Why 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.