Monday, July 13, 2020

In Defense of Jefferson...

In Hamilton, Jefferson is one of the antagonists. He's chillin' like a villain. I mean, he's a totally bad dude and he is sooo annoying! (Cool hair and jacket, though!) In fact, in the musical, Jefferson is probably the only character who has a bigger rivalry with Hamilton than Aaron Burr. (For a defense on Burr, see here.) But was Jefferson really such a bad guy? Well, yeah, he was. The dude owned more slaves than any other president. He has been called the "Monster of Monticello". And even Lincoln -- Lincoln, for goodness sake! -- even Abraham Lincoln said he "hated Thomas Jefferson". I mean, if that's not a knock to your ego, I don't know what is.

But let's examine the character of Jefferson for a minute. Was he really as bad as Lin-Manuel Miranda makes him out to be? Let's look at the two cabinet battles, so expertly crafted by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

In the first cabinet battle, Jefferson criticizes Hamilton for wanting to build a strong federal government and have richer states relieve the indebted states of their financial owings. So in Jefferson's mind, he wants each state to pay for their own debts. The country was young and just getting started. If I was young and was doing well financially because I worked hard and got a good job, I would be pretty miffed if I was told I had to give a big portion of my hard-earned money so I could help out my lazy, good-for-nothing neighbor who just couldn't hold a job. Sure, that's a simplistic way of looking at the issue, but that's what it boils down to. Jefferson didn't want southern states to pay for the north's debts. Hamilton makes some great points about slavery and Jefferson's absence during the revolution (and he does a pretty mean impression of Jefferson's silly dancing), but in the end, Jefferson's plan was favored and for good reason. Hamilton had trouble getting his plan approved because it just wasn't well crafted for the situation the country was in at the time. In the show, the only reason Hamilton's financial plan was approved was because Madison and Jefferson wanted to "work a little closer to home".

In the second cabinet battle, Jefferson wants to aid France during the French Revolution. Giving aid to a country fighting for independence, and repaying the favors they gifted America previously? These are not the actions of a villain! Jefferson (the character) really is an idealist who just wanted to help out a country in need. Hamilton just makes a show of pretending to be a decapitated monarch. (It makes for a hysterical line, though!) And for a guy who fought to have all the states rally together to help each other financially, it's interesting that he didn't want to rally his own country to help another country in need. And Jefferson makes a really good point: Hamilton really didn't have much power without Washington on his side.

The other big "villainous" thing Jefferson does is expose Hamilton's perceived embezzlement, which in turn exposes Hamilton's scandalous affair with Maria Reynolds. Umm, if I suspected that a coworker was embezzling funds, I would also "follow the money and see where it leads". And to his credit, Jefferson isn't the one who exposed Hamilton's affair. Hamilton did that himself. Jefferson wasn't the villain. He was just a guy who was following his convictions. As Hamilton himself said, "Jefferson has beliefs," which is probably why they fought on like seventy-five different fronts.

I have to say, I'm lukewarm about Thomas Jefferson, the real man. Sure, he wrote some pretty inspiring words (influenced by Thomas Paine, of course), but he also did some pretty despicable things, including having his own affair with a slave. (Talk about scandalous!) But in the musical Hamilton, Jefferson is portrayed as the bad guy, but he's not really. He's just fighting for his own beliefs, and he's going about it in politically appropriate ways.

I mean, if you want to know who the real villain is, it's King George. That bloke spits, he has to be evil! Bring a poncho if you sit in the splash zone.

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