Hamilton, Art, History, and Truth

mobile-hamiltonBy now you’ve probably heard or read something about Hamilton: An American Musical, the hip-hop biography of Alexander Hamilton now running on Broadway. (If not, you can start with our reviews by Chris Minty and Nora Slonimsky and Ben Carp.) I went to see it last week with a group of historians (how’s that for a nerdy event?) and had an amazing time. First of all, the show is fantastic on all of the standard measures of the experience—the acting, the music, the singing and choreography, the set—they’re all great. You should see it if you can, because it’s really that good. But what makes Hamilton a bit different is how interesting it is as a vessel for conveying history to the general public, the argument it makes about Hamilton’s life, and the use of artistic license to make such an incisive historical argument.

Yes, argument. In a musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s writer and star, has re-imagined the life of Alexander Hamilton—the “ten-dollar Founding Father without a father”—and the events of the American founding through hip-hop. Hamilton rose and fell, as Miranda noted when he presented the earliest version of his first song at the White House six years ago, “on the strength of his writing,” and that as an orphan and immigrant, his life “embodied hip-hop.”

In making that argument, of course, Miranda exercises an artistic freedom that most historians either envy or fear, but rarely indulge. Few professional historians could dream of making such an imaginative claim in an academic work. (If you don’t believe me, ask Jill Lepore what happened when she had the audacity to suggest that birds chirped near church steeples in 1741 New York. The nerve!) That’s not because historians’ standards are “higher,” whatever that might mean, nor does it convey that we have a deeper evidentiary base; Miranda has read both deeply and widely about Hamilton and the Revolutionary Era. His history is solid.

What makes that argument compelling is that Miranda gets the history right and also approaches a deeper truth about his subject, in a way that for most historians in our forms of writing is inaccessible. I’ll give you just one example from the show that doesn’t give much away. Miranda re-imagines the Cabinet meetings of the Washington administration, in which Hamilton and Jefferson frequently butted heads, as a series of rap battles between the two. The lyrics are spot-on in describing the position of the two on hot-button questions of the day: Should Congress adopt Hamilton’s economic plan? Should Washington back France or Britain in their never-ending imperial fight?

Of course they literally didn’t have a rap battle, but in reproducing their words in rapid-fire meter, Miranda reveals the deep discord within the Washington administration as well as the fragility and instability of early Republic politics. Throughout the show, the theme of early American politics as hip-hop war works to convey a really complicated argument in a way that’s immediately accessible. Watching the show as a historian who works in that era, I can rattle off the books that have clearly influenced Miranda. They’re sitting right in the open (and as it happens when I attended some of them were sitting a few rows from me). Certainly scholars of the early American republic make arguments that rely on the messiness (and contingency) of politics and the political system. So I’m not saying they don’t.

But for most academics and history students, “presentism” is something to avoid. If a student or scholar submitted a paper that argued that the Revolutionary era was really a hip-hop-style battle, we would reject it out of hand. But an artistic project can be imaginative in that way. In so doing, Miranda comes at the past with a completely different eye and without any of the baggage that academics burden ourselves with. And though he doesn’t make a unique argument about the past—and his primary objective is to tell a story, not make an argument—he presents the past in a way that reflects on human nature and how people interact with one another. It’s a trans-historical claim to connect Jefferson, Burr, and Hamilton with Biggie and Tupac, but it cuts to the heart of the matter and, more importantly, it works.

The broader point is that, when done well, artists who interpret the historical past are sometimes able to tell better or, dare I say it, truer stories about the past. Whatever its merits, historical analysis circa 2015 lends itself more to nuance and caution than it does to getting at any underlying statements about human nature and the way we interact in the world. Artistic license can certainly be used to excuse outright falsehoods (interpreting Hamilton through hip-hop makes far more sense than re-conceiving the Sons of Liberty, say, as a cross between 300 and Batman Begins, just to use a random example). But artistic license also grants freedom, literally, to say things that historians either can’t or won’t. Hamilton makes a really interesting argument, gets the important facts right, and will get people interested in asking more questions. As a historian, that’s more than I can ask for.

34 responses

  1. Thanks for this report, Joseph–I will make a point of visiting NYC and getting tickets this year.

    As someone who has just completed a book in which I had to imagine some scenes and experiences into being, I’m definitely on the more latitudinarian side of historians and artistic license. (Also, why not include a few chirping birds to put your readers in mind of a cityscape full of steeples? Historians are too rigid for their own good sometimes.)

    You write, “If a student or scholar submitted a paper that argued that the Revolutionary era was really a hip-hop-style battle, we would reject it out of hand.” I would say it depends on the genre of writing we expect and the goal of a given assignment. Why not let our students imagine Early Republic politics in the form of a rap battle or slam poetry? If their work demonstrates that they’ve read the books and absorbed the major arguments, why not let them “do” history in a way that might speak to their own creative and artistic impulses? I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all, especially if it would inspire a student to really work and learn.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ann. I included the aside about Lepore as a way, I hoped, of showing how ridiculous the review process can sometimes be (and that barely scratches the surface of the lunacy that’s been launched her way, but was relevant).

      I agree that for our students imaginative projects are often a great way of encouraging critical thinking in just the way you mention–and I have the assignments to show for it. I suppose it’s a matter of how it’s presented – such an analogy in a more standard research paper would be frowned upon more than, say, if the assignment were to create something. I’m obviously still thinking through how to express what I want to about the show, because I do think it gets at something about the era it discusses in a way that traditional historical accounts have found difficult. Ben raised similar questions in his reply, and I may have better answers as I keep responding.

    • Well said. I, too, was accepting of college student papers such as you describe so long as they showed an understanding of the material at hand, the book(s), article(s) etc., I recieved some very sound & clever papers over the years from bright students. It was clear they were not taking a shortcut to the assignment.

      I have always thought that some of the best history has come out of a historical novel. Only a relatively few of us read Ellis, or Morgan. or Froner, or Issacson, or on & on! So if physics or lit or elementary ed majors in my class can demonstrate their understanding of Morgan’s “Puritan Dilemma” their perspective I’m in their corner.

  2. Great piece. I mean, whenever a historian wants to use metaphor, they’re being imaginative in just this sense, right? Take a look at Joe Ellis’s Founding Brothers, for instance, where he says “a kind of electromagnetic field…surrounds this entire subject, manifesting itself as a golden haze or halo for the vast majority of contemporary Americans, or as a contaminated radioactive cloud for a smaller but quite vocal groups of critics” (p. 12).

    Now, some of those metaphors (like the radioactive cloud) might be anachronistic in that they’d be just as unrecognizable to his eighteenth-century subjects a rap battle would. Some writers, on the other hand, are sticklers for using more “contemporary” metaphors (like the overused “warp and woof”). Either way, I don’t think historians shy away from these “imaginings” as much as you might think, it’s just that most published historians didn’t grow up with hip-hop and would be unlikely to imagine a Federalist Era Cabinet fight that way.

    Nowadays I could see lots of historians making this kind of analogy in the classroom (especially if they’ve seen “Hamilton”), and perhaps someday soon we’ll start to see it in their texts as well. As a comparison, check out the ways Russ Castronovo uses memes, narrowcasting, and wikileaks in “Propaganda 1776”; he’s a literary scholar, sure, but I don’t think you’re giving scholars quite enough credit, here.

    • It’s worth adding, I suppose, that the inclusion of rap battles isn’t just about imaginative metaphors, it’s also about making reference to a genre of music that is (like a lot of other forms of American music) grounded in African-American culture. And most historians have not just been “too old to grow up with hip-hop” but most have also been white. So there’s a way in which Lin-Manuel’s musical is a triumph because he’s taken the deadest, whitest, and malest characters of the Revolutionary Era and come up with a way to tell their story from a non-white perspective. THAT’S the part that I think most historians would have trouble emulating.

      • On this point I completely agree. I think that someone more skilled than me should write a piece exploring the way race operates in the show, both from the perspective of the music and cultural references but also the cast itself. There was a link above to the Ishmael Reed piece that questions why African-American actors would portray slaveholders like Washington. For me, that fact is far more interesting than Reed allows, suggesting the subversion and/or transgression of the “founding story,” with really fascinating results.

      • Hmmm. Like hip-hop itself, this musical seems to be quite popular with wealthy white audiences, so you might want to consider whether the message being received is the same one being sent. (Seriously, walk by a frat house sometime if you want to hear what I mean.) The Chernow-Freeman interpretation of Hamilton (if I may) — the scrappy bad ass who rose from nothing (“straight outta Nevis”-surely someone already used that) and treated politics as manly single combat — lends itself to rap battles, when you think about it. It is also an interpretation (and a self-image) quite popular with New York plutocrats, as Mike Wallace pointed out in sadly now-vanished online essay “Business-Class Hero.” Anyway, the musical sounds brilliant and I wish I had attended the mass historian viewing, but the “non-white perspective” sure sounds easy to appropriate.

        • Not sure whether you meant this to me or Ben, but either way it’s a fair point to keep in mind. I’m of the school that cultural appropriation happens regardless of the author’s intent, but this is a fascinating case study of the ways in which race can be appropriated. (I went to a mostly white high school in the 90s where hip hop was popular.) I’m smart enough to be dumbfounded by watching a show in which a Puerto Rican plays Hamilton and African-Americans play Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Burr … but not smart enough to know what to make of it (nor figure out how the audience fits into the equation).

          I don’t know whether anyone’s framed interview questions to Miranda about the appropriation of a well-to-do audience, but I’d be curious to hear his thoughts.

        • Jeff is absolutely right. Folks who think they’re getting an objective take on Hamilton and his politics from Ron Chernow should go straight to Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder, which explains the New York political contexts for the Burr-Hamilton feud and argues that Burr, not Hamilton, was the modern progressive figure. Nobody’s pointing out the pattern of exaggerating Hamilton’s (and other Federalists’) antislavery and how much it informs the new Hamilton cult that was on offer at the Brookhiser-curated NYHS exhibit and so well deconstructed by Mike Wallace (thanks to Hattem for providing the new Gotham Center link = this was also discussed at the time on one of the H-Net lists) . If you saw that exhibit, you could at least say that Hamilton’s militarism was given its due – though not his cynical manipulation of Christian devotion to attack the Democratic Republicans. How about some of those contemporary resonances? We never hear of them from his fans, and no one has addressed whether Miranda deals with them, and I suppose he does not.because his sources do not.

          • David, thanks for taking the time to comment. Your post sparked me to think through some of the issues that have been raised in the comments thread at a bit more length, which I’ve done in the main thread below.

          • As I wrote in my review, while David Brooks did rave about “Hamilton,” that’s emphatically not a reason for historians to shun it. As I said, “the show leaves room for many other reactions,” and to my eye while Miranda’s Hamilton comes off as a hero in some respects, the character also comes off as something of a selfish, prideful jerk, which leads to catastrophic results. Burr does garner sympathy, as do some of Hamilton’s other dramatic foils.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. My students would be the first to tell you that I don’t give enough credit! (Thanks, I’ll be here all week, and be sure to tip your waiter.)

      Seriously though, it’s entirely possible I’m not giving enough credit. But I think I’d make a categorical distinction between analogies and thorough-going re-imaginings. To take your example, that is, Ellis isn’t rethinking the Early Republic as an electromagnetic field, he’s making a rhetorical point in his introduction to illustrate how people see the Founders. Miranda, on the other hand, isn’t just making a comparison, he’s completely reinventing the founding from the inside out. That suggests to me a different level of metaphor.

      As for Castronovo, his work deserves more space than just in the comments here, but I actually found his use of modern communication tropes rather problematic because of the way the work bounced back and forth from past to present without working through the implications, especially in terms of how they operated differently. Seeing that two things are similar doesn’t necessarily justify a comparison.

  3. Thanks to all for your comments and questions. I want to pull together a few threads about race and slavery to see if I can think further about how I approach them (at the risk of writing a post-length comment). As I see it, there are several distinct but interrelated questions about the show:

    1. Does Hamilton accurately portray Alexander Hamilton’s views, positions and actions about slavery?

    Probably not. Miranda certainly takes a Chernowian line towards this issue, offering a few glances towards Hamilton as an anti-slavery advocate and holding out John Laurens as a tragic lost hope for a South that headed a different direction after 1783. So the show certainly does not represent either the tenor or nuance of where most historians are in terms of any of the “Founding Fathers” and slavery, which would suggest that the issue was far more complex and often leaves the FF in question looking worse rather than better. (As an aside, Chernow gets billing as part of the show’s “creative team.”)

    2. Does Hamilton adequately address the issue of slavery as it related to the politics of the 1780s and 1790s?

    This question is tougher as I see it, in no small measure because it bends a great deal more to matters of interpretation and the subsidiary question of the obligations of the artist. As a matter of time spent, no, there’s not a whole lot of time devoted to slavery. There’s the brief subplot about John Laurens in the first act, an offhand reference to Sally Hemings, and several references to Hamilton as anti-slavery, but no deep examination of slavery either as a matter of national politics or as part of the characters in the show (including Jefferson, Washington, and Madison, three leading lights of the Virginia gentry).

    First, I will say as a practical matter that we’re talking not about additions to the show but changes; that is, something would have to be cut. The show is jam-packed as it is, clocking in just under three hours. (Miranda mentioned in his conversation with the group of historians that there was an additional number on slavery that got cut for time. Also additional snark about John Adams.)

    From the show’s perspective, though, I don’t know that devoting more time to slavery would make sense. In essence, the show is a character study, or really a relationship study. Hamilton is the hub as the show examines his character through his rise and fall, using a set of pairings with Hamilton: Burr (of course), Washington, Lafayette, Madison, Jefferson, Laurens, Eliza Schuyler, Angelica Schuyler, Maria Reynolds. That these relationships can be discussed without deep reference to slavery doesn’t mean that they should be, but I also don’t know that the show would gain all that much in its narrative telling by exchanging the material it currently explores for material about slavery debates. (My opinion on that could change once the book is published and available, and so I can work off of more than my memory.)

    So on this question I’d say that I’m comfortable with how it approaches the issue, though I understand the importance of slavery as a national political issue and could see how some (all?) might disagree with me. And as I noted in a previous comment, I still think that all of that aside, the contemporary race politics of the show are complicated in ways that have not yet been fully discussed either by Miranda or critics.

    3. Is the average person (say, someone who’s taken a gen ed survey course in American history in college but won’t ever take anything else) better off as a student of the past for having seen Hamilton?

    I think so, which I suspect I made clear in the original post. Even given the possible flaws noted in the comments section, I would still rather have someone see this than not, in part because it see the show as something that is more likely to energize inquiry than to satisfy it. It does a number of interesting things with the Revolutionary era that do well by the history, as I argued, and will probably spur people to ask more questions about a range of issues. Or to put it a bit more cynically, we could do a lot worse for popular interpreters of history than Lin-Manuel Miranda.

    • I agree with that last sentence, really that whole last paragraph. We’ve gotten away from the point that got my back up (that Miranda may be telling a better/truer story about the past than professional historians, which I think is a claim too far) and into more specific questions about Miranda’s interpretation. And that runs the risk of degenerating into a somewhat disorganized free-for-all, since not all commenters have seen the show. My original review did mention the potential problem of “Federalist Chic,” and I helpfully linked to Professor Pasley on that point.

      Anyway, now that I’m cued into thinking about historical re-imaginings I just came across this, which I have to share. “As farmers drove their carts into town delivering produce, the patriot organizers stopped each cart and did a mock ‘stamping’ of the goods, a piece of street theater worthy of the Marx brothers.” [This is Alfred F. Young describing the events of August 14, 1765, in his essay “Liberty Tree: Made in America, Lost in America,” p. 328 of _Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution_ (NYU Press, 2006).] I spent a moment wishing that the Marx Brothers had re-imagined the American Revolution on the scale of “Hamilton,” but then I realized that “Duck Soup” actually takes us part of the way there.

      “If any form of pleasure is exhibited,
      Report to me and it will be prohibited!
      I’ll put my foot down, so shall it be…
      This is the land of the free!
      The last man nearly ruined this place he didn’t know what to do with it.
      If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it!
      The country’s taxes must be fixed, and I know what to do with it.
      If you think you’re paying too much now, just wait till I get through with it!” [fife solo]
      –Rufus T. Firefly https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSsUoxlSADk

      • I was about to apologize to my friend Ben for not returning to his “Bastard out of Nevis,” the first review I read six months ago….

        But then I did go back and I found that, well, saying that he “noted” the Founders Chic aspect is literally true, but that’s about all. It’s more like he waved it away:

        ” It is ‘inspired by’ Ron Chernow’s biography and retains a bit of its Federalist Chic [here is where Ben linked Jeff’s Common-Place article, “Federalist Chic”], but Miranda has read more widely, in both primary and secondary sources, about Hamilton’s life and the history surrounding it. Indeed, the results are almost everything historians could want.”

        “Everything historians could want” is more complimentary than Joe’s conclusion that “we could do a lot worse for popular interpreters of history than Lin-Manuel Miranda.” So it seems that Joe has backed off his provocative remark that, as Ben paraphrased it, Miranda has interpreted Hamilton or the era better than historians. Anyhow, it is the unwarranted claims about scholarship and history (i.e the notion that historians in the field think Chernow is the last word on Hamilton, when some of us have been critiquing that work as part of a reactionary school-in-the-making for oh, about 15 years) that has my back up; otherwise I’d not comment on the show, and I have been careful to ask questions rather than make conclusions.

        I would add that saying that slavery material did not make the cut because it is a “character study” strikes me as a rather vulnerable defense, for two reasons: 1) Founders chic historians emplot slavery when it serves to upraise the character of their heroes, i.e. Adams and Hamilton, and diss their flawed characters, i.e. Jefferson. (2) We have numerous books about “the politics of character” in this period, it’s a central trope in some of the better founder-themed work: if we can agree that such a thing existed and that the politics of slavery was important nationally as early as the 1790s, as Joe concedes, then we ought to expect that these things existed in relationship to each other, in history as well as in recent historiography.

        Finally, I agree completely with Ben’s impulse to give Groucho Marx the last word, so I’ll remind everyone that this tune from Duck Soup is a response to, and incorporates, the song that Groucho has already mocked: “Hail Fredonia” – a straight line from there back to 1798’s “Hail Columbia”!! :

        “Hail, hail Fredonia
        Land of the brave, and, free!!!”

        I await something on whether Miranda has given Hamilton and his Federalists a free pass on their war-mongering (and early red-immigrant-baiting of the opposition) to stay in power. THAT is what the immortal Duck Soup is about — going to war to solve domestic problems. If hip-hopping Hamilton makes that seem even a tad more chic, well then I’ll stick with Groucho — and perhaps another Marx who had a few things to say about that, too.

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