Washington’s American Dream

Washington's_Farewell_Address
The Farewell Address. George Washington, Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (156)

 

Cultural Reference: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Act 2: 210)

Andrew Pringle (Spring 2018)

Part I ~ Introduction

Every founding father had an idea of what the United States would become. The formation of their legacies and how they intertwine with the future of the United States is a major theme in Hamilton: An American Musical. George Washington, the first president of the United States, also had his own special glimpse of what the future nation would look like. In “One Last Time,” the song that details Washington’s farewell address, he lays down the idealistic future he would like to see for the nation. This idealism is concentrated in a quoted scripture, Micah 4:4: “Everybody shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Miranda 209). For a character who rarely voices aloud his thoughts on the future of the new nation, Micah 4:4 is essential to understanding the character’s idealistic vision of America’s legacy. The biblical touchstone of “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” in “One Last Time” is Miranda’s characterization of the idealized United States that Washington describes in his farewell address, the country he hopes it will become after he is gone: a nation where all citizens can live without fear.

Part II ~ Historical Background

The religious beliefs of the historical Washington are a matter of debate. Many of his contemporaries paint him as a pious Christian, while others speak of him as a deist or even a nonbeliever.  In the text In The Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington, Mary V. Thompson suggests that “the truth of Washington’s beliefs appears to lie between the extremes, pietism and deism” (Thompson 14). It is probably more accurate to theorize that Washington’s religious beliefs were a mixture of spirituality and rationality. She quotes another author, Peter Henriques, who labeled Washington as a “’theistic rationalist’, someone who followed a ‘hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism’” (qtd. in Thompson 15). Depending on which side of the debate a historian falls on, it seems there is common ground in speculating that Washington’s religious beliefs were based on a rationalistic mindset. Washington was said to be “a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man” (qtd. in Chernow 131). As there are as many similar accounts that claim his piety as those that claim otherwise, believing that he fell somewhere in between seems the most logical answer. Above all the scrutiny, however, religion certainly played a significant role in his life.

The scripture itself deserves analysis, as its original context in Micah 4:4 functions directly into what Washington desired for the United States. The original verse, which was used often by Washington, reads in the King James Bible as “But they sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.” The scripture is part of a larger prophecy by the prophet Micah, who foretells the downfall of Israel and the punishment of the Hebrews who have turned away from God, a punishment that will come in the form of oppression. However, Micah 4 also tells of future hope for the Israelites, and how they will one day win back their own independence. Considering the Revolution and Washington’s goals of national unification, the verse seems an apt one for the man who led American forces during the Revolution. Washington also used this verse often in his correspondence, the most famous example being his address to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. He closed the letter by saying, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham…sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid” (Washington). Washington used the imagery of the vine and fig-tree often, but here he almost quotes the verse in its entirety. Using this scripture in conjunction with addressing the Jewish community of Rhode Island shows how closely linked the scripture is to Washington’s beliefs of religious tolerance and the United States’ identity as an accepting country.

We see the hopeful vision of Micah 4:4 invoked during the historical Washington’s farewell address. The purpose of the farewell address, Washington’s resignation, is an important element of American history, but its contents are what speak to the future United States Washington desires. According to Jeffrey J. Malanson in Addressing America, a book that explores the impact of Washington’s address, his farewell was meant “to transcend the immediate politics of the time and lay down principles applicable far into the future” (Malanson 29). The address did not mention any individuals or events specially but was written to infer that contemporary matters were being referenced while maintaining a sense of universality. The address applied both to the present period, speaking on topics such as neutrality and political parties, but its words can be applied to the future United States as well. Washington believed that the United States needed time to unify themselves, and once unified they could one day “give to mankind the… example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence” (qtd. in Malanson 9). Washington felt that the United States could be a model for the rest of the world, showing how one people could make a land that acts in the best interests of all. In much the same way that Micah 4:4 portrays a future Israel that will throw off its chains for future peace, the United States will rise out of the ashes of revolution to be a benevolent example for all nations.

Part III ~ The Scene Where It Happens

The song of “One Last Time” is meant to act as the cultural shift from the Washington who is collectively seen as the deified first president of the United States to a much more human Washington. Washington is aware of how he appears to the American people, as he says, “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on/It outlives me when I’m gone” (Miranda 210). Washington is grappling with his own mortality here. There is not necessarily a fear of death, but a fear of what would happen if he passed on while still in the public eye. He knows that to move on to the future that he later describes in his farewell address and with Micah 4:4, he must step down from the god-like position he has occupied within the American view.

Washington’s desire to move on is why the entire song and scene boils down to the American future conveyed in Micah 4:4 quoted during “One Last Time.” The full line of the song adds a greater dynamic to Washington’s understanding of the future. After quoting scripture, Washington says, “They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made. I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree… At home in this nation we’ve made” (Miranda 210). The way Washington is portrayed throughout Hamilton is as the general, the commander, the leader. The people of the United States—and, in the context of Hamilton, the audience—have come to rely on that fact. But to uphold what the United States was created for, they must be able to distance themselves from Washington the commander and see him as Washington the man. It in this devolution of Washington’s status that will secure the future that Washington wants for the United States. By stepping down he’ll retain his idealist future for his country and enjoy its citizenry in his final years. It is the country that “we’ve made”, and Washington wants to be seen as part of the United States, and not above it, in his final years.

Part IV ~ Thematic Connections

The future of the United States is one of the core themes of Hamilton, with many founding fathers wondering what the future country will become. In the moment Washington quotes Micah 4:4, the audience is provided with the future that he sees. When viewed from a modern lens, our society links the United States and George Washington as two inseparable beings. This interconnected quality of Washington’s is the same in Hamilton, from his introduction to his exit. When Washington arrives, the action of the Revolution truly begins, and when he exits it feels like a substantial piece of the play has exited as well. His character is defined by what he does as a general in Act 1 and as president in Act 2, steadily building up to the finale of his character arc seen in “One Last Time.” However, Washington knew that he was not going to be able to serve the country forever, and so he knew that he would have to step down before mortality disconnected him from the country. The farewell address’s description of the future United States is Washington’s final act of service to the new nation. The use of Micah 4:4 in Hamilton acts as the audience’s quick look into Washington’s desire without having the characters give the entire farewell address, which fully outlines Washington’s future United States.

The idealist nature of Micah 4:4 is important in understanding the idealistic theme of Washington’s use of the verse in his dialogue. The sweeping statement of “everyone” shall be safe from fear sounds too good to be true, and out of character for the rational Washington. However, this idealism is a necessary part of using Micah 4:4. What Washington wants is an idealized country, hence his encouragement to seek justice and benevolence in his farewell address. Washington’s idealism is also what makes his vision distinct within “One Last Time.” Other characters never describe the United States as a far-off nation, dedicated to the ideal of Micah 4:4. The audience does get to see other instances of an “American future” as defined by other characters. In “My Shot” the audience learns of what Hamilton and his compatriots want from the birth of a new nation. But “My Shot” is more of a call for revolution than a description of a future nation. Hamilton himself, whose idea of legacy is the main focus of the musical, is fixated on how he can influence the United States. This contrasts with Washington, who purposefully withdraws his influence to let the United States flourish. Rather than looking toward any one character, it is instead “The Story of Tonight” that most resonates with Washington’s use of Micah 4:4. While still a song about revolution, the song’s focus the the “story” (Miranda ) of Hamilton and his friends—and by extension, the young United States—resonates with the idea of a far-off future, a tale passed down from generation to generation. While it does not compare exactly with Micah 4:4, it is the only place we see an idealized vision of the United States elsewhere in the musical.

Washington’s farewell address is the document that describes Washington’s ideal future, with Micah 4:4 acting as its thesis within Hamilton. This is Miranda’s purpose in juxtaposing the scripture and the partial recitation of the address within “One Last Time.” He purposefully points to the connection between the ideologies of the scripture and Washington’s address. Washington wanted his farewell address to achieve two things: set an example for the future United States to follow and set a precedent for those in power after him. Much like the prophecy of Micah 4:4, Washington wanted to create a speech that could apply to the far-off future of the United States. While he advocated for unity, Washington knew that it would never be achieved in his lifetime, or in the lifetimes of his peers. But by laying down his own “prophecy” for the United States he has bequeathed his idealist vision to the new country with the hope that they will someday achieve his ideal nation without relying on his leadership. The audience is led to this interpretation in Hamilton as well. Washington is exiting the stage, both literally and figuratively, and leaving the country in the hands of the people who will live on after him.

Part V ~ Concluding Thoughts

Washington described his ideal future for the United States within his farewell address, a political move that has influenced the United States for centuries. In his address, he spoke of the example he wanted his country to provide to the world and gave an outline of the future characteristics he wanted the United States to embody. Micah 4:4 is Miranda’s summation of this desired future in one, distinct line. In Hamilton, Micah 4:4 tells the audience the future Washington wants for the United States: a home where all can be safe and unafraid.

 

References

Chernow, Ron. Washington: a life. Penguin Books, 2011.

The Bible. King James Version. Blue Bible App, 2013.

Malanson, Jeffrey J. Addressing America: George Washington’s Farewell and the making of national culture, politics, and diplomacy, 1796-1852. Kent State University Press. 2015

Miranda, Lin-Manuel, and Mccarter, Jeremy. Hamilton The Revolution. Grand Central Pub, 2016.

Thompson, Mary V. In the Hands of a Good Providence : Religion in the Life of George Washington, University of Virginia Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.er.lib.k-state.edu/lib/ksu/detail.action?docID=3444086.

Washington, George “Founders Online: From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, founders.archives.gov

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