By 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.