Does "Hamilton" get its history right?
Historians have quibbled with the facts in the show. But in debates about power, facts don't stand a chance.
The musical “Hamilton” was the subject of this week’s History Club; a podcast is coming soon. In the meantime, here (finally!) is my take on the show—as a public historian and a musical lover.
The release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights this week inspired me to finally watch Hamilton. It was fine. The concept was clever and the rhymes were witty (the rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson were my favorite parts). There wasn’t much of a plot. It’s wasn’t clear what Hamilton’s motivations were other than to be famous (which felt like a very 21st century impulse as opposed to an 18th century one), and the characters’ backstories felt a bit under-developed. Many of the dance numbers ended with a performer striking a dramatic pose accentuated by a spotlight, which became predictable as the show went on. It felt like a hybrid of Les Miserables and Rent, both of which I think were better written and better scored.
More interesting than the show itself have been the debates over the show’s influence on history and history education. Anecdotes suggest the show has invigorated a renewed interest in the American past since its debut in 2015: students analyzing the play in classes; adults doing independent research on the Founding Fathers; a senior citizen who opted to see the play instead of taking a trip to Jamaica (the costs were equivalent!). It’s the best thing to happen to history since Howard Zinn. Is that the case? Has Hamilton been good for history? Is the play, itself, “good” history? What can Hamilton teach us?
(Btw, we did a podcast on Howard Zinn a few weeks ago; you can listen to it here).
Miranda himself has challenged professional historians to take the play seriously as history, not solely as entertainment. Historians accepted the challenge, and have spent the past five years ruminating on the show. A group of historians actually responded to the three-hour musical with a 396-page book (because, of course they did).
Critiques by historians have ranged from the omission of the Alien and Sedition Acts (Hamilton was a big proponent) to overstating Hamilton’s decisiveness in the 1800 Presidential election (he played little to no role). But the unease that some historians feel about the play is less about the factual merits of the show and more about what message the show sends—or, to be more precise, whether the message of Hamilton is the message Americas needs at this point in our national journey.
One might assume the show’s fiercest critics would have been on the political Right. But the sharpest rebukes have come from the political Left, largely from social justice activists, many of whom reside inside the academy. Hamilton: An American Musical was too capitalistic. Too nationalistic. Too Pollyanna-ish about the Founding Fathers. The show featured Black actors but no Black characters. It was not abolitionist enough. It was not feminist enough. “Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders . . . and It’s Not Halloween,” charged the Black author and critic Ishmael Reed. Feminist scholar Patricia Herrera lamented that her 10-year-old daughter wanted to dress up as Angelica Schuyler, a slave owner, after seeing the show.
(Reed would go on to write his own spin-off of Hamilton called The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which criticized the show and its high ticket prices. Reed’s production was funded, in part, by Toni Morrison).
If Miranda has a politics, it could be described as Obama-esque. Indeed, Miranda’s and Obama’s stories have a symmetry: sons of immigrants who through pluck and determination rose to the pinnacles of American society while holding true to their roots. That is, perhaps, part of the explanation for the kinship between 44 and Miranda, who first debuted his Hamilton Mixtape at The White House in 2009. The Obamas—never shy about cultivating celebrities for fundraising or advancing their agenda—played a critical role in elevating Hamilton, in part because immigration reform was a legislative priority of Obama’s second term and in part because it added to the celebrity allure of the Obama White House. The pull-oneself-up-by-ones-bootstraps-mentality was transposed onto the stage in the form of the immigrant Alexander Hamilton, that parable providing the underlying value proposition for the entire show. The system works! So long as we let everyone participate.
That was Obama’s brand of Progressive politics. But increasingly throughout the 2010s that optimism was overtaken by a darker cynicism. The system didn’t work. Anything wasn’t possible. Activists on each side of the political aisle had different enemies to blame. For social justice activists, nativists and capitalists such as Alexander Hamilton were precisely the problem. If popular culture could not call that out, it may as well be fodder for Disney+ (which is, incidentally, where I watched Hamilton the movie).
Conservatives, on the other hand, saw it the opposite. The social justice warriors and undocumented immigrants had poisoned what was great about America. Those forces needed to be repelled as savagely as possible, hence Trump. But, Conservatives expressed little animosity towards Hamilton. For free marketers and neo-liberals (such as Dick Cheney), the Hamilton message was spot-on: grind, hustle, be patriotic, and everything will work out. A musical about an elitist, nativist who drank the nationalist Kool-aid aligned perfectly with Conservative sensibilities. That it came from a multiracial cast did not bother them.
That depiction of Hamilton is, probably, the most inaccurate aspect of the play—not its sequence of events but rather its presentation of who Hamilton actually was. Hamilton was, by all evidence, a jerk. He was an abrasive, elitist, nativist, nationalist politico who engaged in a nasty brand of politics. He punished his enemies, attempted to have his rivals murdered, and was so xenophobic against the French, Swiss and Irish (among many) that he actively pushed legislation to prevent immigrants from voting and have them deported! That’s why historians wanted the Alien and Sedition Acts included in the musical; to omit them was like doing a biopic of Trump and leaving out the Muslim ban.
Having a lead character as a jerk doesn’t make for commercially successful entertainment, though. This was the conundrum facing Ron Chernow, whose 2004 biography of Hamilton forms the source material for Miranda’s script. Chernow followed in a long line of commercial authors whose folksy re-tellings of America sell nicely at airports (think David McCullough’s book on John Adams). Chernow’s work glossed over Hamilton’s jerkiness in favor of a more rehabilitated Hamilton, a champion of commerce and free markets, which had been emerging throughout the 20th century. Miranda and his co-creators relied heavily on Chernow’s portrayal, with far less attention to scholarship on race, class and gender during the Revolutionary era. That Miranda relied so heavily on Chernow sat well with the Obama crowd; for the academics, it was precisely the problem.
Hamilton became a smash due to politics and marketing, not for its historical accuracy. It was clear from our Clubhouse conversation on Thursday that most people did not care how accurately the show depicted the real Alexander Hamilton; whether the Alien and Sedition Acts were included; or how closely the play stuck to the sequence of events as we know them. Miranda had creative license to produce whatever musical he wanted to produce. The show was a hit because: (1) its songs were clever, catchy and charming; (2) it was hyped by celebrities and the news media, including the Obamas, Questlove, The New York Times and Charlie Rose (before we learned he was a sexual predator); (3) it had a robust marketing campaign that included celebrity buzz, fawning media interviews, companion books, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and constant social media; and, (4) it featured a multiracial cast performing hip-hop on Broadway, which was empowering for many people across our diverse nation. One speaker on Clubhouse summarized it eloquently: “We got to see people who looked like us on the stage in roles that most often times folks had no interest in putting us in.” The accuracies / inaccuracies were inconsequential.
Has Hamilton inspired a new generation to engage with history? At this juncture, the evidence is largely anecdotal. A teacher in California told me that his students won an all-expenses-paid trip to New York to meet with the Hamilton cast based on a history lesson they created around the show. A friend of mine told me that the rap lyrics of Hamilton got her interested in American history in ways she never had been before. One super-fan insists that most people had no idea who Marquis de Lafayette was before Hamilton hit the stage (despite the fact that at least 36 American cities are named after him).
Still, history enrollments at colleges and universities continue to decline, history departments continue to face funding cuts, history museums continue to face budget shortages, and visitation at history sites continues to struggle—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been no boon in book sales for academic historians who write about early America (though Hamilton historian Joanne Freeman has benefited from the show’s success), and the Federalist papers are not on back order at any book stores (so far as I know). History museums, desperate for relevance, hitched their wagons to the shooting star of Hamilton in attempts to woo visitors; the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia declared 2018 a museum-wide Year of Hamilton. That brought in a few thousand students and visitors. Will they come back? Will they support the museum in perpetuity? The jury is still out.
Is the message of Hamilton the message Americas needs today, in a period where public and private support for history education is declining and our democracy feels like it hangs on the edge of a knife? Does a Broadway smash hit about a xenophobic, anti-democratic elitist posing as a boot-strapping, immigrant say the “right” thing about America in 2021? As much as our hot-take culture seeks to turn everything into a referendum on the state of the nation, I actually think these are the wrong questions.
Hamilton is a commercial piece of pop culture intended to make a profit. The real story is how history, like art, becomes commodified in service to broader commercial and political agendas, and how traditional and social media play outsized roles in determining which histories we pay attention to and which we do not. That attention-wielding power is not evenly distributed: elected officials in Washington, editors in New York, celebrities in Hollywood, and algorithms in Silicon Valley set the agenda for what the rest of the nation responds to. Political, media and celebrity forces powered Hamilton into the public spotlight, relying on the language of history but with little concern for the particularities and complexities of it. That apparatus conferred upon Hamilton a status that other musicals about the past with diverse casts never achieved. Did you know that a Broadway musical about 9/11 has been running concurrently with Hamilton, also featuring a multiracial cast? Likely you’ve never heard of it.
In the end, Hamilton teaches us not how power worked in the 18th century, but how power works in the 21st century—and how politicians, celebrity and media triangulate to bring some voices to public attention while others stay in the shadows. Recognizing that the platforms are coveted and precious, we engage in passionate debates over which voices deserve to be elevated and what bodies those voices should inhabit. They are debates about power, not about historical accuracy. And in arguments about power, facts don’t stand a chance.
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