Princeton Anti-Wilson Protesters Should See Broadway’s Hamilton

David Benkof Contributor
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In response to protests by Princeton’s Black Justice League, that Ivy League university may soon start purging the name and likeness of President Woodrow Wilson from the campus of the school he once led.

Here’s a proposal: instead of protesting, African-American Princeton students should try to identify with our 28th president and, while acknowledging the man’s flaws, celebrate his contributions to American history.

Sounds like a ludicrous suggestion? Actually, it’s anything but.

In recent months, one of the most remarkable pieces of American art in any genre in decades has taken hold on Broadway. For the largely African-American and Latino artists who created it, Hamilton represents a declaration of dependence on the spirit of rebelliousness and freedom that make this country great.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius composer, lyricist, and star of this pun-definitely-intended revolutionary hip-hop musical, calls it “a story about America then, told by America now.” It is affectionate, but without whitewashing the nation’s troubled history. In particular, tensions over slavery recur in the jockeying of the Founding Fathers. Example: during a Cabinet-level rap battle, Thomas Jefferson says he opposes the assumption of state debts, to which Miranda’s Hamilton snaps back, “Hey neighbor. Your debts are paid because you don’t pay for labor.”

Miranda is a vocal Obama supporter, and has used his contemporary retelling of the nation’s birth to comment on 2015 issues, especially immigration, from a left-of-center viewpoint. As a son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Miranda identifies with the Caribbean-born Hamilton as well as the revolutionary Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette. At one point, the two characters proclaim, “Immigrants. We get the job done.”

The show’s auteur explained the way he used the story of the immigrants who helped create America to contribute to today’s national conversation in The Atlantic:

“Immigrants have been present and necessary since the founding of our country. I think it’s also a nice reminder that any fight we’re having right now, politically, we already had it 200-some odd years ago. The fights that I wrote between me and Jefferson, you could put them in the mouths of candidates on MSNBC. They’re about foreign relations; they’re about states’ rights versus national rights; they’re about debt. These are all conversations we’re still having, and I think it’s a comfort to know that they’re just a part of the more perfect union we’re always working towards, or try to work towards, and that we’re always working on them.”

Those aren’t the words of a resentful rabble-rouser “occupying” the offices of university officials to demand a former chief executive’s legacy be extinguished. Instead, Miranda constructively engages with our nation’s past, and his ideas (many of which I disagree with) become all the stronger thereby.

How could members of Princeton’s Black Justice League take a Hamilton approach to President Wilson’s place of honor on their campus? They wouldn’t have to ignore his segregationist views and discriminatory policies. Hamilton’s Jefferson character is one of the show’s antagonists – though he’s not entirely a villain (villainy in the show is reserved for the buffoonish George III).

First, protesters could recognize that much of what Wilson did ultimately benefited African-Americans. Wilson fought for the 8-hour day and other protections for workers, supported women’s suffrage, and worked to spread democracy worldwide. He fostered the growth of moderate unions and was an aggressive opponent of the trusts that limited consumer choice and kept prices high.

Not all these policies had immediate benefit for blacks – but the same is true of the American Revolution. Echoing Miranda, the Princeton activists could choose the aspects of Wilson’s legacy that match their contemporary public policy preferences and build on them.

How about a teach-in about President Wilson, looking at aspects of his legacy that inform public policy today? Surely members of the Black Justice League agree with at least some of Wilson’s progressive agenda. They could also look to harmonize the biographies, ideas, and policies of Wilson with today’s African-American president.

The protesters have been complaining about campus portraits and murals of Wilson. They could, echoing Hamilton, paint their own but make him look African-American.

I haven’t had a lot of sympathy for recent racial unrest on campus, particularly since universities are among the most diversity-friendly locales in America. I’d be a lot more inclined to listen to the concerns of students of color if they used the Hamilton model of expressing their vision of campus and national life through the lens of heroes from American history, including those whose racial attitudes we reject today.

Please, don’t banish President Wilson. Reclaim him, with pride in our nation’s past and a sunny outlook about our future.

Here’s Miranda, in the Hollywood Reporter: “My feelings about what this country is and can be are all in this show. When Eliza Hamilton sings, ‘Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now,’ that’s true. I say that to myself every day.”

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.