Guest Post: Michelle Orihel, “A Pamphlet War In Song: Teaching Revolutionary Print Culture with the Musical, Hamilton

We are pleased to share this guest post from Michelle Orihel, an Assistant Professor of History at Southern Utah University. Dr. Orihel received her doctorate from Syracuse University and is currently working on a book manuscript about Democratic-Republican Societies in the post-revolutionary period.

HamiltonWhen I first listened to the Hamilton soundtrack last fall, the song “Farmer Refuted” caught my attention. The song stages a pamphlet war that began in November 1774 between Samuel Seabury, an Anglican minister in Westchester County, New York, and Alexander Hamilton, then an upstart New York college student. Their war of words over the First Continental Congress carried on for nearly four months and encompassed several tracts.[1]

Pamphlets were the social media of the American Revolution. They gave people a place to talk, argue, complain, and gossip about current issues, particularly during times of controversy or crisis. The publication of one pamphlet sometimes prompted another pamphleteer to respond in print, which often provoked a counter-response, and another, and so forth. These pamphlet wars reflected and shaped the arguments that people had in everyday life—in their households and in taverns, coffeehouses, and other public places. If the Revolution had a soundtrack, pamphlets were it.[2]

It is not surprising, then, that Hamilton’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda framed a song as a pamphlet war. As a print culture historian, I knew that I had to bring that song and those pamphlets into my classroom. So, this spring, my students and I addressed that topic in an upper-level course on early American history.

Students prepared for class by reading the first two tracts from the Seabury-Hamilton dispute. In class, I lectured on pamphlets and the print media in early America and we listened to “Farmer Refuted.” Then, the students divided themselves into Hamilton’s supporters and Seabury’s supporters. Each group of students aimed to understand the logic of their respective pamphleteer’s argument. The debate that followed set the stage for our discussion of what had been gained and/or lost in the transformation from revolutionary pamphlet war to Broadway musical number.

We concluded that the song conveyed the essence of the dispute between Seabury and Hamilton, but it did not situate that pamphlet war fully within its historical context. Nonetheless, it captured the competitive world of revolutionary print culture.

In 1774, the Continental Congress devised a policy of non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption for resisting the Coercive Acts, which Parliament had recently passed in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party. This policy entailed cutting off all trade with the mother country. Through the Articles of Association, Congress established committees in local communities to enforce this boycott, in effect attempting to govern people’s everyday actions.[3]

Seabury’s first pamphlet, Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress, argued that the measures of Congress would bring economic ruin to the colonies. Congress, the minister asserted, did not possess the authority to enforce such measures because it was an illegitimate assembly. In the musical, Seabury sings to his listeners/readers:

Heed not the rabble who scream revolution
They have not your interests at heart.

Chaos and bloodshed are not a solution
Don’t led them lead you astray
This Congress does not speak for me.
They’re playing a dangerous game.

These lines effectively communicate the fear that Congress was pushing the colonies toward an unnatural rebellion against the mother country. As extra-constitutional bodies, Congress and the local committees acted outside of the authority of established colonial governments. According to Seabury’s pamphlet, these “upstart lawless Committeemen” did not represent the colonists. Instead, they threatened to bring, as the song says, the “chaos and bloodshed” of a civil war to the British Empire.[4]

While Seabury repeatedly sings the above verses, Hamilton disruptively raps over the minister:


He’d have you all unravel at the
Sound of screams but
the Revolution is coming
The have-nots are gonna win this.

Hamilton’s lines convey the often unstated ambitions of men like himself who used extra-constitutional organizations like the local committees and the Congress as a means for advancing themselves politically and socially, a way for men without power—“the have-nots”—to rise in status.

However, in Hamilton’s response to Seabury, A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, he argued that Congress sought merely to restore the rights of British subjects rather than launch a revolution against Great Britain. By pushing the action forward to 1776 rather than depicting the historical moment of the winter of 1774-1775, the song falls into the whig history trap of assuming the inevitability of a certain historical outcome—in this case, the success of the American Revolution.

Indeed, Miranda’s Hamilton makes Seabury seem ridiculously out of step with that revolutionary future. “It’s hard to listen to you with a straight face,” Hamilton mocks the minister. Even the musical styles in which the competing pamphleteers sing—Seabury in a minuet variation and Hamilton in a rap—reinforces that contrast between the British, colonial past and the progressive, American future sung to a hip hop tune.[5]

Eventually, Hamilton’s rap drowns out Seabury’s voice and, in the song, Hamilton wins the pamphlet war. After all, he is the star of the show. Yet, reading the actual pamphlets and learning about the historical moment of their publication enabled my students to recognize that Hamilton’s victory wasn’t the only possible outcome of that war of words. My students acknowledged that Seabury’s warnings of economic ruin, disorder, and civil war would have resonated with many colonists in 1774 and 1775 and that the future of British North America was highly uncertain at that time.

Despite these criticisms about chronology and historical inevitability, “Farmer Refuted” illustrates well the combative world of print culture in the late eighteenth century—pamphleteers using print to fight for readers’ attention, trading insults, and turning each other’s words against them. In the musical, a reader responds to the first lines of Seabury’s song/pamphlet with “Oh my God. Tear this dude apart,” a sentiment which was probably not far removed from the reactions of many patriots who wanted another pamphleteer like Hamilton to counter Seabury’s argument.

In the end, the discussion of “Farmer Refuted” successfully captured student interest. Originally, I had devoted one class period to this discussion, but the students engaged with the subject so thoroughly that our discussion stretched into two sessions. Hamilton inspired me to address the subject of revolutionary pamphlet wars in class, and I suspect the musical motivated the students to read those pamphlets more intensively than they might have otherwise been inclined. By analyzing a song from Hamilton in light of the primary sources on which it was based, students had an opportunity to think about number of important issues: the relationship between old and new media, the role of extra-constitutional organizations in the coming of the revolution, and the importance of context and chronology in history. In my experience this past semester, Hamilton helped me start a valuable conversation with my students about how we tell the story of the American Revolution and what it means to us in the present.


[1] For great accounts of the Seabury-Hamilton pamphlet war and its larger context, see Benjamin H. Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 52-70; Philip Gould, “Wit and Politics in Revolutionary British America: The Case of Samuel Seabury and Alexander Hamilton,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 41, no. 3 (2008): 383-403.

[2] The classic work on pamphlets during the American Revolution is, of course, Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967). On the links between old and new social media, see Ariel Ron, “Rediscovering the Pamphlisphere,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, September 12, 2013.

[3] For recent interpretations of the significance of the turn to extra-legal organizations in 1774 and 1775, see T.H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); Ray Raphael and Marie Raphael, The Spirit of 74: How the American Revolution Began (New York: The New Press 2015); Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty.

[4] The quotation “upstart lawless Committee-men” is from Samuel Seabury, Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress, held at Philadelphia, Sept. 5, 1774 (New York, printed; London: reprinted for Richardson and Urquhart, 1774), 23.

[5] Alexander Hamilton, “A Full Vindication Of the Measures of the Congress &c, [15 December] 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives ( Source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 1, 17681778, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 45–78. For the classic critique of Whig history, see Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1965). Christopher Minty and Nora Slonimsky make the point about the Seabury-Hamilton pamphlet war being set in 1776 in their review of the musical. See “Historians Attend Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, August 7, 2015.

7 responses

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Michelle Orihel, “A Pamphlet War In Song: Teaching Revolutionary Print Culture with the Musical, Hamilton“ — The Junto | Revue Zamano

  2. Excellent article. Thank you for sharing the books at the end and links to the Hamilton pamphlet. I have now added the book recommendations to my already extensive reading.

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: “Have You Read this?:” Teaching About Early Republic Print Culture with Hamilton « The Junto

  4. Pingback: Hamilton: An American Musical in teaching and public outreach | Historiann

  5. Pingback: Teaching About Early Republic Print Culture with ‘Hamilton’

  6. Pingback: Hamilton in the Classroom – Hamilton: An American Musical Syllabus


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