Among the oft-quoted lines from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a little joke the title character shares with the Marquis de Lafayette: “Immigrants: we get the job done.” Miranda has emphasized that he wanted to tell a diverse story of the birth of the nation, and so it made sense when he was asked recently about the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy proposals among current presidential candidates. “It’s so old,” he replied, linking our world to a long history of exclusionary platforms. “This isn’t new. . . It’s a part of our politics.”
As I thought about that response, I started wondering about how and why people draw links between past and present. People who like history also like to point out the fact that so much about our world is “so old.” This simple truth allows historians to speak to the present and to claim a place in contemporary political debates. It allows us to talk about how relevant our subjects are, to assert the real, urgent significance of the distant past. And it allows us to speak to audiences who are interested in navigating a thorny issue, sharing with those audiences the ways others have previously dealt with those same thorns.
But as it enters the public discourse, it seems at times like the ways we tie the present to the past can obscure real differences between the two. In the centuries between Alexander Hamilton’s critics questioning his place in the nation and the candidacy of Donald Trump, individuals, movements, and laws have worked to broaden the possibilities for immigrants in the United States. Our world looks far different from Hamilton’s, and so echoes of his critics should feel shocking, rather than familiar, precisely because they reflect ideas that are so old.
When we invoke the past to understand our politics, we risk allowing history to explain the present. We can find ourselves trapped, perhaps thinking that inequalities and injustices persist because they have plagued us for so long. Recognizing the centuries-long history of prejudice and injustice in the United States does not necessarily mean that we should expect many more years of prejudice and injustice. And the suggestion that an old struggle will continue doesn’t bring us closer to winning that struggle or to shutting down the injustices at the heart of old ideas.
It’s important that we understand the exclusionary ideas and arguments that have been with us for decades and centuries, that we recognize echoes of the past in the present. But it’s just as critical that we think carefully about how these things develop and become meaningful in our contemporary context. An echo isn’t an exact replica of the original, and it’s key that we recognize the factors that produce these echoes and think about why exactly they reverberate in dramatically different worlds.