself, self-described in the musical as "the fool" who shot Hamilton, was orphaned at age two.
While early death was the main reason for the family disintegration many founders experienced the fact that so many founders were shaped by that deep tragedy is one of the single most important points of sympathy and identification for kids from today's poor communities. Those who don't watch it up close can hardly comprehend the family devastation---the loss of parents to massive incarceration, to AIDS, and addiction---which dominates the life of the young in poor communities. That they would find it fascinating---and reassuring---that some founders are more like them than they had ever been informed is natural. That, in the musical, Hamilton, American founders are also rappers who rhyme about the Federalist papers is an incredible bonus.
We may argue about who was the most important Founding Father, or the most intelligent, or the best or the worst, but it will always be Hamilton who should be recognized for the ages as the most poignantly American. Immigrant, illegitimate, then the possessor of wild success as his American life took hold, his charm and vitality, along with an indelible sense of tragic flaw from just too harsh a childhood, call to us across the centuries.
"How come no one ever showed us this stuff before?" It took, obviously, a special insight and huge talent to translate this poignant Americanism into a rap musical as Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to do after reading even the first chapters of Ron Chernow's Hamilton biography. As he leaves his lead role in the phenomenon he created, let's simply say, "Thank you so much, Lin-Manuel. Thank you for seeing not just Hamilton's---but the absorbing and youthful dramas that are so inherent to the founding of the United States. Thank you for making them available to the young, especially the young who usually don't get shown that they are part of this heritage."
Then, of course, through the new enthusiasm for Hamilton and the unusual graciousness of U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who was able to admit that his first plans for currency change were wrong, we still have that other enticement of Hamilton for youth.
"He's on the ten dollar!"