In defense of Hamilton's 'great man' theory of history
If you haven't been living under a rock, you've probably heard that there's a show on Broadway right now that's kind of a big deal. Hamilton, the musical based on the Ron Chernow biography, has been praised by a vast array from critics and commentators of all political stripes. The right loves Hamilton for its unequivocally earnest patriotism. And the left loves it for diversifying Broadway in terms of style and casting; deeply rooted in rap and hip-hop, the show deliberately casts non-white actors in the roles of the various founding fathers.
But now, the show is starting to come under fire for taking historical liberties to tell a very traditional "great man" story of the founding.
Progressive commentators have for some time raised the objection that the financial system Hamilton put in place had real regressive consequences for the distribution of wealth and financial power, consequences that are not highlighted in the musical. Others have noted that the show soft-pedals Hamilton's deep distrust of democracy.
More recently, though, a louder shot was fired by Lyra Monteiro in an essay in The Public Historian, charging that Hamilton — ironically — white-washes the reputation of its titular hero with respect to race and slavery. The show depicts Alexander Hamilton as a scrappy immigrant striver resolutely in favor of abolition, but doesn't mention that his wife's family benefited from slavery nor his own willingness to compromise with slave interests in the service of building a stronger union.
Worse, from the perspective of these critics, the show's non-traditional casting allows it to disguise the degree to which it tells the story of the founding in a very traditional way: as a matter of great men building great things. While much of the cast is black and/or Latino, the only non-white character in the show is Sally Hemings, who has no lines and exists basically to remind the audience of Thomas Jefferson's intimate relationship with one of his slaves. Theatergoers of all ages now know the name of Hercules Mulligan, the tailor-soldier-spy who made an outsized and heretofore unsung contribution to the American Revolution — but none of them will learn from the show itself how important Mulligan's slave, Cato, was to the success of his espionage.
It's tempting to dismiss these complaints out of hand by saying: If you don't like the show, write your own. And, indeed, the only effective way to respond to a story is with another story — and there is no question that the resounding success of Hamilton has made it much more likely that a play that might please critics like Monteiro better from an ideological perspective will get its own shot.
But I think the objections deserve a fuller answer than that, and a defense of precisely what they object to — that is, the way in which Hamilton makes a "great men" story more accessible and less objectionable than it otherwise would be.
While it's important to complement history from above with history from below, history from above is still really important. The United States did not emerge whole from the pen of Thomas Jefferson like Athena from the head of Zeus — but neither did it emerge spontaneously from the disparate actions of tens of thousands of nameless men and women. Concrete decisions were made by people with outsized power and influence, and those decisions had consequences.
A good part of Hamilton's achievement is to demystify the view from above while retaining the romance and sweep of the story of the founding. In the show's first rap battle cabinet meeting, Jefferson talks about rights and liberties, which Hamilton punctures by pointing out Virginia's pecuniary interests, intimately bound up with slavery. But the point is not to make Jefferson out as a hypocritical villain — it's to say: This story is still exciting, and still inspiring, even once you know a lot of it is about money and power.
This is essential to the story of Hamilton — and also to the character of Alexander Hamilton as depicted therein. As I wrote of the show in an earlier, pre-Broadway incarnation:
[Hamilton's] story is a quintessentially American one, of a young guy on the make and determined to make it to the top on his own merits and in his own way, and because this is his story and America's story that turns out to be what America was about all along. Yes, there's lots of high-minded talk of revolution and freedom but what that comes down to when you strip away the pretense is a bunch of guys who didn't want to wait, who were ready to take their shot and weren't going to give it away.
That's not the only way to understand America by any means, but it is a pretty good way in for a contemporary audience — and not just a New York audience. More to the point, Hamilton, a young hustler who couldn't hide his own ambition if he wanted to, but who also had a profound sense of honor and integrity for which he was willing to sacrifice, well, ultimately everything, is the perfect figure to deliver the message that those are attributes that can coexist in a single person, and a single nation.
Teaching the American founding as the story of great statesmen gathering to create the first large-scale republic in human history out of sheer genius and public-spiritedness is not merely false, it's obviously false, and hence unlikely to inspire anyone of independent mind and spirit. But the Howard Zinn approach to American history, while emphatically worth engaging with, can't ever rise above being a critique of traditional history. It can't displace it. Nor can it ever really tell you what it must have been like to be in the room where the founding happened.
Hamilton does that: It makes the founding present, so we can understand it in our own terms. It doesn't so much bring the founders down to our level as bring us up to theirs. Instead of having us believe they were born great, the show submits that they were present at an extraordinary time and rose to the occasion that their moment in history offered them. "Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now" is the lyric — not, "gosh, you guys in the audience are so lucky it was us who were alive back then instead of you."
Some people in the audience will be blessed — and cursed — with considerable ambition. Some could imagine themselves as Alexander Hamilton, as Lin-Manuel Miranda did — or as his dark doppelganger, Aaron Burr, who I suspect Miranda understands pretty well, too. Most of those people will be Americans, and speaking to them matters, because how they direct their ambitions will do much to shape the country's future.
Because the show's story is the story of our nation's founding, you might think it would speak to them automatically. But most of them will not be lineal descendants of the founders, or of anyone alive at the time of the founding. Even the tiny minority who are will have grown up in a very different America, culturally-speaking — or so they think. The audience might well start from a position of either inferiority, or opposition, or feigned indifference — on the grounds that these people are not their people. If they are to have any relationship with the American past, then, it will be akin to that of Major General Stanley — from Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance — to his "ancestors":
General Stanley: I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.
Frederic: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco in your baronial hall is scarcely dry.
General Stanley: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.
That's why Hamilton matters, and matters for being exactly what it is: yet another telling of the story of the American founding that focuses on those same old Founding Fathers. It's not about how we feel about them — it's about how they make us feel about ourselves. They are our ancestors, unavoidably, and as long as we are Americans we will necessarily have a relationship with them and their work. The question is whether that relationship is more intimate or more alienated. Hamilton — because of its non-traditional casting, because of the writing and musical style, because of the way the story is told, and just because it's so good — does an exceptional job of building that relationship anew, and letting all Americans imagine themselves in the founders' lives. That's nothing to sneeze at.
Of course, history from below is a pretty darned important thing for audiences to imagine their way into as well. That's perhaps especially true for the members of the audience that look like what the founders actually looked like. Not to take away much-needed jobs from actors of color, but maybe there's a place for non-traditional casting here as well? Anyone care to see The Color Purple played by an all-white cast? It would probably be horrible — but it might very well be instructive.