If anyone has watched or listened to the iconic 2015 musical Hamilton, created by the ingenious Lin-Manuel Miranda they would remember the heart-wrenching scene where George Washington, played by the talented Christopher Jackson, in the song One Last Time, told Alexander Hamilton that he was no longer running for President. Only Miranda can make us feel sad at something so anomalous as the departure of a US President, at least by today’s standards. Listening to that song on repeat over and over (as I did for 95% of the Hamilton soundtrack), one section of the song particularly caught my attention.
When a shocked and confused Hamilton asked Washington why he had to say goodbye, he answered that the nation must move on and outlive him. Washington then enters into a reflective solo where he shares his hope for his countrymen. He begins:
This same imagery is commonly used in the Bible, and in One Last Time the lyric was quoted verbatim from Micah 4:4. It was also the verse Washington commonly used in his correspondence, over 50 times according to Historian Daniel Dreisbach! It reveals through Washington as a mouthpiece, and Christopher Jackson’s mellifluous voice, a message with multiple dimensions of hope.
In playing the song on repeat and resonating more with Washington the more times I listened to the masterpiece of a song, I began to see three expressions of hope condensed into the short lyrical verse. And let me be honest when I say they almost brought me to tears.
His first hope was that what was then the early-stages of the United States would keep his countrymen safe. The use of the verse to express this hope is historically apt.
Solomon, the third King of the Ancient Kingdom of Israel during its ‘golden age’, in his writings likened safety to “every man under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25). It is a picture of people going outside walled cities and sitting under the beauty of nature. It describes an end of war. It is a freedom from oppression by enemies, and it is likely that in the political background of the American revolution such an image was an aspiration for the revolutionaries. Writing this during the time of a lockdown in my home country, where the enemies walling us in are microscopic and as of yet undefeated, I too long to sit under my own vine and fig tree, leaning on it and taking slow deep breaths as I marvel over the beauty of creation.
Unfortunately, such rest under the fig tree did not last forever. The populace of the ancient Kingdom of Israel was exiled in waves between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C, and the American revolutionaries faced even greater political adversity after America was formed, as men took up arms in the civil war. And for us, now more than ever, we face a lack of ‘vines and fig trees’ to rest under.
But does that mean Washington was a liar? Certainly not. He had begun to build a system where he hoped his people would be “safe in the nation we made”. They had fought a daunting revolution and had finally secured independence from the British empire. He had a genuine hope that his people would be safe under the reign of a good government, like in King Solomon’s day. We know this did not last, but the situation is not dire because in using the imagery of the vine and fig tree Washington there was a second meaning on top of physical safety and political peacetime, a meaning that is much more significant.
This is contained in his second expression of hope, that in quoting the imagery he is also alluding to the state of peacetime that is eternal.
In addition to the Hamilton portrayal of Washington, the real George Washington made frequent reference to Micah 4:4, quoted below, which are recorded in his letters.
The Lord will mediate between peoples
and will settle disputes between strong nations far away;
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore,
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
and no one shall make them afraid,
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk
each in the name of its gods,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
forever and ever.
In referencing this passage, Washington in his correspondence was communicating so much more than a hope for political peace time. The prophet Micah is foretelling the day when weapons such as “swords” and “spears” are turned into agricultural tools, nations will cease war with other nations, and no nation shall learn war anymore.
How does this relate to Washington’s hope for his countrymen? After the many hard years of establishing America, he wanted his countrymen to rest and find joy in the work they created. He wanted them to be like farmers tending the land they have free from oppression. This is why his agricultural imagery is so heartfelt, even though you might never think to see the words ‘agriculture’ and ‘heartfelt’ in the same sentence.
This passage speaks of a time when war no longer needs to be learned. This goes deeper than political peacetime, it talks about the absolute irrelevance of war as a necessity. People would not need to build up skill in defending themselves from their oppressors. They would be free to spend their days enjoying working their land, and resting under their vine and fig tree after a day’s work. God would protect them and be with them. The people no longer need to be afraid as they tend to their gardens and live out the days in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. This second expression of hope must have given an old and tired Washington so much glee, as he knows that even if the shortcomings behind the first expression of hope come to pass, the second expression of hope will secure them.
It is perhaps Washington’s third expression of hope that resonates with a personal longing.
In a world where troubles persist, it feels like work has corrupted from something we enjoy into something that chains us to a paradigm enforced by societal expectation. We long for the kind of rest which we often associate with retirement or sabbaticals from work.
This is indeed what Washington desires. He wants to rest in his home in Mount Vernon - his “personal vine and fig tree” - as scholar George Tsakiridis suitably puts it. After 45 years of his life dedicated to the service of America, Washington shares with Hamilton his longing to “sit under [his] own vine and fig tree”, for but a moment alone, in the cooling shade, to witness and relish in the nation he and the other founding fathers created.
Yet, his use of the word “moment” would perhaps reveal so much more. In Washington’s 1796 farewell address (which was the section sung and harmonised by Jackson and Miranda in One Last Time), he describes himself as being “consigned” to the “mansions of rest”. His personal longing goes beyond the desire to retire from an accomplished life of toil, but what he indeed was looking forward to is to sit under the vine and fig tree in the presence and protection of God, the same hope he has for every one of his people. After all, a “moment” is nothing compared to “mansions”, a picture of vast space to mark the end of toil.
This does not downplay the first expression of rest, won through the hard fought battle by the revolutionaries. It is, however, to show that Washington in his mind was aiming for something greater, something more certain, a peacetime that is eternal.
Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “Hamilton: An American Musical.” InHamilton: The Revolution. Edited by Jeremy McCarter. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
Tsakiridis, George. “George Washington and Religion.” George Washington Digital Encyclopedia, 2018.
Dreisbach, Daniel L. “Under Our Own Vine and Fig Tree.” Episcopal History, 2017, pp. 211–228.