Historians Take on Hamilton

Historians are, by and large, delighted that Hamilton has brought so much attention and interest to the founding era in American history. Lin-Manuel Miranda has attracted diverse, young audiences and made them excited about history in unprecedented fashion. There are many songs that are historically on-point, although as a piece of art, the play takes some liberties with chronology and alters some historical events. What concerns historians most are two of the main messages of the show:

  1. Alexander Hamilton was a scrappy immigrant who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become an underappreciated American everyman
  2. A multiracial cast playing white characters and singing hip hop makes the story of the founding era more diverse

[Click here to skip straight to the list of article links]

Neither of these are false, but they are oversimplifications. Here are the problems with those messages:

  1. Hamilton as:

immigrant: it’s worth noting that he moved from one British colony in the Caribbean to another on the North American mainland. Since this was before independence, he was moving within the same empire. (For that matter, Lafayette is cast as an immigrant, but he just came to fight in the war, then went home.) Hamilton in fact supported anti-immigrant policies in his career.

self-made man: he was extremely intelligent and hard-working, but his marriage into the wealthy and influential Schuyler clan was key to his rise.

everyman: while he defended the Constitution and built the financial system—both formidable accomplishments—he was also an elitist who supported the wealthy and had little interest in widening democracy (in fact, he wasn’t opposed to monarchy). He often represented the 1%, not the 99%, to use today’s terms.

A NYTimes article by two political theorists expands on these points and encapsulates the big-picture problem.

[It’s worth noting that Miranda’s depiction of Hamilton comes largely from the biography by Ron Chernow, a talented writer of historical biographies but not an academic historian.]

  1. The casting and music make the story more accessible, but this remains a tale of elite white men and women. Slavery is largely ignored, despite the fact that it was an inescapable part of the nation’s early history. The musical’s story of the founding era is in many ways a relatively conventional, conservative retelling (which, combined with the self-made man tale, is why Republicans have been huge fans).

There is another big historical message of Hamilton, though, that historians can buy into, and it’s the tagline of the show itself: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Through-out the play, Miranda pushes us to consider whose stories are preserved and how people in the past shaped their legacies. That’s a theme that is less sexy but perhaps more broadly useful than the story of Hamilton himself.

Here’s a reading list with stories of historical interest:

Historians’ General Assessments

How Hamilton Uses History
Joanne Freeman, scholar on Hamilton, comments

Bastard out of Nevis: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”
Review of pre-Broadway production

Historians Attend Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical
Review of the show by two early Americanists

Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality
Highly critical perspective on the problems with the musical

The Founders Chic of Hamilton
By the author of Fighting Over the Founders

Hamilton and History: Are they in Sync?
Leading historians comment on Hamilton

Hamilton as fanfic
Response to historians, arguing Hamilton is fan fiction, not history

Why Fans of Hamilton Should Be Delighted It’s Finally Stirring Criticism
Summary of debate among historians

Backstory Podcast takes on Hamilton
Interviews with experts on Hamilton’s financial plan, immigrant background, dueling, and how teachers are using the show.

Race and Hamilton

“Hamilton: the Musical:” Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders…and It’s Not Halloween
Opening salvo in the race critique

A Hamilton Skeptic on Why the Show Isn’t As Revolutionary As It Seems
criticism of racial politics of play by Lyra Monteiro

National Council on Public History forum on review criticizing racial politics of play

The Exhausting and Useless Accusations of Racism Against ‘Hamilton’
response to racism accusations

How Hamilton Does History

How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History
Interview with Miranda on how he uses history

Hamilton, Art, History and Truth
How Miranda combines art and historical truth

On Hamilton and Learning to Think Historically
The American Historical Association weighs in

Back in the Narrative: Hamilton as a Model for Women’s History
Praises how the musical shows women’s role in—and their erasure from—history

Presentation of historical figures

How Hamilton Recasts Thomas Jefferson as a Villain
Reflects on the musical’s critical portrayal of Jefferson

Liberals love Alexander Hamilton. But Aaron Burr was a real progressive hero
Takes issue with Burr’s portrayal, offers alternate perspective

The flirtatious friendship of Alexander Hamilton and Angelica Church hits Broadway
Explains the dynamics of Alexander and Angelica’s relationship

Historical backstory

Why Eliza Hamilton Deserves a Musical of Her Own
More on Eliza’s life and career

That Time When Alexander Hamilton Almost Dueled James Monroe
Chronicles the Reynolds Affair, highlighting the role of James Monroe (who is left out of the musical)

“And when I meet Thomas Jefferson…”
Angelica Schuyler Church’s politics and friendships

Somewhere in Between: Alexander Hamilton and Slavery
Nuanced look at Hamilton’s position on and involvement with slavery

Historical sources and books at NYPL
Highlights New York Public Library’s resources and books on specific people featured in the musical

History behind the lyrics

How Lin-Manuel Miranda taught liberals to love Alexander Hamilton
Explains the background behind Cabinet Battle #1 on debt

 22 ‘Hamilton’ Lyrics, Explained
Historical background on parts of 22 songs

Annotated lyrics
Crowd-sourced annotation of all of the musicals lyrics, many of which explain historical references

Cast perspectives on history

Rapping a Revolution
The cast discusses their new appreciation of history

George Washington Never Mentions Slavery in Hamilton, but the Actor Who Plays Him Does
Actor Chris Jackson discusses Washington and slavery

Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs Talks Thomas Jefferson’s Troubling Legacy
The actor who plays Jefferson reflects on history

 

 

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