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. Continue reading

Alexander Hamilton’s Originalism

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We should read each legal document according to the plain sense of the text: the sense that was understood by its authors, or perhaps by the people by whose authority it became law. The task of interpretation is, in essence, a historical one. It should be concerned with past realities, not present conjectures. That is as compelling a definition of originalism as I can muster.

I’m not going to get into originalism deeply here. I just wanted to share a few lines from the pen of Alexander Hamilton. There’s a point where the argument for originalism folds in upon itself logically: the point where originalist historians and lawyers want to show that the authors or ratifiers of the original text intended or understood it to be interpreted according to its original intent or meaning. Originalist historiography then becomes a historiography of originalism itself. Lawyers, in my small experience, tend to like this, because they like doing the history of other lawyers. Continue reading