hip-hop opera about America’s first secretary of the treasury sounds like a hard sell, but Hamilton has broken records for advance ticket sales since its opening on Broadway in the summer. Its initial run off-Broadway in the spring had already made it the most celebrated theatrical event of the century thus far. Hamilton’s writer and composer (and star), Lin-Manuel Miranda, almost instantly became a major cultural figure in the United States, and for good reason. I saw it in its unveiling, when it was a four-hour work in progress, and again in September on Broadway, by which point it had been scrubbed, sanitized, and trimmed for Broadway crowds. Both times Hamilton struck me as artistically important and insightful. It is also remarkably timely, in ways Miranda surely did not expect.
Hamilton is being performed as American institutions are being convulsed by a collective identity crisis over how to reconcile the realities of the past with the ideals of the present. At its best, this crisis has led to the sort of vigorous public debate seen in South Carolina, whose state legislature voted in June to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of its Capitol. At its worst, the crisis has taken an Orwellian turn at elite universities, where the complexity of the American experience is being consigned to a fate even worse than the dustbin of history: annihilation by academic committee. Harvard Law School’s dean has appointed a committee to explore replacing the school’s seal because it incorporates the family crest of a slaveholder who endowed the University’s first professorship of law. At the same time, the heads of Harvard’s residential colleges unanimously agreed to abandon the medieval academic title “Master” because it had also been a slaver’s word. (Whether Harvard stops dispensing Master’s degrees remains to be seen.)
History is not a process of free association; nor can historical injustices be rectified by banishing offensive artifacts from view. History is a discipline—a gathering of evidence to reconstruct the past and a critical exploration of its contradictions and complexities. If there is a single unifying theme in American history, it is this nation’s ongoing struggle to live up to its founding ideals—a struggle that has played out on the battlefield, in the courtroom, in the political process, and in the shaping of popular sensibilities.
This is why Hamilton is so important. It both depicts and embodies the dynamism and synthesis at the heart of America’s founding. It does so primarily through an artistic medium, hip-hop, in which synthesis is an essential creative device. Hip-hop artists sample musical refrains, lyrics, and dialogue in their work, engaging in an ongoing discourse with musicians of the past while creating something new in the process.
The “dead white men” of the founding generation are portrayed as complex, imperfect individuals by a largely non-white cast. Color-blind casting this is not.
The government framed in 1789 represents a synthesis of the best attributes of the British Constitution with political principles refined during the Enlightenment based on the lessons (both cautionary and salutary) of ancient and modern republics. The Constitution contained the mechanisms for further dynamism and synthesis as the American experiment continued. The amendment process established under Article V yielded the Bill of Rights, the abolition of slavery, and other attempts to create “a more perfect union” over successive generations.
The casting of Hamilton speaks to this dynamism. The “dead white men” of the founding generation are portrayed as complex, imperfect individuals by a largely non-white cast. Color-blind casting this is not. Race is conspicuous and salient, serving to underscore the paradoxes of a nation founded on ideals of liberty and equality but in which both were denied to vast segments of the population. But at the same time, the casting highlights the durability of those founding ideals.
Just as the new nation has reinvented itself over time, the protean cast reinvents itself between acts. Act One’s Marquis de Lafayette, that great friend of revolutionary America, becomes the Francophile Thomas Jefferson in Act Two. Revolutionary-era spy Hercules Mulligan becomes political tactician and theorist James Madison. And John Laurens, the abolitionist son of the prominent South Carolinian slave trader Henry Laurens, becomes Hamilton’s own young son. This is called “doubling” in the theater, and in this case, doubling works to personify the transfer of American ideals from war to peace, rebellion to governance.
Miranda’s musical composition is likewise highly suggestive of the synthesis of high and popular culture that occurred during the Revolution. The pamphlet battles of the imperial crisis are distilled into Purcellian counterpoint as the loyalist cleric Samuel Seabury and a teenage Alexander Hamilton confront each other (quite literally) in the bustling marketplace of revolutionary ideas. This single encounter, in which Seabury implores his listeners to throw themselves upon the King’s love and mercy, yields to the thundering outbreak of war. With New York Harbor under relentless siege, General Washington takes stock of his dwindling resources. Here, the guttural snarls of Missy Elliott’s hip-hop song “Lick Shots” (slang for “open fire”) punctuate the sound of heavy artillery. And as the British ultimately surrender at the Battle of Yorktown, a chorus sings snatches of the English drinking song “The World Turned Upside Down.”
This last musical quotation is no mere artistic flourish. By the 1830s, “The World Turned Upside Down” had become part of American apocrypha, as it was said that Lord Cornwallis’s troops grimly sang the song as their commander surrendered at Yorktown. While it is doubtful that this actually happened, the significance would not have been lost on earlier generations of Americans. The song’s title conveys the historical import of America’s victory of Britain, but the lyrics themselves (which were written during the English Civil Wars a century earlier) offer a cautionary tale of the excesses of revolution. The song laments the repression of Christmas celebrations by a puritanical parliament: “Command is given, we must obey, and quite forget old Christmas day:/ Kill a thousand men, or a Town regain, we will give thanks and praise amain.”
The American Revolution did not go the way of the English Revolution of the 1640s or, for that matter, most revolutions of the modern era. In America, appeals to ancient rights and liberties did not end in totalitarianism, zealotry, thoughtcrime, and repression. Rather, the American Revolution was founded in liberty and has tended toward liberty ever since. The expansion of the franchise, the emancipation of slaves, and the extension of civil rights to women and minorities have all been part of the process through which successive generations have tried to give force and meaning to the Spirit of ’76.
Hamilton is at its best when it addresses just how improbable it was that the American experiment survived its first few decades. The Confederation period before the election of the first president and the drafting of the Constitution barely get a passing mention. (A problematic number on Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 did not make it into the Broadway production.) But the Washington administration is treated with great sensitivity and insight, revealing the singularity of our first president’s leadership. Rap battles during Cabinet meetings signal the early emergence of sectional differences, the ticking political time bomb represented by slavery, and the precarious geopolitical position of the young republic as Britain and France warred in the Atlantic. “Winning was easy,” Washington tells Hamilton. “Governing’s harder.”
Hamilton’s treatment of the greatest scandal in Hamilton’s life is particularly ingenious. A prolific writer, Hamilton was mindful that future generations would judge him by what was written about him during his own lifetime, so he spared no ink in challenging his detractors. When a blackmail scheme surrounding his marital infidelities threatened to destroy his reputation, he did what any modern PR guru would recommend: He preempted his enemies by confessing the scandal, publishing details of the sordid episode in a pamphlet.
In the show, the pamphlet goes viral at a frenzied 142 beats per minute, the sort of dubstep rhythm one would hear at a drug-addled rave. Electronic percussion is layered with an orgy of taunts, mockery, and gasps of revulsion as a riveted public crisscrosses the stage, pamphlets in hand. And in the quiet personal heartbreak that follows, Hamilton’s betrayed wife sits alone on a dark stage, burning her husband’s love letters (a bit of creative license on Miranda’s part).
Hamilton succeeds in sending Americans back to their roots at a time when too many are quick to tear them up and cast them aside.
But Hamilton is art, not history. Miranda omits Hamilton’s final excruciating hours during which he pled for last rites from an Episcopal bishop, who doubted that his was a soul worthy of redemption. The bishop eventually relented, and one of Hamilton’s final acts was to forgive Burr.
Sticklers may bristle at the characterization of Lafayette as a champion of freedom, at the fudging of the young nation’s financial history, and at the compression of ideas and events over time. Nevertheless, Miranda’s masterwork captures in unlikely and innovative ways the electrifying synthesis that has animated American history since the Founding. To the extent that Hamilton succeeds in sending Americans back to their roots at a time when too many are quick to tear them up and cast them aside, this work of art accomplishes more than a formal work of history ever could.
Bernard Bailyn has written that history is a craft, “never a science, sometimes an art,” in that it demands that the historian balance the scholarly quest for objectivity with the subjective experience of memory. He described this challenge in the context of the study of the slave trade: “We can approach the subject objectively, impersonally, but only up to a point, beyond which we find ourselves emotionally involved. The whole story is still within living memory, and not only for people of African descent. We are all in some degree morally involved and must consider the relationship of history and memory.” Bailyn’s artful historian is mindful of this tension and responsive to it.
This approach is not representative of the more fashionable currents in American historiography that are responsible, at least in part, for the broader cultural crisis in which Hamilton appears. Over the course of recent decades, American scholars have attempted to transform the historian into a moral censor by conflating the craft of history with the experience of memory. By this account, it is not enough for the historian to attempt to reconstruct the past and understand it on its own terms. Rather, the historian has a moral responsibility to condemn the past and its role as the progenitor of present injustices. The historiographical focus turns from sweeping narratives, which are characterized as triumphalist or morally obtuse, to narrow accounts of disenfranchised peoples—subjects worthy of study to be sure, but not to the exclusion of all else.
Taken to the extreme, this approach compromises not only the study but the teaching of American history. If the “dead white men” of the founding era are written off as hypocrites, then studying their achievements is tantamount to whitewashing their irredeemable moral defects. As the writing and teaching of American history becomes more fragmentary and censorious, so too does the possibility of students achieving a genuine understanding of the nation’s past. It is little wonder, then, that campus protestors frequently fixate on artifacts, stripped of context, as symbols of ongoing injury: It is easy to view a symbol as a direct personal affront when one is ignorant of its multivalence and complexity.
Today’s controversies might be over the sheaves of wheat on Harvard Law School’s crest, the statue of the slavery-preaching politician and theorist John Calhoun on Yale University’s campus, and the openly racist Woodrow Wilson’s name on Princeton’s School of Public Policy. But it is only a matter of time before the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial come under fire as national celebrations of slaveholders. The crowning achievement of Hamilton is that it encourages the audience to treat the past not as a moral affront to the present, but as a challenge to it. It forces the audience to view the founding generation as neither heroes nor villains, but as individuals faced with formidable choices in transformative times. What is more, it dares the members of the audience to imagine how they will continue the story that began in 1776. The signal achievement of Hamilton is that it invites the audience to be part of the creative synthesis that the production represents.