Lin-Manuel Miranda believes one of the lasting lessons of “Hamilton” is just how screwed up the Founding Fathers were. They owned slaves. They fought bitterly. One he is particularly familiar with died in a duel.
“One of the things about this show that is — it’s really my favorite thing about it — is that these guys were flawed and they were making it up as they went along,” Miranda said Monday in a telephone interview from the Public Theater in New York, where the musical sensation debuted in 2015.
Without directly addressing President Trump or today’s Congress, Miranda pointed to how those deeply flawed men, gathered in Philadelphia more than 240 years ago, overcame their personal foibles to create a lasting nation that became a beacon for freedom around the world.
“I don’t attempt to deify or vilify anyone in the show. I just try to understand them,” Miranda said.
It’s a message that Miranda is bringing to Washington this week, beginning Tuesday night, when he was honored with the 2017 Freedom Award from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society for his role in awakening interest in U.S. history, notably among high school students.
The creator and writer of “Hamilton” is expected to spend Wednesday walking the halls of Congress with the National Humanities Alliance, pushing to retain about $150 million a year each in annual funds for the national endowments for the arts and humanities — programs that, in Trump’s initial budget proposal, were slated for elimination in a couple of years.
On Wednesday night, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute is feting Miranda at its 40th anniversary gala dinner, where he is being honored both for “Hamilton” and his advocacy on such issues as immigration reform.
Miranda, 37, is an unlikely operator in Washington’s halls of power. Sure, his father, Luis Miranda, is a longtime activist from New York’s Washington Heights. But the son barely paid attention to history growing up, focusing on theater since his days at Wesleyan University.
Nonetheless, Miranda has created a bipartisan buzz on Capitol Hill. The annual historical society event, once a sleepy affair in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall that honored prominent members of Congress, has switched focus in recent years to cultural figures who have called attention to key eras. Among the more recent honorees: historian David McCullough and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Donald Carlson, chairman of the historical society’s board, said that a normal audience for the event includes a dozen or so lawmakers. But more than 80 RSVP’d to attend Tuesday’s event honoring Miranda. “It brings together people in an environment, in our case, for a love of history,” Carlson said of the bipartisan gathering.
Miranda arrives here at a particularly fractured moment, following Trump’s decision to end an Obama-era program granting legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents. An avowed supporter of Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election, Miranda told an interviewer last year that the results had given him a “moral clarity” about “what I’m going to fight for.”
That theme continues to resonate in his work, with a focus on gay rights, immigration and funding for the arts.
“You know, we can’t go backward on LGBT rights, we can’t go backward as a nation, and, you know, tomorrow night represents a piece of that,” he said Monday.
Ahead of Tuesday’s talk, Miranda vowed not to lecture — “I promise I’m not going to give you a history lesson.” Instead, he planned to trace how the story that consumed him nearly a decade ago — when he read Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton” — became a musical with lyrics that went far beyond Broadway.
His favorite moments often come when high school students tweet at him about history, such as: “Hey, it’s Marquis de Lafayette’s birthday. You haven’t tweeted anything,” or “It’s the anniversary of Yorktown. Why haven’t you written anything?”
Such overtures show, he said, that “Hamilton” was not just a draw for elites who frequent Manhattan theaters, and they help drive his focus on continued funding for the arts and humanities.
The full-length recording of “Hamilton,” first released in September 2015, topped more than 1 million sales in January. Some initial reports suggest that history scores on advanced placement tests for high school students have risen in the past year.
“The ripples are really sort of overwhelming,” Miranda said.
Miranda has little interest in trying to game out what Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, or George Washington or Thomas Jefferson would make of Trump and his standoffs with Congress.
Yet Miranda nonetheless offers some clues. Hamilton was “optimistic about the work they could do” in the nation’s early days — but he also carried deep distrust of the masses.
“He was also cynical and afraid of mob rule,” Miranda said.
That positioned Hamilton as firmly opposed to the more direct form of democracy preached by Jefferson.
“He was painted as elite, a lot, by Jefferson and by his rivals, because he was scared of the tyranny of the mob,” he said.
Many liberals and anti-Trump activists saw the clashes in Charlottesville, as well as the campaign rallies Trump held throughout 2016, some of which devolved into shoving matches with protesters, as a form of the tyranny of the mob.
But Miranda was careful not to speculate on what Hamilton would think of these moments.
“I’ll let him speak for himself,” he said, encouraging others to study Hamilton’s works in the Federalist Papers.
Those hoping for a historical sequel to “Hamilton” will be disappointed. Miranda won his first Tony Awards for “In the Heights,” about Hispanic characters in Washington Heights, winning best musical in 2008. That’s the same year he “went down the wormhole” of Chernow’s book about Hamilton, leading to a seven-year effort to put together that award-winning musical.
His next effort will be completely different.
“A pretty good recipe for disaster is to sort of try to go back to the same well twice,” he said. “So I promise you the next musical I write will have nothing to do with American history.”