On February 17, the MFA reprises a Remix that looks afresh at Revolutionary-era art through themes from the Broadway musical Hamilton. One highlight is Paul Revere’s 1768 Sons of Liberty Bowl, commissioned by 15 Massachusetts members of the Sons of Liberty, secret revolutionaries in the American British colonies. The punch bowl is a record of cloistered meetings; engraved on the rim are names of those who drank from it, as well as rabble-rousing references to the Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, and other emblems of personal liberty in the face of British rule.
This bowl is a silent witness, evidencing what happened in the room when the nation’s fate was discussed, who was there, and, importantly, who was not. This same theme is the subject of Hamilton’s “The Room Where it Happens,” a swaggering back-and-forth between characters Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In it, Burr tells of the infamous Compromise of 1790, when Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson emerged from a private dinner having struck one of the most important political deals in American history: the nation’s capital would be located near Virginia, and in return Hamilton’s federal debt plan would be secured. Yearning for a seat at the table, Burr relays the dark complexities of political decisions made behind closed doors:
“In God we trust / But we’ll never really know what got discussed / Click-boom then it happened / And no one was in the room where it happened.”
The lyrics remind us that we are rarely privy to what happens in these rooms either. Participatory government is the privilege of a democracy, but so many decisions today take place without transparency. Gerrymandering voting districts and overseeing NSA access to private information have been in recent news. Who records these issues and how? History is told by the few who frame the story—who tells your story?
Above: Paul Revere, Jr., Sons of Liberty Bowl, 1768. Silver. Museum purchase with funds donated by contribution and Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912. 49.45
Update January 25, 2017 10:53 pm
Among the 757 likes and individual comments on this Instagram post, here are some highlights:
shenjea So well said
sbpeddler We do celebrate the secret Sons of Liberty and task Free Press to keep a sharp eye on Open Meetings. That bowl looks perfect but democracy is a flawed experiment and needs work but it is better than anything else.
Caroline Cole is Ellyn McColgan Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Art of the Americas, and co-host of Who Tells Your Story?: Art and Hamilton.