Hamilton — The Musical, how accurate historically is the recent Broadway blockbuster, to be broadcast on Disney+ TV today? It’s based on the 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, but does Hamilton — The Musical compare favorably to the actual history?
The Set Up
As an aficionado of musical theatre — I see as many shows as I can whenever I visit New York or London — I must say it was stunning. It is indeed a contemporary American Musical and an especially New York one (Hamilton lived in NYC.) How can you argue with a Pulitzer Prize-winning, 11 Tony Award winning, three-time Grammy Award winning, Emmy winning writer, producer, director, conductor, singer, and actor like Lin-Manuel Miranda?
It’s got it all: hip-hop, jazz, R&B, Britpop (King George III), American musical theatre (think, Music Man) and numerous showstoppers throughout the show. It was clever and witty, self-conscious, and funny. There were plays on words and literary, historical, musical theatre, and biblical references. It was immensely entertaining.
Washington, Jefferson, Madison, the French Marquis de Lafayette, King George III of England, and Hamilton’s killer, Aaron Burr are all on stage. But likely not as you’ve known them. In the show I saw the diverse cast was “race-blind,” made up almost entirely of people of color; the only white actor was King George III. I must say that Burr in this show was a terrific character, reminding me of the angry Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Burr begins the show with the verse:
How does a bastard
Son of a whore and
The middle of a forgotten
The Caribbean by Providence
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
This is the same Aaron Burr, Jr., whose maternal grandfather was Jonathan Edwards — the greatest American theologian — and his own father, Aaron Burr, Sr. was the president of Princeton.
But this is a musical that could not have been made at another time, debuting as it did in the Obama Presidency and written by a “1st generation American” from Puerto Rico (but born in NYC) — similar to Hamilton himself coming to the New York from the Caribbean.
Had this been written during the time of the American “melting pot,” the emphasis on immigrants would not have been as prominent, nor the storyline so strong on emancipation. In the midst of the current political turbulence, the popularity of the Founding Fathers becomes a common bipartisan touchstone.
Despite my enjoyment of the musical, as a historian, I had several intellectual problems as I watched the show in New York.
But was the real Hamilton truly for the abolition of slavery? Or is Hamilton “just one more installment in the recent trend of revisionist early American history that troubles modern historians?” Since the 1990s, what some observers call “Founders Chic” has been in vogue. Numerous books have since been published in the last couple of decades on Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Ben Franklin, and George Washington that either make them saints or sinners. Saints, by writing hagiographies that extol their brilliant foresight into American government, or sinners for their belonging to the planter class and owning slaves.
And, as with Jefferson, Hamilton is equally claimed by the left and the right as their own.
My biggest problem was that the play “celebrates” Hamilton as a leader who denounces slavery and upholds open borders;
“Immigrants, we get the job done!” -song from “Hamilton”
Hamilton as an Abolitionist
Was he an abolitionist in the modern sense of the word? While he was a public abolitionist, as mentioned above, and hated the institution of slavery since the time he saw it as a youth on the Caribbean island of Nevis, when the topic conflicted with his views on property rights, American interests, or even his own political ambition, Hamilton allowed these motivations to override his aversion to the slave trade. Any abolition convictions he may have had did not prevent him from doing what he needed to do regarding slaves in order to align with either powerful or wealthy families.
He did not insist on the immediate and voluntary emancipation of all slaves. While it is unlikely that he owned slaves, as some of the Founding Fathers did, his family did as did those for whom he worked. Just a few examples:
- He certainly bought and sold slaves for others when he was young as a trader.
- Hamilton married into a slave-holding family that was famous for making money off the slave trade. He conducted transactions for the purchase and transfer of slaves on behalf of his in-laws, and as part of his assignment in the Continental Army.
- He took actions to retrieve a slave for General Washington, for whom he served during the Revolutionary War.
Hamilton vs. Jefferson
Secondly, the play portrays Thomas Jefferson as a political tool — silly, petty, and manipulative. I know they were playing it for laughs, but I think they trivialized him. Jefferson was successful for many reasons, but petty politics was not one of them. Big politics, on the other hand….
Hamilton and Jefferson were political rivals and this might have been intended as fun for a laugh, but it’s completely inaccurate. Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and influenced while serving as ambassador in France, the crafting by James Madison of the American Constitution. Instead, he’s portrayed in the play as the only slave-holding Founding Father. About two-thirds of the Founders held slaves at some point in their life, including Washington, Madison, and Franklin.
Hero of the Little Guy?
Finally, despite being portrayed as a champion of the “little guy,” he was anti-immigration. At the time of the play, the Constitution had qualified his birthplace as legitimate for citizenship. He was a monarchist; he would have had Washington be President for life, and the Senate serve for life. He believed in big banks, mistrusted the masses and democracy, claiming instead at the Constitutional Convention that power should go to the “rich and well-born.”
The show ends with the song ‘‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’’ and it is intended to be prescient. Some may say “It’s only a musical,” and they’d be right.
But people learn their history from musicals, not realizing that it’s dramatic historical fiction. Indeed, some classrooms use the cast album to teach students U.S. history. Many viewers rarely go to the trouble of reading the history behind it. But you’re not one of those 🙂
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian