Yes, Hamilton is a masterpiece. The tunes are great, the costumes pleasing, and the melding of rap and hip hop with 18th century constitutional wrangling inspired. You should stream it on Disney Plus as soon as you can.
But there is something unconvincing about the musical retelling of the US treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton’s life. The work’s politics sit oddly with the history of the time, even if they make sense in a year where American shame about its past is felling statues nationwide. Its progressive ‘narrative’, as the kids say, makes for dubious history.
Americans have of course been rewriting the story of their country’s founding since before the revolution. Hamilton is notably for its form – usually simplified to the founding fathers do rap – as well as its pro-immigrant, pro-ethnic minority bias. As its creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda says, it is “the story of America then, told by America now”.
Central to this is not just the reliance on predominantly black music forms like hip hop and modern RnB, but the casting of ethnic minority actors in most of the roles. Ron Chernow, author of the biography Hamilton is based on, told the New York Times that this effectively writes non-white people into the founding fathers’ story.
Not everyone has been impressed. Lyra Monteiro, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, New Jersey, criticised the musical for being too focused on the deeds of great white men. She complains that the contributions of non-white people to the American revolution have effectively been erased:
America “then” did look like the people in this play, if you looked outside of the halls of government. This has never been a white nation. The idea that the actors who are performing on stage represent newcomers to this country in any way is insulting.
Hamilton’s treatment of race and slavery as issues has also been criticised. Annette Gordon-Reed, professor at Harvard University, Massachusetts, writes that the concepts are introduced “primarily to establish Hamilton’s ‘goodness’ for modern audiences”, burnishing his progressive credentials:
He is depicted as an ardent abolitionist, which he was not. The Manumission Society, of which he was a president, was extremely moderate and not at all an abolitionist outfit. He is said to have owned two enslaved people and bought and sold them for others. He was much better than other founders on the question, but almost certainly did not believe that the colonists would “never be free” until people in bondage had the same rights as everyone.
Taken as a whole, the musical’s angle takes a progressive, Whiggish view of history in which America’s founders set the country on course to become one nation under Barack Obama. Yet as Monteiro told the New York Times, the founders “really didn’t want to create the country we actually live in today.”
To my eyes the American revolutionary war makes more sense as a civil war between two sets of ‘British’ elites, one based in London and attached to the monarchy, the other comprised of mercantile interests in the north-east of the Thirteen Colonies and the farming and slaving interests near the coast of the American South.
The argument blew up over taxes, raised by the British in part to pay for the military protection of the colonies during the Seven Years’ War. At stake was the authority of the London monarchy and parliament to oversee affairs in its North American colonies. Having been left largely autonomous under a system of ‘salutary neglect’ before the war, the colonies resisted, sometimes with high-faluting language about the natural rights of Englishmen.
When shooting started in Lexington and Concord in April 1775 neither rebels nor loyalists were concerned about the interests of black slaves or Native Americans, except as they related to grand strategy. London opposed colonial expansion west because of the risk of spurring European imperial conflicts, while British officers occasionally promised black slaves their freedom if they fought the rebels – but these were tactics. The war was mostly managed and fought by ethnic Britons over political control, at least until the French entered to hurt London’s interests.
The experience of the conflict made a nation of the inhabits of the newly-created United States (much as the War of 1812 would prove pivotal in defining Canadian nationhood). Yet slavery endured another 80 years, Native Americans continued to be persecuted, and waves of immigrants faced backlash from nativist elements that favoured ‘Anglo-Saxon’ stock.
That America has since mostly departed from this insular view and expanded its definition of citizenship doesn’t change what the history was. Hamilton provides a progressive, pro-immigrant gloss that doesn’t even tally well with its subject’s life.
Sure, he was an outsider, but the border between British subjects and Americans was fairly porous during and after the revolutionary years. To call him an “immigrant” seems anachronistic. And as others pointed out, he was sympathetic to big financial interests and the monarchy while being lukewarm on migration and slavery – not an obvious progressive.
Hamilton is still great art, and historians will usually celebrate any interest generated in their subject, but its politics are misleading. Perhaps for America to survive it needs to spin a new lie about itself, but in the age of Black Lives Matter and the 1619 Project, its omissions may see it become to Obama progressives what the London Olympic ceremony is to discarded Blairites in the homeland.