In Defense of Hamilton

HamiltonPresident Obama Greets the Cast and Crew of Hamilton (Publicity photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical, Hamilton, brings to life the story of Alexander Hamilton and the history of his time. Yet many historians have met the pop phenomenon with skepticism; with its inaccuracies and simplifications, is Hamilton not doing greater damage than good? The short answer is a resounding “no.” In spite of its shortcomings, the musical deserves praise from the historical community. Here’s why:

1) It Tells a Human Story

History is not reducible to dates and facts and linear progressions. It’s messy and contingent, and human emotions, egos, and missteps cast long shadows. Hamilton captures that chaos. It tells the story of an ambitious man who falls because of his uncompromising passion and principles. The show’s characters are neither wholly good nor completely bad. Each have their flaws, and even the most hated character, Aaron Burr (the New York politician who shot and killed Hamilton), is given a moment to sing about his love for his daughter.

2) The Alternatives Are Not Great

Before Hamilton, the most popular piece of entertainment about the Revolutionary Era was the 2000 film, The Patriot. While that film conveys some important ideas—the British could be brutal, the French played a central role, and the militia influenced key battles—it also does tremendous damage to the history of the era, sometimes to the point of absurdity. The most preposterous moment arrives when the British take away the protagonist’s slaves. The slaves beg to remain on the plantation and insist that they are paid laborers, not slaves, but the devilish British ignore their pleas. This scene stands in sharp contrast to the actual historical record. Slaves ran away in droves at the start of the Revolutionary War, recognizing that their chance at freedom was far higher fighting for the British than for the Americans. The Patriot dispatches the harsh realities of slavery in the Revolutionary South in favor of a paternalistic fantasy in which the enslaved cling lovingly to their white enslavers.

3) Hamilton Confronts Slavery

Hamilton does confront slavery, although it does so imperfectly, to be sure. Historians have noted that the musical overstates Hamilton’s opposition to slavery and personifies the institution in one man: Thomas Jefferson. This is a fair criticism. In reality, Alexander Hamilton cared more about protecting property rights and financial stability than combating slavery, and he married into a family that kept people in bondage. Slavery travelled far beyond one Founding Father’s hypocrisy. It was a massive system of forced labor and exploitation, in which not just Jefferson but also most of the rest of our Revolutionary heroes were directly or indirectly involved. This simplification is a problem, but Hamilton, which is essentially a story about the power of writing, ambition, and the promise of America, could have easily bypassed slavery altogether. It does not. The opening song acknowledges that slaves were being “slaughtered and carted away.” Hamilton also highlights the incomplete nature of the Revolution with the line, “We’ll never be truly free, until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me,” and it foreshadows the growing sectional divide by calling out the South’s growing reliance on slavery.

4) Hamilton Reflects Challenges We Face Today

If history’s role in society is in part to help us understand contemporary problems, Hamilton does so masterfully. It raises questions about everything from gender inequality to gun violence, from the role of government to the place of immigrants in American society. Perhaps its most salient reflection is on today’s racial inequalities. The simple choice of casting people of color to play the parts of the founding generation makes a strong statement. Miranda himself has said that he wrote the musical in part because he was tired of playing “gangsters.” But the meaning goes deeper than that. One of the cast’s only white actors plays King George, who sings that he must, “kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” The diverse cast fights the tyranny of a delusional white man.

5) It Celebrates Democracy

For some, the fact that the story of this particular Founding Father celebrates democracy is ironic. After all, Alexander Hamilton did not trust democracy, and he pushed to consolidate power in the hands of a cabal of wealthy men. But that historical reality does not detract from the musical’s overarching message. If anything, Hamilton’s elitism emphasizes Hamilton’s egalitarianism. We can see, and hear, how far the nation has come, from a government that favored the powerful few to one in which all Americans can claim a voice. Miranda’s musical also recognizes that our democracy profoundly influenced world history. People around the globe drew on the American example as a source of inspiration for revolutions of their own, until several nations overtook the United States in their commitment to democracy. It is no coincidence that at the start of the musical, the French hero Lafayette can barely keep a beat, but by the end of the show, he has the most sophisticated lyrics. Modern democracy, like hip hop, was an American creation, but after a certain point, it no longer belonged to the United States.

6) It Challenges Our Certainty of the Past

Hamilton’s greatest strength is that it questions what we know as “truth.” The final song asks, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” It points out that the Founders not only took part in history, but actively engaged in recording and manipulating it to their advantage. And they tried to silence those who threatened their legacies. The Founders praised early American political thinker Mercy Otis Warren for her support during the Revolution, but blacklisted her when she wrote a damning account of the young Republic. Warren saw that the United States was beginning to emulate the centralized power, hierarchy, and inequality of the British, and did not shy away from criticizing the nation’s leaders for it. Her former friends silenced her, and were so successful in doing so that few Americans today have heard of Warren, one of our nation’s greatest Revolutionary writers. Hamilton grapples with the silences and uncertainties of the historical record. The musical reminds us to reflect on whose stories we tell, and to practice humility as well as history.

About the Author

Michael McLean

Michael McLean is a Ph.D. student at Boston College. He grapples with the violence in American history through the lens of Native American and enslaved communities. In his free time, he studies the Lakota language and leads outdoor backpacking and rock climbing trips.

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  1. Great piece, Michael!

    I don’t want to belabor this too much, but I do think the musical’s problems with slavery are deeper than this, though. For one thing, I think that opening line about slaves being sold more or less equates Hamilton’s status with that of the slaves, or at least puts them all in the same broad category of struggling residents of the area. (Whereas it’s my understanding that he was working *for* a slaver in the job being referenced in the same section.) For audience members who don’t know his story, that seems to suggest that Hamilton’s early lot was nearly as bad as that of Caribbean slaves, which to me is a very troubling idea.

    For another, during the Constitutional debates the musical does frame the debate as Hamilton/North/anti-slavery and Jefferson/Virginia/slavery. But slavery was still legal and widespread in New York (and Massachusetts, and etc.) at the time, of course. So while it was Southern states who argued especially for the 3/5s Compromise and the like, I think reducing the debate in any way to North/South is a mistake, and really in the musical a way to make Hamilton seem more anti-slavery and idealized than he was.

    That’s my two cents, anyway! Thanks again for the thought-provoking piece,

    1. Well said. I give “Hamilton” a pass on some of its simplifications, but I agree that a more nuanced look at slavery would have gone a long way. I suppose I’m happy that they didn’t sidestep slavery entirely, which I think must have been tempting, so I give them credit for at least starting a dialogue.

  2. This is a strong defense, no question. And despite my ingrained distaste for musical theater at large, I’ve seen how many of my high school students react to the show; teaching Hamilton last year was a very different experience because of it, and that can’t be a bad thing.

    With that in mind, I think my biggest problem with the show (outside of the slavery issue, which you and Ben have both covered above) is its lack of political ideas, which I find stunning for a show about Hamilton. The closest I’ve heard it get is in Cabinet Battle #1, which at least goes over the issue of state debt. But for a show that focuses on Hamilton to not really feature an impassioned defense of federalism, for example, or get into the issues of the Constitutional debate (there’s never really a clear discussion of why Hamilton wants the Constitution passed, or why anyone would oppose it, or why Hamilton rejected the Bill of Rights for example), seems a disservice. Yeah, it’s hard to write music about those things, but that’s what I would have said about many of the things Miranda deftly communicates. In the end, while Hamilton is not the boring history of names and dates, it does veer close to the boring history of personality over ideology and substance, and that bothers me especially when dealing with a figure like Hamilton whose importance is almost wholly wrapped up in his ideas. I like it in some ways as a teaching tool, but in others it feels like empty celebration to me. Hopefully that makes sense.

    1. That’s an interesting catch. I think you’re right that the musical glosses over some huge ideological questions in its dealing with the Constitution. But I would say that there is a central ideology to the show, in that it celebrates the ideas in the Declaration of Independence. That is, America is a place that welcomes all people, and all Americans deserve a chance to elevate their lives. I think Miranda and co. actually do something similar to what Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address, in saying that the true core of the American experiment is the idea of equality. That struck me as a really powerful message.

  3. Inspired by this great piece, I have two completely contradictory thoughts about Hamilton.
    1) I used to flip out when pop culture played fast and loose with historical facts, and even more importantly, with historical causation and hstorical interpretation. A couple examples: The Patriot, Stone’s JFK, Disney’s Pocahontas, any number of purported Civil Rights films with White Saviors at the center. But my students are far more media savvy over the years. Today, we were discussing a book about Pocahontas in my Early Am Women class and the students brought up Pocahontas 2. (This was released straight to video, so unless you had a girl in your household who was 6 or under, you could have missed it, as I did). They KNEW it was bad history. Just like they know white people aren’t the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. The heavens did not fall and I did not get generations of students in my classes who believed that fiction movies were documentaries.
    2) I still get apoplectic when pop culture gets slavery deeply wrong, and like many people who will likely that read this great post, have conniptions when someone talks about “Gone With the Wind” in ANY sort of positive way.
    Is our discomfort deepened when the subject is near and dear to us and the cultural product gets it wrong? I suspect it is. I am not very interested in Hamilton’s position on, say, the debt or currency, so if Miranda got those wrong, I wouldn’t be horribly upset. But I am troubled by black actors playing slaveholders (caveat: I can imagine this being an exceptionally provocative dramatic device that causes us to think about the reality of American slavery in a new way….but “Hamilton,” amazing as it is, doesn’t do that). Also upset by the way the play paints Hamilton and the North as “antislavery.”
    I keep coming back to students who tell me that they developed their love of history from some flawed cultural product. Getting them into the classroom is a huge accomplishment in this era of declining enrollments.
    PS. Michael, you forgot “1776.” Several of my favorite former students came to their love of Revolutionary era history because of that pretty spectacularly B-movie-bad musical!

    1. I think you’re right regarding the depiction of slavery. In a show in which Hamilton calls out Jefferson’s personal hypocrisy, I’m not sure why one of the characters couldn’t reflect on the broader hypocrisies of continuing (and expanding) slavery after fighting a war in the name of liberty. Perhaps they were trying to make a “contagion of liberty”-type argument, but even still, I would have liked a deeper portrayal of the issues around slavery.

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