“Hamilton”: Who Tells Your Story?

Hamilton: An American Musical, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, achieved an unusual degree of cultural cachet almost immediately upon its 2015 Broadway ...

Hamilton: An American Musical, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, achieved an unusual degree of cultural cachet almost immediately upon its 2015 Broadway debut. The show has remained great business on Broadway, and has been a similar boon to historians, theater scholars, and anyone else who can plausibly justify putting the show and its vital, viral lyrics on a syllabus or in the title of a lecture. The public knows and loves Hamilton (or knows about it and has been told to love it, which amounts to the same thing), so Hamilton has become a hook on which to hang any number of contemporary portraits of American history.

Yet Hamilton is at sharp odds with the history most contemporary scholars produce and desire. Thus many scholars have written about Hamilton critically, not to bask in its glory but rather to refract its rays. The challenge, of course, is that Hamilton, as a work of art, is really, really good. Miranda is a snappier, smarter writer than just about any historian working today. (He sings and dances, too!) And, as those lucky enough to score a ticket have observed, he has engaged a superb staff of designers and performers to put his story across. The rest of us bumble along with our few thousand words of carefully footnoted arguments, lacking irresistible hooks or a throbbing bass line to enliven our prose. (One understands now what the Anti-Federalists must have felt under the onslaught of Hamilton’s own inexhaustible pen.) What’s a historian to do?

Well, for one thing, she can publish an essay collection. Historians on “Hamilton, a volume of 15 essays edited by Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter and published last year, makes a valiant attempt to help audiences understand Hamilton’s achievements while also taking stock of the musical’s shortfalls. Accessibly written, the contributions cover the show as both art and history. Nearly all of the pieces in this collection criticize Hamilton, many severely, for a general failure to fulfill the show’s lofty promise. (As we will discuss, Hamilton criticism echoes much scholarly criticism of American history more broadly.) The essays here coalesce around three main topics: first, the contradiction between the show’s racially and ethnically diverse cast and its representation of a white elite history; second, the show’s participation in “Founders Chic”; and, third, the show’s celebration of Hamilton’s financialization of the American republic.

One might have imagined that three years of disastrous politics would generate nostalgia for—and even defenses of—Hamilton’s Obama-era post-racial neoliberalism. In fact, the advent of the Trump Administration has only made clearer the shortcomings of Hamilton’s American project—and of Miranda’s Hamilton.

The racial critique in Historians on “Hamilton” spans multiple essays and proceeds on several different fronts. While the show has received praise for an almost entirely nonwhite cast (still rare on Broadway), the historical figures these performers of color represent are uniformly white. As Lyra D. Monteiro observes, “The idea that this musical ‘looks like America looks now’ in contrast to ‘then’ … is misleading and actively erases the presence and role of black and brown people in Revolutionary America.” Worse, Hamilton all but ignores the system of chattel slavery that defined black and brown peoples’ presence in America and marred forever the nation’s founding.

Helpfully, Leslie M. Harris’s essay reinscribes black lives into Hamilton’s world by outlining the historical Hamilton’s connections to the large slave populations on Nevis, the Caribbean island where he was born, and then in New York. (A similarly structured essay by Catherine Allgor resituates the show’s few female characters within the all-encompassing legal system of coverture.) The contributions of Monteiro and Harris, among others, make clear that Hamilton’s nonwhite cast cannot and does not excuse the whiteness of its characters. Moreover, one worries about the future of Hamilton’s race-conscious casting in America’s schools. As Brian Eugenio Herrera relates, Miranda has made clear that he plans to admonish school producers in the show’s performance license: “If this show ends up looking like the actual founding fathers, you messed up.” But in our country’s profoundly racially segregated school system, it’s hard to see how thousands of well-intentioned high school Hamiltons won’t mess up.

These critiques bear so heavily on Hamilton in part because, without its strategy of cross-racial representation, the show can feel disappointingly like the typical pageant of Great Men, draped in the familiar cloth of American mythology and accessorized in the well-known “Founders Chic” style, as journalist Evan Thomas has labeled two decades’ worth of popular biography. (Notable “designers” include Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, and Ron Chernow, author of the musical Hamilton’s urtext.) Founders Chic focuses on the founders’ personal characters, seeks to make them “relatable,” and is fundamentally “establishmentarian,” as David Waldstreicher and Jeffrey L. Pasley explain.

Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, represented along these lines, certainly has flaws, but they are personal rather than political. We hear about Hamilton’s ego, ambition, and lust, but almost nothing about his “divisive” politics, his naked elitism, or his central role in indebting the new United States to “high-finance insiders.” In fact, as Joanne B. Freeman demonstrates, the show has rather little to say about politics in general. Hamilton’s deepest dives into the policy debates that shaped the nation’s formative years (as in the “Cabinet Battles” of act 2) have great wit but remain, fundamentally, mere subplots.

While one might blame Miranda’s source material (Chernow’s popular biography) for these flaws, the musical’s design further reinforces the Founders Chic emphasis on people over policy. For all its innovative use of contemporary music, Hamilton is built most like a classic 1970s musical, celebrating a radical individual’s heroic struggle over a constrictive community. Key comparisons here include Pippin, Sweeney Todd (the opening of which Miranda and company hilariously revised at Broadway’s Easter Bonnet Competition), and Jesus Christ Superstar, which provides Hamilton’s fullest template, complete with Aaron Burr as Judas.

Opposite these individualist musicals we find shows with a wider collective imagination such as Rent and Miranda’s own previous show, In the Heights, which dramatized a much richer communal life than Hamilton does while also depicting a modern community of genuine immigrants. (As several writers note, Hamilton, a British traveler within the British Empire, was not an “immigrant” in today’s highly charged political sense.) In the Heights’ messy story about denizens of the Washington Heights neighborhood did not capture the national imagination as fully as Hamilton, but it dramatizes more fully how individual achievement remains indebted to complex communities.

Intriguingly, for all the well-deserved praise heaped upon Miranda as an individual author, he himself insists on embedding Hamilton’s success within a larger creative community. An unusually public profit-sharing agreement with original cast members marked an early effort to redefine the show as a collective endeavor. And the show’s recent Kennedy Center Honor—the first awarded to an artwork, rather than an artist—was presented to the entire lead creative team: Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and music director Alex Lacamoire. Even the preshow Ham4Ham performances, staged for hopeful rush ticket queuers, represented a way of using Hamilton to fashion a new community around and through the show.

Even if historians cannot match Miranda’s flow, his challenge has already brought a slew of voices forward, speaking to, with, and about his version of history.

And, of course, there is the wider community of Hamilton fans, among whom many of the collection’s authors, notwithstanding their critiques, likely count themselves. Hamilton is an impressive work of art, well-constructed, intelligent, and compelling in spite of its flaws. Despite these authors’ complaints, if Americans are going to get excited about our history, Hamilton, with all its complexities, is far from the worst place to start. And volumes like Historians on “Hamilton, complete with a sparkling syllabus by Jim Cullen, can buttress that thinking in any classroom. (Surely Hamilton invites better historical thinking than James Thomas Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man, one of our high school texts in the late 1990s, which revolved around the rhetorical question: Was George Washington an “indispensable man”?)

Most usefully, the show itself articulates the problems and powers of historical myth, asking explicitly and repeatedly, “Who tells your story?” Even if Hamilton does not solve the problem of representing a historiographically white, racist, patriarchal past, as Joseph M. Adelman writes, the show demands that we think about who represents our history to us. This same question undergirds other historically conscious (and critical) American plays of the past decade, such as Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present … (2012) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon (2014). (In a recent twist, Ishmael Reed’s The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which received a New York reading last month, conjures Miranda onstage to chastise him for telling the Hamilton story wrong.) At its best, Hamilton belongs among sophisticated interrogations of history and narrative, far outpacing its Broadway competition, including the near-contemporary All the Way by Robert Schennkan.

Who narrates history matters deeply. But so does how they tell it. And Hamilton’s form is, fundamentally, the source of its power. Many of the essays quote Hamilton itself, revealing the power of Miranda’s language and the way it will shape our understanding of history, even as many of us attempt to hold it at arm’s length. Hamilton explains the 18th century in a manner appealing to young and old, Republican (Dick Cheney) and Democrat (Barack Obama). This is no mean feat. And even if historians cannot match Miranda’s flow, his challenge has already brought a slew of voices forward, speaking to, with, and about his version of history. In this way, Hamilton is indeed a gift to historians, an invitation to public dialogue.

It is worth noting, however, that historians have been able to accept this gift because so many are already engaged in public conversation. Historians are currently more consciously, more visibly, and more passionately engaged with public life and politics than they have been for a long time. Some are on offense: tweeting, canvassing, writing amicus briefs and op-eds, even running for office. Others are playing defense against right-wing media figures who distort their research, or against hostile state legislatures that cut their budgets. Far from standing alone, then, Historians on Hamilton rides the crest of a wave of history-in-public, the force of which we cannot yet fully assess.

As for Hamilton itself, whether or not you take its playful, often joyous representation of 18th-century politics as a good or a bad thing ultimately depends a lot on how you feel about the current state of the union. It bears underlining that Hamilton debuted in 2015 and this essay collection in 2018. In historical time—even in academic publishing time—these three years are the blink of an eye. And yet these years take us across what seems to many to be a deep divide in the history of the republic.


The Constitution: When Less Is More

By Doni Gewirtzman

Since we cannot predict the future of the United States, we cannot predict how critiques of Hamilton are likely to evolve. But like so many Americans, we look at Hamilton and wonder what we should do now, in this perilous moment for our Constitution.

And here we, the coauthors, find that we part ways. Should Americans shore up the document that Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson bequeathed us, as one of us believes? Or, as the other of us argues, should we stop worrying about what the long-dead Hamilton thought, throw the old document out the window, and form a new, more perfect union? This debate—which punctuates Heidi Schreck’s inspiring 2017 play, What the Constitution Means to Me, transferring to Broadway this spring—runs in unsurprising parallel with our debate about Hamilton itself.

Constitutionalists find much to admire in how Hamilton recovers the energy, urgency, and intelligence that our founders brought to bear on the terrifying challenge of self-governance. Revolutionaries, for their part, might justifiably point to Historians on Hamilton and argue that, with so many amendments, the text itself must be flawed beyond repair.

We cannot resolve this debate, but we agree that the outcome, whatever it is, will not be the result of great men acting alone; it will be, by necessity, a communal production.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of his musical Hamilton, April 20, 2016. Photograph by Steve Jurvetson / Flickr