Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality

How does a crony capitalist son of a whore, and a militarist pumped up by delusional aspirations of honor, grow up to be feted by liberal scholars? [*]

Since the turn of the millennium, historians have lambasted the phenomenon of Founders Chic as a fundamental distortion of history. Placing the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era meant that popular histories exaggerated the importance of individuals, at the expense of understanding the contribution of less-celebrated Americans or the role of broader societal and historical processes. Yet much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine. It’s as if the only problem with Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Ron Chernow is that they didn’t write to a hip-hop soundtrack.

Hamilton represents the apotheosis of Founders Chic. While I have a deep appreciation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s artistic talent, his creativity and novelty in presenting historical vignettes does not mask the fundamental dangers of the musical’s historical interpretation.[1] In the same way that the heroism of the HBO series John Adams promotes a certain kind of hero-worship, so Hamilton will work against developing a complex, nuanced understanding of the American founding.

As the initial shock and excitement of seeing early American history at the forefront of popular culture has receded, historians have started to question some of the underlying assumptions of Miranda’s narrative. The Junto’s own Tom Cutterham got in on the act early, looking at the absence of ‘the inconvenient 1780s’ from the stage. Lyra Monteiro and Annette Gordon-Reed have astutely taken aim at Hamilton’s racial politics, while Nancy Isenberg has once again taken to print to defend the reputation of Aaron Burr. These particular critiques all point to a deep interpretive problem

Hamilton portrays all of Hamilton’s failings as failings of personality or of character. While he is recognized as a divisive figure—after all, what else would provide the dramatic tension?—the substantive grounds of disagreement get subsumed by personality clashes. When Hamilton’s opponents celebrate the fact “he will never be President now!” it is because of his sexual impropriety, and not the deep national unpopularity of his elitist and crony capitalist economic scheming. Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist are praised not for their quality, but only for their quantity. And in crafting a “scrappy immigrant” story, Miranda makes Hamilton’s rough edges those of a pushy up-and-comer, rather than the product of a man who was deeply anti-democratic, and owed most of his political power and prestige to patronage and nepotism rather than the approbation of the public.

As a result, the difficulties Hamilton faces in the musical’s narrative cast revolutionary and early Republic politics in a totally erroneous light. Hamilton was a lightning rod for criticism because he espoused a vision of national development that was in thrall to entrenched special interests. Some of his opponents were defenders of equally entrenched special interests, for sure, but many saw the way that Hamilton repeatedly ran into the protective arms of the merchant elite and the military, and feared what he was up to. When, in attempting to defend the Jay Treaty at a town meeting in New York, he did try and engage with the rough-and-tumble popular politics of the time, he had to leave the stage pursued by a rainstorm of bottles and rocks. In almost all of his other political engagements, he stayed as far away from the ballot box as he could.

Which brings us on to the most shameful part of Hamilton’s personality—his militarism. A narrative that really wanted to deal with the complexities of Hamilton’s character would engage seriously with the Newburgh Conspiracy. The fact that Hamilton was wise enough to realize he couldn’t achieve much without Washington’s support doesn’t mean that his actions in 1783 should be ignored. Not least because in 1794, Hamilton attempted to seize on the Whiskey Rebellion as a means to use military force to bring his political opponents to heel. Sending 10,000 troops to arrest 20 people is an exceptionally heavy-handed approach to policing. And in 1798, he harbored dreams of leading another army against American citizens protesting the curtailment of their rights to free speech—and used Washington to usurp his position in the line of command.

Hamilton wasn’t just an overeager pain in the ass who simply didn’t understand or didn’t much care for the social niceties of the Virginia planter class. He was a thoroughgoing elitist, convinced of his own superiority, and unlike others who fit that same description (like, say, John Adams), he didn’t care that the democratic process presented a roadblock to his ambitions—he’d simply find a commercial or military workaround. If Hamilton is a hero, it is a singular type of heroism.

What makes this perhaps most frustrating, from the historian’s perspective, is that the early stages of the musical recognize the importance of ideas within the nascent revolutionary movement. When Hamilton meets Burr, the latter is chastised for his lack of principle. “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?” This cleverly portrays Hamilton as a man of ideas, the heroic alternative to the single-minded pursuit of personal gain. Yet time and again, when Hamilton’s ideals stand in direct opposition to the hero narrative, they simply disappear. And so the audience’s image of Hamilton is not the antidemocratic, mercantile militarist, but the “young, scrappy and hungry” “immigrant coming up from the bottom.” The ideas of Hamilton’s enemies are derided as a convenient means of avoiding examining his own nastier, problematic sides.

As a result, Hamilton appears to use history more as a comfort blanket than as a serious means to enhance popular understanding of the American Revolution. That is something I find particularly concerning, because Hamilton (and its race-conscious casting) has often been held up as an example of how to modernize Broadway, or how to shift popular discussion of the American Revolution in a more progressive direction. At almost every turn, however, the historical philosophies underpinning Hamilton prioritize the Founders Chic model. When a comic villain is needed, King George appears onstage. When big political decisions are made, it is politicians’ egos, and not the effects of their policy stances, which take center stage. When Hamilton himself was, in real life, confronted for his antidemocratic policies, Hamilton the show remains resiliently silent. That makes Hamilton a lost opportunity. Insofar as it does raise progressive questions, it does so in only the most muted way—and in a way that allows a casual observer to retreat to the same comforting, comfortable narratives they would find on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble. It is a shame that such great entertainment fails to fully explore the complexities of the past.

_________________

[1] As hard as I try, I can’t tear myself away from the Cabinet rap battles, for example. And “My Shot” has become a personal motivation soundtrack ahead of challenging meetings.

[*] Clarification – added 4/21. This is a parody of the opening line of Hamilton. The use of the phrase ‘son of a whore’ is borrowed directly from Miranda’s lyrics.

27 comments on “Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality

  1. Tom Cutterham says:

    Ken, this is all very acutely observed, and I basically agree with you one-hundred percent. I just have one question: where are the gifs?!!!

  2. The Craftsman Redux says:

    I thought it was more “Federalist Chic” than “Founders Chic.”

  3. I have to agree with a lot of this too. I still have not heard a convincing explanation of why Hamilton is not Founders Chic. Indeed, to my mind, it appears to be the very culmination of Founders Chic. Yes, it covers some of the less savory aspects of Hamilton’s life and character, but so do so-called Founders Chic biographies. For me, Founders Chic––beyond its limited concern with very elite white males––is defined by focusing on character and attributing outsized significance to an individual (or, most recently, four individuals). Hamilton seems to me to do both (which should hardly be a controversial statement considering Miranda’s reliance on Chernow’s biography). Yet, historians’ reactions to the musical have differed greatly from their reactions to Founders Chic-type works (and Chernow’s biography, in particular, for that matter). There’s an inconsistency there that I don’t think has yet been satisfactorily addressed or explained. Are we, as historians, overlooking these issues because the play is generating so much interest in and attention to early America and the Revolution? If so, I can’t help but wonder… If the sum of all this attention and interest is just a lot of new readers of Chernow’s biography and that’s it: was it worth it? Will the musical, in the end, have done more harm than good?

    • troyda says:

      I think we need to consider, however, that if Founders Chic has “attribut[ed] outsized significant to an individual,” the reaction to it has committed many of the same academic sins. In an (admirable and totally legitimate) effort to introduce narratives of people who have previously been overlooked, it is as if historians have felt the need to justify introducing these new narratives by attributing outsized significance to *those* individuals, assigning them credit (or blame) for events far out of proportion to their actual role. This leads to much bigger problems – conclusions about themes and events that simply aren’t true.

      I share frustration that the common perception of the Revolutionary/Constitutional periods are that a half dozen key players and another dozen or so secondary players did everything. My research was focused on (mostly) little known individuals at the local and provincial level in the South who were responsible for overthrowing British governance in their provinces and, in those early days of the conflict, implementing the strategy that years later would eventually grind down the British army and send it to its defeat. But, these individuals – while not very well known – were largely white males who were comfortably members of the elite. It’s hard to get around this – for better or worse they held overwhelming control of political, military, economic, and social matters in the provinces, so it can hardly be surprising their role was particularly consequential.

      But to provide just one example, more than one historian has tried to “complicate” this narrative through discussion of slavery and its role in driving the South into the conflict. Through placing the wrong significance on events like the Thomas Jeremiah affair in Charleston or ignoring everything that occurred in the South for nearly a year before Dunmore’s Proclamation, some make the argument that it was threats to slavery or British attempts to instigate slave revolts that drove Southern entry into the conflict. But the actual evidence from the summer of 1775 shows that most of the leadership was at the time not particularly worried about slave insurrection – at least no more than usual throughout the history of the southern colonies – and were instead far more concerned about the threat of destruction British ships lying off of Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah could bring to those cities. Actions taken against loyalists – Indians, slave, free black, and white – were less about the threat posed by those individuals on their own and more about preventing the British from leveraging their support in destroying southern cities. This interpretation – that the primary cause for concern and southern entry into the war was the British threat rather than the threat of slave insurrection – leads to a whole set of different conclusions about the war in the South – whether it really was a civil war between Patriot and Loyalist, whether Patriot control over the situation in the colonies was really as tenuous as Woody Holton, Gary Nash and others suggest, and the actual strength of Loyalists in the south and British military failure during the southern strategy, to name just a few.

      So whatever the flaws of founders chic, the reaction to it has many of the same problems. I’ve seen historians reach conclusions from letters and other documents about the significance of rumored slave insurrections on Patriot actions against the British that are simply not supported by the primary documents they cite (and that I’ve used as well). There has to be some kind of balance, but we haven’t found it yet.

      If interested, I wrote about these questions in my very short-lived (as in these two posts are it) attempt to start a blog.

      https://generalcommittee.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/15/

      https://generalcommittee.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/was-the-american-revolution-a-civil-war/

      • Ken Owen says:

        Thanks for your reply, Troyda. For what it’s worth, I think we have a lot of agreement on the question of what should be prioritized in historical narratives. My first post here at the Junto wondered whether Young, Nash and Raphael’s edited volume Revolutionary Founders ran the risk of simply creating a more progressive, racially- and ethnically-diverse version of Founders Chic, when for me much of the problem with that mode of presentation is that it ignores what makes communities and societies react in the way that they do. (And leads to assumptions about leadership that don’t pay enough attention to why people follow). You can find that here: https://earlyamericanists.com/2012/12/13/herman-husband-and-failures-of-the-historical-imagination/

  4. While some think that Hamilton is hagiographic and it won’t advance our understanding of the early Republic—it is a musical, after all, and we can’t lose sight of that—I think it’s an incredibly important piece of art. By bringing in large audiences and generating huge amounts of attention, it has asked and will continue to ask questions about how historians engage with the public and other areas of the humanities.

    • Ken Owen says:

      Are they getting people to ask the right questions, though? I fear that the musical is simply directing more people to the Chernow biography and that is where they will stop. Because there’s a lot about the musical that encourages embracing comfortable narratives, and that can easily be used to stop asking some of the tougher questions that the show might otherwise have been able to raise.

      • The “right”—and by implication “wrong”—question(s) depends on a certain point of view. To be sure, if people stop at Chernow they might not have the fullest picture of AH, but perhaps rather than criticizing that biography it would be more productive to ask why people aren’t reading something that is considered to be more accurate or thorough.

        • But that would just in effect resurrect the academic vs. popular history debate, which really has not been all that productive. For myself, I am far less concerned with the specifics of the musical than with the musical’s reception by academic historians. It is an amazing piece of theater (and art, for that matter). I don’t think there are many people who would dispute that. Yet, I’ve seen a lot of rhetoric about how the musical is opening up new interpretations, new questions, and new ways of interpreting the past. Those are pretty big claims. Maybe I am missing something but to this point I have failed to grasp what exactly those new interpretations, possibilities, and questions actually are. Ultimately, I believe the overwhelming public approval of the musical by academic historians has imparted a sense of authority to the musical, intentionally or not.

          • I don’t think there should be a debate between public and academic history. The musical is doing what some ‘public histories’ do and what some ‘academic histories’ don’t do. Namely, although it is a musical and not a piece of scholarship, it’s making early American history relevant. With institutions in the UK and US pushing against funding the humanities, Hamilton is showing why that shouldn’t happen. It’s touching more people than HBO’s John Adams and will perhaps reach as many people as Ken Burns’ Civil War series. That’s the benefit of the show, one that is not restricted to people who identify as liberals. I would also be interested to see how the show affects student enrollment in courses related to early American history.

            NB I’ve not seen, nor have I been looking for, rhetoric suggesting that it’ll open up new interpretations. (I’m not sure how that can happen when it’s based on Chernow, either.)

  5. Very candid post..History most of the times is falser than mythology, so your attempt is really nice

  6. troyda says:

    Why is the objective to “shift popular discussion of the American Revolution in a more progressive direction” or “raise progressive questions?” Just curious.

  7. leesalazar says:

    I think historians are giving the show a pass because it’s hard to argue with great art. The problem, basically, is that the combination of the medium and the scope of the story Miranda wanted to tell precludes a lot of detail, never mind nuance and complexity in the presentation of such details. A good play of conventional length just can’t convey that much information and still be entertaining. Given that Miranda set out to show us the whole sweep and drama of Hamilton’s life, it’s inevitable that the various political issues would be dealt with shallowly or not at all.

    (I’m not an historian; I found my way to this blog because after listening to the play I read Chernow’s book, but I still wanted to know more — particularly about the connection/overlap between Hamilton’s military experiences and his politics. I’ve been filling in a lot of general information about the period by reading books and articles, I watched the HBO John Adams series, I’ve been watching Joanne Freeman’s Open Course Yale lectures on the revolution, and I’m reading another biography of Hamilton. But I need so much more information about the Newburgh Conspiracy!)

    Anyway, I think Founders Chic appeals because of a quirk of the human mind. When you focus a story (historical or fictional) on just one or a few individuals, the audience gets more emotionally involved. As a result, there will inevitably be periods when historical writing will trend toward focusing on the supposedly significant deeds of supposedly significant people, even though this leads to an incomplete and distorted understanding of history.

  8. Ken Owen says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply! And I’m delighted you found your way here after having curiosity from reading Chernow’s biography. As much as the post above points to the dissatisfaction I have with many popular biographies of Founding Fathers, I am also loathe to criticize things that generate interest in the period that I love studying and that I love teaching other people about.

    With Chernow, and others, I have problems with the way that they will portray their biographies as ‘definitive’, or talk dismissively of academic historians in the popular press, when so much of their work depends on the work of academics. Academic writing can, at times, be too hidebound by the need to reference the works of others, but it is dishonest of authors to pretend that their work isn’t reliant on a broader community of scholars.

    That’s a bit of a sidetrack, though, because I wanted to engage with your substantive points on the benefits of identifying historical stories with individuals. I’ve written another post here, on the importance of having historical heroes, but the difficulty that this causes in writing good history. (https://earlyamericanists.com/2013/10/09/historical-heroes/ )

    And broadly, I agree with you – good storytelling requires identifiable and relatable characters and events. But that can also lead to a certain shallowness, which emphasizes cheap and superficial similarities aimed at fast emotional connections, rather than subtler and more complex stories that can be difficult to grapple with. And my take on ‘Hamilton’ is that it too often tends to the superficial – the great man with his personal demons – where a more complicated picture would recognize that Hamilton’s ‘greatness’ was not recognized at the time, not just because of his personality, but because what he stood for was not how others conceived of American ideals.

    • Helen Kerr says:

      Thanks for an interesting post and comments.

      The job of an author is to sell books so it is expected that the product is presented as definitive, just as Miranda’s job is to present an engaging musical. For me, a desire for historical knowledge of Hamilton will/has led me to other books in addition to Chernow’s, often while streaming Miranda’s soundtrack in the background.

      Miranda is a gateway drug to Chernow and I’m hooked. I’ve moved on to Joanne Freeman so I think I’ve become a hard-core addict.

      May Jefferson forgive me.

  9. […] Owen, Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality (The […]

  10. K Maher says:

    I’m not a professional scholar but have been reading history for some time. Recently, Colonial & Revolutionary America–and the young Republic. (Not limited to the 13 original English speaking colonies, either.) Certainly there are many issues not included in this one play–but how can one artistic work contain every detail about these complex years?

    Even those less talented than Lin-Manuel Miranda might hope to get their historical ideas out to a more general, interested public. Or, should they? You speak with contempt of “the same comforting, comfortable narratives they would find on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble.”

    Is “truth” only available to those with advanced degrees in history? Is everybody who reads popular history books, watches the occasional miniseries & listens to this play doomed to eternal ignorance. (I said “listens” since most of us here in flyover country are waiting for the touring company.) Quite a few of us do search out more scholarly sources–but, deluded fools that we are, should we bother?

    Talk about “elitist”!

    (Isn’t it about time to retire “Founders’ Chic”? It’s a cutesie meme about as meaningful as calling Hamilton a Mary Sue.)

  11. […] devoured the #Hamiltome. Perhaps you’ve kept up with professional historians’ wide range of responses to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster. Maybe you’re even one of the lucky few who’ve managed to […]

  12. irenecolth says:

    What do you (or any academic early Americanists) make of the musical’s seeming dismissal of Jeffersonianism?

  13. s charlot says:

    I think academics could give the thoughtful lay public (of which I am one) a little more credit here. Anyone who thinks for a moment about what future historians will write about our current time — say, why we went to war in Iraq or what public opinion was of our first black president — knows those writings will be simplified and interpreted in ways that aren’t necessarily false, but are incomplete. The historical record will not preserve the full complexity of our daily existence. Even those of us living it now cannot agree on why certain events unfold the way they do, or what events mean about our national character, or what our fears are, or our hopes for the future. (In fact, the vast amount of data that *might* be preserved — all those tweets and Facebook posts and blog entries — could prove to be more distorting than helpful. It would be interesting to live long enough to see about that, but alas, we won’t.)

    Anyway, how could those Revolutionary times have been any different? The gift of a work of art like Hamilton is the bold, toe-tapping, gut-punch reminder that it *wasn’t* any different! These were real people living in uncertain and troubling times, not marble busts of “dead white guys” blandly talking about boring details in strange, stilted language. They had passions and made mistakes and did brave things and cowardly things. They had the full range of human emotion: they were frustrated, afraid, triumphant, loving, deceitful. None were perfect, but some were more honorable than others, just as some people are today. Some were smarter, some were bigger jerks, some were better husbands and fathers than others. Performance works like Hamilton and <John Adams, and even popular history books, serve an important function in bringing historical eras to life and making them seem real to us today in a way our high school textbooks couldn’t.

    Once you know, not just intellectually, but viscerally, emotionally, that historical figures were full human beings, it doesn’t take much effort to imagine the wider influences around them. The whole world can come to life. Our minds can more easily imagine common people facing the uncertainty of revolution, children, slaves, and wives of the founders, business associates, soldiers, innkeepers. (There was probably a tavern-keeper or two in Philadelphia whose stories you would die for!) People love popular history, NOT because they think it tells them the whole truth and nothing but, but because it gives them a window, a glimpse. It’s like a couple of hours in a time machine. We *know* it’s not a complete picture. We *know* there is always more than one side to a story. (The thing about sides to stories is that each side can be true, though never complete.) Don’t fret too much about us getting the wrong idea. We know life is — and was — complicated.

  14. […] 832-page doorstop (seriously, Mr. Miranda deserves a Nobel Prize for turning Ron Chernow’s hot-and-heavy love letter to Hamilton into entertainment), but I can attest to his meticulousness in explaining how […]

  15. […] that ‘Anything You Can Dream, You Can Be’ on a sugarcoated misreading of history that shuts down further inquiry. It slots the Founders into contemporary conversations too easily, and the cost to our collective […]

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