Can great art also be great history?

Author:Owen, Kenneth
Position:Critical essay

On a street just off Times Square, you can nightly see one of the more unlikely crowds in New York. There's a sense of anticipation on the street; inside a theater that holds little more than a thousand paying customers, you can find an atmosphere rivaled only by the nation's largest sporting events. The air of excitement only builds when the production starts: the appearance of each character on stage is greeted with rapturous cheers. And the subject of this adulation is a figure more associated with constitutional and economic debate: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. In producing a musical that has transcended Broadway and passed into the broader public consciousness, Lin-Manuel Miranda has achieved a remarkable feat. Americans aren't just discussing the American Revolution because their state educational standards demand it. They are talking about the late eighteenth century because it's cool.

As an early American historian, I have found myself caught between two contradictory reactions to this phenomenon. On the one hand, it is wonderful to see so many people enthused and energized by a tale of the American Founding. On the other, Hamilton portrays a distorted, if popular, version of early American history. Since the late 1990s, there have been a flurry of biographies of well-known (and lesser-known!) Founding Fathers, most famously David McCullough's (2001) biography of John Adams. Academics have vocally criticized these books for their very safe, traditional version of the American Founding, in which the visionary wisdom of a small coterie of individuals secured independence and greatness for posterity.

More recent academic works have tended to focus either on unheralded contributors to the revolution (e.g., Young, Nash, and Raphael 2011) or on broader, structural historical currents. The attitude of the profession is perhaps best summed up by a collection of essays entitled Beyond the Founders (Pasley, Robertson, and Waldstreicher 2004), in which a number of historians of the early republic examine ways in which political historians can look beyond the most elite officeholders to give a more rounded view of popular political activity in the late eighteenth century.

Hamilton stands somewhere strangely in the middle of these two camps. To celebrate the first secretary of the Treasury, a man who often relied on the patronage of George Washington and was never elected to federal political office, is a conservative choice that owes much to the personality-driven popular narratives of the Founding era. Yet in having Hamilton, his friends, and his enemies rap, dance, and verbally spar their way to forming a new government, Lin-Manuel Miranda presents the revolutionary elite as a vibrant, energetic, rambunctious crowd, in stark contrast to the fusty and distant figures often presented in high school textbooks. The race-conscious casting of the musical, in which all leading cast members are people of color, also modernizes traditional interpretations of the Founding era. Indeed, the politics of the twenty-first century clearly lurk beneath the surface of the script.

Alexander Hamilton the character has clearly been finely tuned to appeal to a modern urban audience. A scrappy immigrant from the Caribbean, "coming up from the bottom," Hamilton arrives in New York, "the greatest city in the world," where "you can be a new man." (1) Beside the gushing tributes to the musical's home city, Hamilton has received accolades for its race-conscious casting; several references in the songs also portray Hamilton as an abolitionist. One of the biggest cheers in the whole performance comes when the Marquis de Lafayette remarks to Hamilton that as "immigrants--we get the job done!"

For all the modernity of presentation, though, Hamilton's narrative hews to a deeply traditional interpretation of the American Founding. Miranda has frequently acknowledged that the musical was inspired by Ron Chernow's (2004) eight-hundred-page biography, and the narrative of the play does little to challenge Chernow's hagiographic treatment of Hamilton. Almost anything Hamilton touches in his military or political career turns to gold; his failings are explained away as purely personal (most notably his affair with Maria Reynolds). The play has thrust many fresh faces into the national consciousness, and Miranda's deep love of both Broadway musicals and rap music lends the production a remarkably vibrant creativity. But, at heart, Hamilton remains a deeply familiar story--the hero narrative of the revolution familiar from McCullough (2001), Chernow (2004), and Joseph Ellis (1997) (2) recorded to a hip-hop soundtrack.

The historical imagination required simply to tell Hamilton's life in this manner is substantial; for Miranda to have achieved this in such an engaging and entertaining manner is remarkable. For starters, the production has to maintain some narrative focus while covering more than thirty years of history in about three hours. Although Hamilton certainly takes some liberties with historical details, many deviations are necessary to avoid overcomplicating an already long story. For example, it doesn't affect the overarching interpretation...

To continue reading