Alexander Hamilton and the Inconvenient 1780s

Miranda HamiltonWhy does Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fantastically successful Broadway musical about the founder, skip over most of the 1780s in just one song?

The time from the victory at Yorktown to the Constitutional Convention was almost as long as the war itself, yet in the musical it merits barely a verse. Perhaps that’s not so unusual when it comes to public understanding of the founding era. But it’s worth asking what it’s all about. Eliding the 1780s reflects the way the shorthand narrative of the American Revolution goes—straight from victory in the War of Independence on to the new constitution and federal government, “non-stop.” Missing out most of the 1780s is the only way to make the revolution look like a single, coherent event. It smooths over a history that was riven with conflict and alternative possibilities, and makes it look like a straightforward path towards the federal republic that we know emerged.

If it’s not ignored, the other common way to treat the 1780s is as a moment of crisis, a “critical period” in which the fledgling republic found itself on the rocks, and a new generation of noble founders—with Madison and Hamilton in the forefront—had to join forces with the likes of George Washington to set it back on the right track. That’s the Federalist narrative of the constitution, one consolidated in John Fiske’s 1888 centennial work, and one that’s repeated in recent books that do deal with the period.

The idea that the true revolution was kept alive by the Framers fits right in with the one-revolution narrative. There is also, however, an alternative scholarly tradition that sees the Framing as more like an American counter-revolution. It starts with Charles Beard, and neo-Progressives like Merrill Jensen, but it took on a new complexity with Staughton Lynd’s critique of Beard, and with recent work like that of Terry Bouton and Woody Holton. When these historians look at the 1780s they don’t simply ask, how do we get from here to the new republic? They ask, what was actually going on?

In fact, the inconvenient 1780s embody all the contradictory and overlapping strands that made up the revolution itself, and American social order—or disorder. Battles over democracy, property, taxation, money, Indians, armies, commerce, land, and slavery make the 1780s an overture to the entire history of the early republic. And that history contains a continuing struggle over the nature of the American state and states, the meaning and extent of democracy and justice, and the proper character of American society.

What was Alexander Hamilton up to in the 1780s? He was at work as a lawyer, sure, but he wasn’t defending alleged murderers. He was defending property-owners, including the Tory Joshua Waddington, against what he deemed the unjust (read: redistributive) laws of New York’s elected assembly. Meanwhile, he was decrying the lack of deferential social order in New York, and writing pamphlets like the Phocion Letters that aimed to set strict limits on the extent of revolutionary democracy. With his financier and merchant friends, he helped establish the Bank of New York, thwarting a plan for a state land bank in the process. At every turn, Hamilton pursued the interests of the urban elite against increasingly unruly rural Americans.

It’s impossible to understand Alexander Hamilton, or the United States Constitution and the new federal government, outside that context. As Matt Yglesias has pointed out, Miranda’s version of the story obscures the class-based politics of exploitation that lay behind Hamilton’s policies as Treasury Secretary in the 1790s (see also William Hogeland’s rebuttal to early Hamil-mania). By making Hamilton a symbol of striving individualism, a star newly arrived from another galaxy, Miranda simply adds another attractive strand to an ideological myth that already pervades American culture: that history is solely the product of individuals who, by their force of will, transcend the circumstances that surround them.


16 responses

  1. Pingback: Alexander Hamilton and the Inconvenient 1780s | musnadjia423wordpress

  2. I do not recall a time when there was some thing I loved as much, but have such gnawing doubts about as this play. It is pure genius. I could see it multiple times. I listen to at least some parts of the soundtrack daily, and when I really think about some of the words it’s like “wha’?”

  3. If all “Hamilton” does is show young people why history is worth knowing, that it’s about them (or could be), that it’s exciting, then I’d say it’s done a much-needed service. I’d love to see more plays that could show just how exciting history really is and if they need to be written in hip hop then so be it. For some students (I work at a conservatory of music) it’s likely the first time they have ever thought about history (despite Les Mis or Candide) because it combines their language and their music.

  4. As someone who read Chernow’s Hamilton before the musical was conceived, I know that Miranda left out much of the 1780’s, but that is his prerogative: This is art, and artists are going to adapt/condense/leave out stuff from real life.

    As a journalist, I have to hew to the facts, and even so, I know that for time’s sake, I can’t include every detail. I have to assume that my viewers are educated enough to watch my reporting and fill in the gaps with their own knowledge. Sometimes they don’t know anything, and sometimes they contact me to tell me what I shouldn’t have omitted. It’s a balancing act.

    Rather than complain about the choice Miranda made, I’d rather use the moment to encourage people to pick up more history books and learn. Suggest texts, research, museums, etc. that people could turn to for their education. This is a great opportunity to have people deepen their knowledge, rather just rely on one Broadway production for the sum of their knowledge about the post-Revolutionary Era.

    **As a French major in college, I know that “Les Misérables” is a terrible way to learn about the Bourbon Restoration. But it’s still a good show!

    • Agreed! The purpose of this post isn’t to complain about the show, but to point out something broader: the tricky role the 1780s play in our historical interpretation of the period. If you’re looking for texts to read on this, I link to several within the text!

  5. I’m puzzled, maybe because I’ve written and published extensively about the 1780s, but my view of that history does not jibe with that presented here by my good friend and former co-panelist Tom Cutterham.

    * I’ve always thought that the Confederation years are an important part of the story, to illustrate the difficulty and contingency of founding a constitutional polity, at the state level and at the national level. So I’ve always taught it and written about it.

    * I’ve also thought that, although I would probably have inclined to the Federalist side in 1787-1788, those on the other side (Pauline Maier, heaven rest her soul, taught me NEVER to use the phrase Anti-Federalist in any of its variant spellings and capitalizations for the Constitution’s opponents) deserve deep respect and careful study. In fact, I remember, when watching filming of a sequence in EMPIRE OF REASON, a documentary retelling the ratification of the Constitution in NY, William F. Buckley Jr. leanng toward the audience during a break in taping a mock-FIRING LINE episode pitting Hamilton against Melancton Smith and saying, “You know, I don’t know which side I’m on. This is fascinating.”

    * Hamilton took Waddington’s case not to defend a Loyalist (actually I think he was British, not Loyalist) but to uphold the Confederation and the Treaty of Paris against an attempt to undermine them known as the Trespass Act of 1783. And, in RUITGERS v. WADDINGTON, the decision of the Mayor’s Court of the City of New York reconciled the Trespass Act with the 1783 Treaty of Paris under the law of nations.

    * I don’t recall the kinds of cases that Hamilton handled in the 1780s, but the Goebel and Smith LAW PRACTICE OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON volumes would show, as I recall, that Hamilton handled a great many cases, including at least some criminal defense work.

    * I do NOT read the Phocion letters as Tom does; rather, I read them as seeking healing between the two sides in New York politics after the Revolution, directly responding to the punitive views of Clintonians behind such measures as the Trespass Act.

    OK, so we can disagree, right?

    Tom’s essay nonetheless is an interesting and suggestive, even provocative reflection on the gap or lacuna in HAMILTON, a show that I admire deeply

    • Naturally, there are scholarly disagreements on this, and your view Richard is perfectly respectable. Fingers crossed, by this time next year you’ll be able to read my case in more detail in my book! I don’t want to suggest that absolutely nobody cares about the 1780s (just look at the folks I cited), but rather that I think Miranda’s *Hamilton* captures something about the way the period fits inconveniently in popular narratives.

      Just quickly on Hamilton’s legal work: I referred to it this way because I think it’s particularly telling that Miranda’s *Hamilton* brings the Levi Weeks murder trial forward from 1800 in order to substitute it for Hamilton’s actual most important trial in the 1780s, Rutgers v Waddington (and whichever way you dice it, that trial was about defending Rutgers’ property claims against the elected state assembly’s law).

  6. Wonderful article, and very engaging. I appreciated the educated conversation in the comments section as well. I’m not the historian most of the readers appear to be, but I was wondering if you could address the following: Much is made, in the musical, of Hamilton the immigrant. That struck me as strange as many colonials weren’t born in the colonies either–and Hamilton was from another English colony anywise. Does the musical’s reference to immigrants say more about current debates over immigrants and national origin, than it did in the latter half of the 1700’s?

    • Thanks James! I think you’re right that Miranda’s emphasis on Hamilton’s immigrant status is meant to have a contemporary resonance. I think it’s more than just a question of place, it’s also about class–the point of Hamilton as orphan immigrant is that he’s not a child of privilege like Jefferson or Washington. Making Hamilton the hero is a way for Miranda to make the Revolution a more inclusive story for people who might feel like it’s nothing to do with them. That’s one of the things that makes the musical so powerful, I think.

      For a scholarly-ish take on Hamilton as an immigrant, check out the late Thomas McCraw’s book on Hamilton and Gallatin, The Founders and Finance (Harvard, 2012).

  7. Pingback: Historians and ‘Hamilton’: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality « The Junto

  8. Pingback: History and Hamilton: An American Musical – Hamilton: An American Musical Syllabus


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