Washington & Leadership Lessons From Hamilton
So, before I even go any further, let me be very clear, I’m writing this specifically on the character of George Washington in the play of Hamilton, not the historical accuracy or actions of the real person. I know historical figures bring their own baggage, but this is just for the representation in the play, also I doubt the real George Washington could sing as well as Christopher Jackson.
My first-time watching Hamilton was on July 6th 2020, as it was with many other Americans that hadn’t made it to Broadway or the touring shows. We sat up a projector in the driveway with my whole Dj rig for sound and watched it on my garage door as we were all camped out in lawn chairs. I was impressed and enjoying it right off the bat, but Christopher Jackson’s portrayal of Washington really hit me in a good place. The poetic wisdom of this founding father figure spoke to me, and I've only watched the visual version of this production once, my family has had the soundtrack on repeat for days at a time. My family has doubled down on their enthusiasm, geeking out over Lin’s appearances in Ducktales, and the reason we own Leslie Odum Jr’s Christmas album, but for me it’s always come back to Washington.
His entrance commanded attention, but the line that hit me so surprisingly was, “Check it—Can I be real a second? For just a millisecond? Let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second?” That one caught my attention to truly notice his character, but the wisdom of the show was constantly handed down through his role as he was peppered in through the story.
As Washington gives Hamilton the cautious tale of his early failures in leadership in “History Has It’s Eyes On You,” I felt too real the painful remembrance of failures and shortcomings doing damage to others.
“WASHINGTON: I was younger than you are now When I was given my first command I led my men straight into a massacre I witnessed their deaths firsthand I made every mistake And felt the shame rise in me And even now I lie awake Knowing history has its eyes on me “
As a director of ministry for years in various capacities, there is this incredible weight that comes with knowing that you are responsible for the wellbeing of others. That your success and failure doesn’t just affect you, it affects everyone you have the opportunity or responsibility to be over. It’s truly a blessing, but it’s frightening how much damage one leader in the wrong attitude, heart, or mindset can do.
In Ezekiel 34, there’s this frightening passage that I imagine could be sung in tandem with Washington’s words to Hamilton.
“1The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.”
I would never want to be the type of leader that brings damage to the people I'm over, but sadly I know I have. I know I’ve been a poor shepherd at times. I know there are seasons of my life that this passage from Ezekiel accurately and frighteningly describes. But that’s part of the growth process is recognizing where you fail, moving forward, and also passing on your painfully earned wisdom to those you can. I hope the congregation I have the honor of pastoring today wouldn’t feel like I’m leading them into a massacre, and that God would be pleased with my heart and intentions. But I have to keep an eye on myself in this manner. This is why James points out so bluntly, that this isn’t for everyone.
In James 3:1 we see this warning, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
I don’t want to be the leadership equivalent of Charles Lee.
Washington continues on the song to tell Hamilton that not everything is within his control, but that the eyes of the world are watching what he does
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known When I was young and dreamed of glory: You have no control Who lives, who dies, who tells your story I know that we can win I know that greatness lies in you But remember from here on in History has its Eyes on you”
This was true for Hamilton, and while it is true for all of us in a sense, for history to truly make note of us, we have to do something incredibly amazing or incredibly horrible. The odds of most of us being more than a footnote in history is very small, but that’s the thing, we have more than history with our eyes on us as believers, we have God and all of Heaven intently gazing on all our actions.
Hebrews 12 paints that picture, and as Washington encouraged Hamilton, we are encouraged to know that we are in view and to push forward.
“1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Washington gave great cautious wisdom for moving forward, he also gave great wisdom in stepping back.
In “One Last Time,” Washington surprises Hamilton by telling him that he is stepping down as president, to Hamilton’s shock and dismay. He is modeling humility, empathy, and wisdom in a place where it would be so easy for someone to cling to power.
[WASHINGTON] And then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye To say goodbye You and I
[HAMILTON] Mr. President, they will say you’re weak [WASHINGTON] No, they will see we’re strong [HAMILTON] Your position is so unique [WASHINGTON] So I’ll use it to move them along [HAMILTON] Why do you have to say goodbye? [WASHINGTON] If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on It outlives me when I’m gone
In this instance, Washington displayed that power, even in service wasn’t meant to be clung to.
Even as King George stated in “I Know Him,” “They say, George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away.‘Zat true? I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do."
So often, people pursue power for the sake of power, and that almost always leads to destruction. Even among the disciples, they had to have this discussion. In Mark 10, we see that James and John decided they wanted to have power alongside Jesus, and presumably over the other 10 disciples. They had the gall to ask Jesus for power. What’s even crazier is in Matthew’s account of this story, they get their mom to ask Jesus for the favor instead.
“35Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” - Mark 10
Every step of Jesus example was a model of humility and giving up of power rather than holding on to it. From leaving Heaven to being humbled in a manager, to having a huge following before being abandoned at a cross. Real leadership doesn’t hold on to power for the sake of power, but does what’s best for others. And when you think your presence is automatically what’s best for others, you’re already holding on too tightly. As Paul tells the Philippian church,
“3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” - Philippians 2.
Looking out for what is best for best for others often requires sacrifice, service, and humility, and that is something that I think our world has drastically lost sight of. Washington also went on to actually quote scripture to Hamilton,
[Washington] Like the scripture says: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree And no one shall make them afraid.” They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree A moment alone in the shade At home in this nation we’ve made One last time.”
The scripture Washington is quoting is Micah 4:4, it’s a prophetic scripture of the last days and states
“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”
Not just that our works will make us safe or at home, but the presence of God. But there is that beautiful notion that we will all find that moment of rest. The two verses that precede that verse paint an even more beautiful picture,
“2 Many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3 He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
In the years that have followed since the Hamilton Era and this singing Washington, we haven’t exactly at arrived at the time frame of fig trees and shade. Our country has seen some serious ugliness, and even on our best day, it’s a far cry from what these scriptures illustrate. Because that kind of peace of unity can only be done by God, and not man. The reality that the rest we hope for is something only God can provide, but thankfully it is something He offers us.
28“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” - Matthew 11.
I can’t prescribe a path to fix or unify our country in these few words, but I can be a reminder of the lessons that I see in Hamilton and in scripture,
*We are to be intentional with our own individual leadership because it carries great responsibility *We are to share what we learn, including our failures *We have eyes on us both now and eternally *Power isn’t something we need to strive for and cling to, but rather put others first *We yearn for rest, and we find it in God