Wait for it, Wait for It – The Academic Response to “Hamilton” The Musical

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It was inevitable that there would be members of the academic community who would not be able to hold off forever from sniping about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s staggeringly successful musical, Hamilton.   To many academics, the idea of ceding what they believe as their rightful position as arbiters of history is unthinkable.  I discovered this during the writing of my book about the Presidential Libraries.  To my perhaps naïve surprise I learned that many academics believed that the presidents themselves should be allowed no role in the historical analysis of their own presidencies, but saw themselves as the necessary arbiters between the public and the “truth.”  Academics seem equally concerned about any presidential library’s attempts to make their exhibits enjoyable and interesting, especially to kids.   This, they sniff, is turning a serious pursuit that should be left to trained scholars into a visit to a “theme park.”

So I knew as soon as I listened to Hamilton that some of these scholars had to be straining at the bit to attack this production.  How are we to put up with a rap musical, something that is actually funny and fun?  Something, moreover, that seems to excite young people, many of whom are viscerally turned off of American history?  Not only is the play outrageously successful, but Manuel is now receiving awards.  Not just the Tony’s, mind you, but awards like the Pulitzer and the coveted George Washington Prize, which are usually given to historians.  Oh dear, this will never do.

Slowly and tentatively, the complaints have begun.  I recently saw Jefferson scholar Andrew Burstein giving a discussion about the sage of Monticello at the David Library which is located at Washington’s Crossing in Pennsylvania.  He filled his speech with side swipes at Miranda, as if Hamilton the musical was an amusing but ultimately irrelevant subject that he just couldn’t help but mention in passing a dozen times despite its being unworthy of his notice.  One of his complaints was the usual Jeffersonian argument that Hamilton was no prototypical immigrant hero but, in fact, an insufferable elitist who sought to create a government in the style of England’s – something that would make his rich friends become richer friends.  Fair enough.  Any book on either Jefferson and Hamilton will receive complaints from the alternate camp, and both sides have merit.  But there was more than the substance of they play that bothered Burstein, and he made this clear when he snidely commented, to appreciative titters of laughter, that Hamilton had never in his life begun a sentence with the word, “Yo.”

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He is right of course.  Hamilton never said, “Yo.”  But let’s take a step back and see what Lin-Manuel Miranda is doing here, since it is something that far too many teachers and academics fail to do.  He is presenting history in a way that connects those who lived in the past with those of us who live in the present.  When he read the Ron Chernow biography during a summer vacation, he was struck with the idea that Hamilton was the perfect subject for a rap musical because he was a man who succeeded by dint of his words; words he piled one upon another so prodigiously and with such dangerous abandon as to exasperate both his friends and his enemies.  However, by creating a rap musical he was sure to put off many of the elderly white history buffs who made up Burnstein’s audience on the day I saw him.  “The musical makes Jefferson so ethnic,” I heard one grey-haired lady whisper to another.  “Jefferson was actually very quiet, very polite.”  Yes he was, but his pen was not.  It is his pen which makes him remembered, and it is his pen, his writings, which Manuel so successfully brings to life.

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Can we admit here that we are in a crisis when it comes to the teaching of American history, and that each succeeding generation seems to know less about our origins than the one preceding it?  As Executive Director of Bow Tie Tours, a non-profit historical touring company located in Philadelphia, I have seen first-hand the lack of connection Americans have to their history.  A large part of the problem is due to the difficulty of having honest conversations about race and our origins.  I tell people that they certainly are not required to admire the Founders and that they are not wrong if they choose not to, but that whatever color or ethnicity they are, the Founders were fighting for their rights as well as their own, whether they knew it or not.  You can hate them, you can disparage them, but you should not ignore them, because their story is an important part of the American story.

By using a multi-cultural cast, Manuel says this a lot better than I possibly can.  It is a large reason for the production’s success, but it has opened him up to academic criticism.  By using people of color, argues Rutgers Assistant-Professor Lyra Monteiroin in the journal of the Public Historian, he is actually engaging in “Founder’s Chic,” a hip way of excluding blacks from their own history.  By making Washington and other Founders people of color Manuel is denying the reality of slavery, even though the play addresses slavery.  None of this would have happened, she adds, if Manuel had not worked with a “prototypical white historian” Ron Chernow.

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I am not sure what exactly makes Chernow a prototypical white historian since he spends a significant amount of space in his books on the issue of slavery and slave life.  I guess being white makes him a prototypical white historian.  As if all this were not damning enough evidence against Hamilton, Monteiroin adds that “conservatives…love it!”  In fact, everybody seems to love it, conservatives and liberals alike, but that may be even stronger evidence of its lack of scholarly gravitas.

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More criticisms are bound to arise.  Just wait for it, wait for it.  But here is the main point, at least to me – this musical has interested large numbers of young people of all ethnicities in the life of Hamilton.  And it has done so not with cheap tricks or false history.  Yes, he certainly takes factual liberties in order to add drama and context to the story.  But he still manages to tell Hamilton’s story – his version of Hamilton’s story – in a way that will bring people closer to understanding (and feeling!) both the man and his time.

Last week I was giving a walking-tour through the streets of Philadelphia to a family of four.   The older daughter was sixteen and she was only interested in Hamilton.  When we got to the plaque showing where Hamilton lived when he was the Secretary of the Treasury, I broke into the rap – “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…”  At first the girl was slightly dubious about joining a middle-aged white guy in a rap, but by the second line she entered in with me, and the two of us performed the opening stanzas right out there on the sidewalk.  “What’s your name, man?” I asked at the end, and she alone shouted out the reply with gusto to her admiring family:  “Alexander Hamilton!”  The family cheered and hugged her, clearly impressed by her knowledge of the opening lyrics.

At the end of the tour she told me she was going to take a try at reading the book on which her favorite musical is based.  And that, my friends, is how it starts.

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