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. 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.
 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.