At the climax of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton exchange a series of increasingly hostile letters in the song “Your Obedient Servant.” Burr enumerates a litany of perceived insults: Hamilton has called him “amoral” and “a dangerous disgrace” and blocked his political aspirations. “Burr, your grievance is legitimate,” Hamilton replies dismissively. “I stand by what I said, every bit of it/You stand only for yourself/It’s what you do/I can’t apologize because it’s true.” An outraged Burr feels he has been doubly wronged — first he is bad-mouthed and then his complaint is answered with a shrug. These irreconcilable differences came to a head on July 11, 1804, in a fatal duel in Weehawken, N.J.
The genius of “Hamilton,” which opened in February 2015, four months before Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign, was the way in which it made the stuff of history textbooks feel unexpectedly vivid, even contemporary. A year and a half later, the prospect of two political adversaries drawing pistols at dawn over unforgivable insults is perhaps not nearly so remote as we might wish. Trump is “unfit, and he proves it every time he talks,” Hillary Clinton said in the third presidential debate on Oct. 19. “No, you are the one that’s unfit,” Trump fumed. There was no handshake afterward. When the “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda hosted “Saturday Night Live” last month, he acknowledged the convergence in his rapped opening monologue: “And, yes, I’m right in my element/Who knew that ‘Hamilton’ would be so topically relevant?/The way that these grandstanding candidates be talking/They’re just a tweet away from facing off in Weehawken!”
Grievance is the animating theme of this election and the natural state of at least one of the candidates; Trump is a public figure whose ideology, such as it is, essentially amounts to a politics of the personal grudge. It has drawn to him throngs of disaffected citizens all too glad to reclaim the epithet “deplorable.” But beyond these aggrieved hordes, it can seem at times as if nearly everyone in the country is nursing wounds, cringing over slights and embarrassments, inveighing against enemies and wishing for retribution. Everyone has someone, or something, to resent — and often rightfully so.
Americans tend to think of rights and grievances in completely different ways — one as a near-mystical birthright and the other as an unjustice that demands a response — but they are each part of our political origin story. In 1774, the First Continental Congress sent a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to King George III, protesting that Americans had “a right peaceably to assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition the King; and that all prosecutions, prohibitory proclamations, and commitments for the same, are illegal” — a missive that set the stage for revolt and the Declaration of Independence two years later. A grievance was understood to be a wrong so grave, so serious, that it must be in violation of its twinned opposite, a right. It was the other inalienable principle claimed by the new nation.
Those founding documents were a blueprint for how a grievance could be transmuted, through democratic institutions, into a right.
Since then our politics, and our evolving constitutional rights, have been shaped by the articulation and settling of grievances writ large. Slavery was listed as one of the “grievances” in Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, but struck from the final version; it would take the 13th Amendment to begin to right that wrong. And half the population didn’t appear in the founding documents at all. Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams and a future first lady, wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren in 1776 that she had sent “a List of Female Grievances” to her husband in Philadelphia, where he was working with the Continental Congress to draft the laws of the new nation. “I even threatened fomenting a Rebellion in case we were not considered,” Adams wrote, “and assured him we would not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we had neither a voice, nor representation.”
Trump likes to tell his roaring crowds that “we won’t have a country anymore” if he isn’t elected. The country he warns against losing is, of course, the very country that Lamm warned against losing; Trump’s candidacy takes that complaint to its logical conclusion. The good old days. Populism. Nationalism. Nativism. All of these are more palatable ways of serving up the same dish: “The issue of white grievance,” Bill O’Reilly said on his Fox News show in April, discussing Trump’s supporters, “is not going away.”
This us-against-them movement found its willing avatar in Trump, a man whose motivations — even to run for president — are personal animus, personal gain, a flouting of the rules of engagement and civility, equal-opportunity insults for all. “We have a bunch of babies running our country, folks,” Trump said at a rally in North Carolina on Oct. 21, referring to President Obama and the first lady. “We have a bunch of losers.” It’s a grudge match with no aim higher than his own standing. “It’s him or me!” Aaron Burr howls in the song “The World Was Wide Enough,” near the end of “Hamilton,” in which he narrates the duel and its aftermath. Grievance begets grievance. The personal is political. And history can be hijacked by the consequences.
— From ‘Hamilton’ to Donald Trump: Are All ‘Grievances’ Created Equal? (NYT Magazine)