Alexander Hamilton as immigrant: musical mythology meets federalist reality.

Author:Magness, Phillip W.
Position:Critical essay
 
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A Hamiltonian revival is currently under way in American politics, exhibiting both a resurgence of interest in the life of the first U.S. Treasury secretary and, to some degree, a renewed enthusiasm for his peculiar brand of economic nationalism. Celebratory biographical depictions have played no small role in this pattern, with Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit Broadway musical Hamilton serving as a prominent popularizer of Alexander Hamilton's life story. Miranda's depiction falls short of hagiography, displaying certain complexities of his notoriously quarrelsome yet politically industrious lead character. The musical is nonetheless an endorsement of its subject matter against his contemporaries and a contributing factor to Alexander Hamilton's ongoing rehabilitation.

Miranda notably uses his production to cultivate a laudatory personal dimension in his portrayal of its historical subject matter. Throughout the production, he emphasizes the story of Hamilton as a self-made immigrant who rose to political preeminence despite his own low birth. The immigrant Hamilton, born out of wedlock on the Caribbean island of Nevis, stands in marked contrast to his high-born rivals Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr, each of them descendants of old Virginia and New England aristocracy. Hamilton's comparatively low status becomes a source of his internal drive and the results that follow. His background story emerges as a mechanism to introduce adversity into the plot, which Hamilton ultimately conquers through self-reliance rather than through the inherited privileges held by his main adversarial peers. The very basis of praise for Hamilton's character is derivative of and contingent upon his being a bastard immigrant in a world disposed to high-born inheritance.

The resulting production is a shockingly rose-colored depiction of Hamilton's immigrant identity that politely and carelessly overlooks several uglier dimensions of Hamilton's views on nationality and birth status. In particular, the musical sidesteps his assumption of a deeply nationalistic and elitist political outlook by the end of his life. The historical Alexander Hamilton made a number of outwardly baffling yet thoroughly attested turns against the same liberal immigration beliefs that Miranda seeks to illustrate with his character. From the early 1790s until his death in 1804, Hamilton's politics were marred by his alarmingly habitual deployment of nativist character attacks upon his own foreign-born political opponents. By the end of his life, his political beliefs actually placed him among the leading advocates of immigration restrictions in the Founding generation.

The resulting portrayal services a broad mythology as the primary basis for extending acclaim to its titular subject matter. As a stage production, the musical necessarily employs artistic license with its subject matter. Given the prominence of the immigrant theme to the story it tells, its factual oversights cultivate a deeply problematic historical image of Hamilton that scholars of the Founding era will likely have to contend with--and correct--for many decades to come.

The Hamilton Immigrant Legend

The immigrant dimension of Miranda's Hamilton enters the audience's consciousness in the musical's opening scene and remains a central point of reference until the curtain is closed. In the title song, the eventual killer of Hamilton, Aaron Burr, announces Hamilton's arrival in New York City from the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean:

Burr: The ship is in the harbor now See if you can spot him. Men: Just you wait. Burr: Another immigrant Comin' up from the bottom. Company: Just you wait. Burr: His enemies destroyed his rep America forgot him. (Miranda and McCarter 2016, 17). (1) Though Hamilton was technically an internal migrant of the British Empire, his self-made "immigrant" status is repeatedly put forth in the musical as a defining characteristic of his life as well as a primary virtue of his legacy. The references to this status are numerous and persist throughout the production. In the moment of American triumph at the battle of Yorktown, Hamilton joins the Marquis de Lafayette in chorus to announce "Immigrants: We get the job done!" (121). Hamilton's place of birth becomes a differentiating point between him and his political adversaries.

Aaron Burr, himself the scion of old New England Puritan stock, makes use of every opportunity to remind the audience of his rival's low birth, making it a major plot device for the tension between the two characters. Hamilton is accordingly introduced as the "bastard orphan, immigrant decorated war vet" (152) upon his appointment as secretary of the Treasury. When Hamilton enters into the "room where it happens" to confer with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, an increasingly jealous and excluded Burr reminds the audience, as if for a punchline setup, that "[t]wo Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room." In testament to Hamilton's negotiating skill, Burr grouses, "The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power / A system he can shape however he wants" (186).

As Hamilton's relationship with the other characters assumes an increasingly adversarial role, his political opponents quickly seize on his birth as a point of detraction, derision, and even dismissal. In one chorus, Burr, Jefferson, and Madison register their disdain:

Oh! This immigrant isn't somebody we chose. Oh! This immigrant's keeping us all on our toes. (200) In the play's depiction of Hamilton's confrontation over the Maria Reynolds sex scandal, Burr announces his suspicions of "[a]n immigrant embezzling our government funds" (229). When Hamilton tilts the presidential election of 1800 toward his longtime rival Thomas Jefferson over Burr, the latter can similarly only stomp around in disgust at the actions of this "immigrant, orphan, bastard, whoreson" (266).

On the precipice of the famous duel that ends his life, Alexander Hamilton is given the final word on the meaning of immigrant identity, bringing full clarity to Miranda's intended message. Hamilton dreams of a legacy in which other refugees, migrants, and low-born persons might come to enjoy the promises of self-made success in the country he helped to found:

It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference. A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up. I'm running out of time. I'm running, and my time's up. (274) Hamilton and Immigration as History

The musical's concluding sentiments attach an appealing lesson to the title character's life. As biography, though, the celebration of Hamilton's migrant story obscures the darker reality of his political career. Measured in three dimensions--his use of political attacks on immigrant...

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