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.