On Values: Be Divisive, Not Indecisive

Throwing away your shot

I have never agreed with Jefferson once. We have fought on like 75 different fronts. But when all is said and done…Jefferson has beliefs; Burr has none” – Lin-Manuel Miranda as a rapping Alexander Hamilton. (Say what you will about this timeline but at least we got to see Alexander Hamilton rap battle Thomas Jefferson over whether to establish a national bank).

After I watched Hamilton, which is on Disney+ and you should immediately watch if you haven’t seen it yet, I felt a little saddened. I realized that I will likely never, in my lifetime, experience the opportunity to have my beliefs, morals, values, and principles tested like the Founding Fathers. Of course, everyone has hopes that they will be able to steadfastly uphold what is “right” under pressure – but does anyone truly know that they will until they actually face that pressure? 

And while the arrogance of assuming (or rather, hoping) I would rise to the occasion, as our Founding Fathers did, is not lost on me as I write this, I’m not here to tell you what your morals, values, and principles should be. No, I’m merely asking you to have some. And to change them when faced with objective facts that they are wrong. But more importantly, to spend some time debating and discussing them. This piece is, if anything, about the importance of letting people know your beliefs.

Take Aaron Burr, de facto antagonist in Hamilton. Burr’s advice to Alexander Hamilton, when they first meet, is to not let people know your position so you can take advantage of whatever is most popular. When Hamilton is asked for his choice between Thomas Jefferson and Burr for President, Hamilton remarks that while he has never agreed with Jefferson on anything, he would still vote for him because Burr has no principles.

Founding father side-eye

This bears some explanation – Hamilton and Jefferson never agreed on anything. Jefferson resigned over his disagreements with Hamilton. Jefferson believed in States’ rights over federal government control; Hamilton believed in a strong federal government with States’ rights ceding to the federal government. They could not be more diametrically opposed in everything other than their love for the Nation. Yet when push came to shove, Hamilton still chose a known quantity over the wishy-washy Aaron Burr.

See, Hamilton can just as easily be called the Tragedy of Aaron Burr. Burr had the same education, the same access, the same opportunities as Hamilton but in the end his unwillingness to take a stand and demonstrate those values was his undoing. With Hamilton’s support, Burr could have been President. And yet, Burr’s unwillingness to actually communicate his values lost him the Presidency and set him, inevitably, on the path to kill Hamilton. While Hamilton lost his life because of the duel, Burr lost his life, his station, his home, everything.

The one time Burr finally stood for something, the one time he communicated his values to the outside world, it lead to his undoing. He couldn’t let Hamilton’s perceived betrayal slide and that lead to his downfall. He stood up for himself and ended up ending himself.

Burr wasn’t values-less, he just refused to communicate those values. He slow-rolled his support for the Revolution; he switched parties solely to win a Senate seat. If anything, the Tragedy of Aaron Burr shows us that our values are like almost everything else – entirely useless if you leave them on the shelf. Of course, to be clear, the portrayal of Aaron Burr the foil to Hamilton in that version of the story might not be the most accurate—this is Bullshido after all, we’re obligated to clarify this explicitly.

This is an unprecedented time in human history. For once, the majority of us are not concerned with our next meal. We have access to the entire knowledge of the species in our pocket and the ability to communicate instantaneously with others across the globe. We have the time and the capability to have a digital Agora and debate substance over form and yet we spend most of our time arguing about whether to wear a facemask in a global pandemic.

Greek agora, a literal marketplace of ideas

Define your values – whatever they are. Wear them on your sleeve so the whole world can see them. Debate them. Discuss them. If they’re objectively wrong; change them. After all, “if you don’t stand for anything, what will you fall for”?