The Truth about McCullough’s John Adams

            When giving tours or giving speeches, I try hard not to come off as an insufferable crank (despite being one.)  This often requires a bit of dissemination on my part.  Such as when a woman tells me, her voice dripping with pride, that her husband is a great history scholar – he has read all of Bill O’Reilly’s books.  Given the world I live in, where both adults and children admit to me that they have no idea who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who we were fighting against in the Revolutionary War, and why did all of these battles take place on National Parks – I can only smile wanly and nod.  “Have you read them?” is the next, unavoidable question.  “Well, no, I spend more of my time reading history books by…you know, historians or writers.” 

            Given all of that, I can’t take umbrage when people tell me they love the David McCullough book, John Adams.  How could I?  It would be like complaining that you don’t regularly groom your animals in a slaughter house.  But let me let those of you who are reading my blog in on a little secret – I think John Adams is the most overrated history book I have ever read, and I think McCullough is a fraud.  (For those of you who reply, “I think he’s a great writer,” I can only offer the response that one can be both.)

            Before discussing this book, and the mini-series it spawned, let me note something about many, many well-respected authors and historians that I find amazing.  They act like children.  Too many historical writers feel the need to be totally on one side or the other in their character-driven narratives.  Thus, if they love Washington, they feel the need to hate Jefferson for his alleged apostasies against Washington.  Hamiltonians must hate Jeffersonians every bit as much as Jeffersonians hate Hamiltonians.  (Want to know something interesting?  “Hamiltonians” comes through fine on my computer, but “Jeffersonians” has that tell-tale red line under it, indicating a misspell.  When I check to see what might be more appropriate, it offers “Jeffersonian” without the s.  What, am I the only one left!)

            McCullough takes this tendency to extreme and ridiculous heights.  His book, which is a one-volume biography of Adams, spends more time kvetching about Jefferson than is necessary or appropriate.  Yes, I get it, I get it, he was mean to Adams, I know.

            I hear this all the time about Jefferson.  He was mean to Hamilton.  He was mean to Washington.  He was mean to Adams.  I respond, dispassionately – being a calm and impartial Historical Expeditionary – that he was on several occasions somewhat two-faced in his dealings with these guys.  This came from his twin tendencies – first, he did not like engaging in disagreeable personal invective but, second, he also did not want the country, this potential paradise on earth, to be turned into a pale imitation of England.  In other words, this wasn’t a fight over a girl in junior high school – it was about saving humanity.  It was about doing everything he could to save humanity by stopping the attempts of the Hamiltonians to to open the doors of the governing chambers to the speculators, and to bring about the festering, putrid land of corruption and moral decay that is the America of today. 

            Here, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem with the McCullough book.  He took a nice advance (his time must always be paid for) to write a book about Adams and Jefferson.  (Something that was just done by Gordon S. Wood.  Perhaps I’ll blog about it one day.)  But he didn’t like Jefferson.  Adams, on the other hand, made him feel all warm and squishy.  So, while most of the book is a long curricula-vitae on Adams’ accomplishments, another large portion is on how much Jefferson sucked.  He spent too much money.  He was a hypocrite.  Blah, blah, blah.  Meanwhile, Adams was a bastion of rationality and intellect.

            Now, let me make something clear here – I friggin’ love John Adams.  What historian – or, to be more accurate, Historical Expeditionary – wouldn’t?  I fell in love with history when my mother took me to the musical 1776, and I now revel in his journals and letters.  He is the one guy who really seems to let me know him through his written word, instead of letting me know the reputation he would like to leave behind.

            That being said, he is a larger than life, sometimes out of his mind, individual, like Churchill or Teddy Roosevelt, somebody who goes off the deep-end as often as he avoids doing so.  Benjamin Franklin’s oft-repeated quote could not be more accurate:  “Always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”  Joseph Ellis, who was kind of a dick to me when I asked him to sign several of his books at a book signing, comes much closer to the essence of Adams in his wonderful book, Passionate Sage.

            I love Adams.  But that doesn’t mean I want you to skip a thorough discussion of one of the great blights of his career, the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Act, which basically made it illegal to criticize the dude in print.  After grudgingly admitting that, yes, Adams did sign the Act (and blaming Abigail for telling him to do so), he is quick to tell us that it “must be seen in the context of the time, and the context was tumult and fear.”  Ok.  All the more reason not to engage in it, one might say.

            What bugs me the most about the book is its universal acclaim and its totally preposterous Pulitzer Prize.  Now that does bother me, because I am thinking of all the younger and hungrier writers who do not demand to be paid for each second of their time but who are killing themselves trying to write books that might further historical discourse and knowledge.  I don’t mind when well-known authors win the award if they deserve it – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln classic, Team of Rivals, comes immediately to mind – but am disgusted and dispirited when one wins it who does not. 

            Why do I call McCullough a fraud?  First of all, he starts the book with the seemingly obligatory orgasmic celebration of a “new” collection of journals and letters, in this case the Adams Papers.  All of which would be fine if he actually read them, but I don’t believe he did.  I found just about every quote to be familiar, most of them pulled, no doubt from the excellent two-volume study on Adams written by Page Smith in 1962. I’ve always hoped that some graduate student would take down every quote in the McCullough book, and then match them up with the Page Smith book. I’d be surprised if there were ten quotes in McCullough’s that were not already quoted in Smith’s.

            Then there is a talk I saw him do when he was telling the group how he had no idea what he would write about after Adam’s retirement.  Did anything happen?  Then, to his amazement, he “came across” a vast amount of fascinating material in the letters between Adams and his old friend Jefferson.  Ok, here’s the thing.  Everybody knows about that.  Are we to believe he was the one person with any historical background in America that had not heard about the famous Adams-Jefferson letters during their final years?  A fraud.

            What about the HBO Series, you ask?  For the most part I like it, and wish they would follow up with one on Washington or Jefferson or Franklin or Hamilton or somebody. I’m not crazy about Paul Giamatti’s performance. Why is he always screaming at his kids? But, the main problem, is I could never convince myself that he was John Adams and kept seeing him as Paul Giamatti. Personally, I would go for the 70s series The Adams Chronicles, which I thought was pretty wonderful at the time, and still do.

            So you have the book and were planning to read it.  Should you burn it?  Throw it out?  Put it in one of those weird little library boxes that are found on street corners throughout the country?  Well, here’s the thing.  I’m not telling you it’s a terrible book, only that it has defects and it annoys me.  McCullough is indeed a wonderful writer, and the world is a better one for this book having been written, since it brought John Adams into the light for many people who otherwise would never have thought about him one way or the other.  So it won’t kill you to read it.  You’ll learn stuff.  You’ll enjoy yourself.  You’ll be better off for having read it.

            But if you want to read the best biography on Adams, check out Page Smith’s two volume set that I already mentioned.  This is one of the greatest historical works I have ever read.  The guy deserved a Pulitzer!  He really did!

July 5, 1777


Hessians and British under command of German General Friedrich von Riedesel and British General Simon Fraser defeat the retreating Americans at Hubbardton.  American forces are commanded by Colonel Seth Warner with 730 men, with 41 killed in action, 95 wounded in action and 234 captured.  British forces had 1,030 men, with 60 killed in action and 138 wounded in action.  Although the Americans are defeated they fight off the enemy and gave General Arthur St. Clair’s troops time to withdraw.  The Battle of Hubbardton involved approximately 2,000 troops and resulted in approximately 600 casualties, losses on both sides was equal.

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July 5, 1777


American Major General Arthur St. Clair is not able to continue holding defense of Fort Ticonderoga and evacuates, leaving substantial supplies behind.  During this time, the British occupy an undefended Mount Defiance, which overlooks Fort Ticonderoga.

Join us at Bow Tie Tours for Philadelphia’s Best Historical Walking Tours.  Our “Independence Tour Extraordinaire” includes tickets to Independence Hall, as well as numerous other sites, such as 2nd National Bank, Graff House, Carpenter Hall, and Christ Church.  If you are interested in learning about George Washington, join us for our Valley Forge Tour.  For Civil War buffs, come see Gettysburg.  Or, for the true history buffs, contact us about taking part in our historical vacation packages.



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May 9 1776


General Washington urges General Artimus Ward, commander of the continental troops in Boston, to continue working on the defenses for the city.  He fears the British might return to the city.  Ward submitted his resignation on April 23, but was convinced to stay until a replacement could be found.

Washington also writes to General Lee a comprehensive letter discussing the siege of Boston and its aftermath:  “Your favour of the 5th Ulto from Williamsburg (the first I have receivd from you since you left this City) came to my hands by the last Post. I thank you for your kind congratulations on our Possession of Boston—I thank you also for your good wishes in our future operation’s—and hope that every diabolical attempt to deprive Mankind of their Inherent Rights and Priviledges, whether made in the East—West—North—or South, will be attended with disappointment and disgrace; and that the Authors—in the end—will be brought to such punishment as an injured People have a right to Inflict.  General Howe’s retreat from Boston, was precipitate—beyond any thing I could have conceived—the destruction of the Stores at Dunbars Camp from Braddocks defeat, was but a feint Immage of what was seen at Boston1—Artillery Carts cut to pieces in one place; Gun Carriages in another; Shells broke here; Shott buried there; and every thing carrying with it, the face of disorder & confusion—as also of distress.  Immediately upon their Imbarkation I detach’d a Brigade of five Regiments to this City—& upon their Sailing, remov’d with the whole Army hither, except four Regiments at Boston, and one at Beverley, &ca for Protection of those places—the Stores & Barracks there—and for erecting Works for defending the Harbour of the first—Immediately upon my arrival here I detached four Regiments by Order of Congress to Canada—(to wit, Poors, Pattersons, Greaton’s, and Bonds) under the Command of Brigadier Thompson—& since that, by the same Authority, and in consequence of some unfavourable Accts from that Quarter, Genl Sullivan & Six other Regiments, namely Starkes, Reeds, Wains, Irvines, Winds & Daytons have movd of[f] for that Department—(the four last Regiments are of Pensylvania & New Jersey)—The first Brigade arrived at Albany the 24th Ulto & were moving on when Accts came from thence the 27th2—the other Brigade must all be at Albany before this, as some of the Regiments Sailed ten days ago, and the last four, & the Winds very favourable—this has left us very weak at this place, whilst I have my fears that the Re-inforcement will scarce get to Canada in time, for want of Teams to transport the Troops &ca to Fort George, & Vessels to convey them on afterwards.  We have done a great deal of Work at this place—In a fortnight more I think the City will be in a very respectable posture of defence. Governors Island has a large & strong Work erected, & a Regiment Incamp’d there—the point below (call’d red hook) has a small, but exceeding strong Barbet Battery—and several New Works are constructed and many of them almost executed at other places.

General Ward, upon the Evacuation of Boston, and finding that there was a probability of his removing from the smoke of his own Chimney, applied to me, & wrote to Congress, for leave to Resign—A few days afterwards (some of the Officers, as he says, getting uneasy at the prospect of his leaving them) he applied for his Letter of Resignation, which had been committed to my care; but behold! it had been carefully forwarded, and as I have since learnt judg’d so reasonable—want of health being the Plea—that it was instantly complied with. Brigadier Fry, previous to this, also conceiving that there was nothing entertaining or profitable to an old man to be Marching & counter-marching desired (immediately upon the evacuation of Boston which happen[ed] on the 17th of March) that he might Resign his Commission on the 11th of April: the choice of the day became a matter of great speculation, & remain’d profoundly misterious till he exhibited his Acct, when there appeard neither more nor less in it, than the completion of three Kalender Months; the pay of which he receivd without any kind of compunction, although he had never done one tour of duty, or I believe had ever been out of his House from the time he enterd till he quitted Cambridge. so much for two Generals—I have next to inform you, that the Paymaster Genl, Colo. Warren, not finding it convenient to attend the Army, from the various Imployments and avocations in which he was Ingaged, also resignd his Commission; & is succeeded by your old aid, Palfrey.  When I was speaking of the distressed Situation of the Kings Troops, and the Tories, at their evacuation of Boston, I might have gone on and added, that their Misfortunes did not end here6—It seems upon their arrival at Hallifax, many of the former were obliged to Incamp, although the ground was coverd deep with Snow; and the latter to pay Six dollars a week for sorry upper Rooms, and stow in them Men, Women, & Children as thick (comparitively) as the hair upon their heads; this induced many of these Gentry to return, and throw themselves upon the Mercy, & clemency of their Countrymen, who were for sending them immediately back as the properest, & severest punishment they could Inflict, but death being preferred to this, they now wait, in confinement, any other that may be thought due to such parricides.”

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April 28, 1776


Colonel Lachlan McIntosh informs General Washington that he is pleased with recruitment efforts in the colony.  He concludes, however, that because the South has so little manufacturing, making the price of needed goods two or three times higher than in the North, procurement of clothing and arms was difficult.

John Adams writes to his wife, Abigail:  “Your Reputation, as a Farmer, or any Thing else you undertake I dare answer for…. Your Partners Character as a Statesman is much more problematical.  As to my Return, I have not a Thought of it. Journeys of such a Length are tedious, and expensive both of Time and Money neither of which are my own. I hope to spend the next Christmas, where I did the last, and after that I hope to be relieved for by that Time I shall have taken a pretty good Trick att Helm whether the Vessell has been well steer’d or not. But if My Countrymen should insist upon my serving them another Year, they must let me bring my whole Family with me. Indeed I could keep House here, with my Partner, four children and two servants, as cheap as I maintain my self here with two Horses and a servant at Lodgings.  Instead of domestic Felicity, I am destined to public Contentions. Instead of rural Felicity, I must reconcile myself to the Smoke and Noise of a city. In the Place of private Peace, I must be distracted with the Vexation of developing the deep Intrigues of Politicians and must assist in conducting the arduous Operations of War. And think myself, well rewarded, if my private Pleasure and Interest are sacrificed as they ever have been and will be, to the Happiness of others.  You tell me, our Jurors refuse to serve, because the Writs are issued in the Kings Name. I am very glad to hear, that they discover so much Sense and Spirit. I learn from another Letter that the General Court have left out of their Bills the Year of his Reign, and that they are making a Law, that the same Name shall be left out of all Writs, Commissions, and all Law Proscesses. This is good News too. The same will be the Case in all the Colonies, very soon.  You ask me how I have done the Winter past. I have not enjoyed so good Health as last Fall. But I have done complaining of any Thing. Of ill Health I have no Right to complain because it is given me by Heaven. Of Meanness, of Envy, of Littleness, of—of—of—of—I have Reason and Right to complain, but I have too much Contempt, to use that Right.  There is such a Mixture of Folly, Littleness, and Knavery in this World that, I am weary of it, and altho I behold it with unutterable Contempt and Indignation, yet the public Good requires that I should take no Notice of it, by Word or by Letter. And to this public Good I will conform.  You will see an Account of the Fleet in some of the Papers I have sent you. Give you Joy of the Admirals Success. I have Vanity enough to take to myself, a share in the Merit of the American Navy. It was always a Measure that my Heart was much engaged in, and I pursued it, for a long Time, against the Wind and Tide. But at last obtained it.  Is there no Way for two friendly Souls, to converse together, altho the Bodies are 400 Miles off?—Yes by Letter.—But I want a better Communication. I want to hear you think, or to see your Thoughts.  The Conclusion of your Letter makes my Heart throb, more than a Cannonade would. You bid me burn your Letters. But I must forget you first.  In yours of April 14. you say you miss our Friend in the Conveyance of your Letters. Dont hesitate to write by the Post. Seal well. Dont miss a single Post.  You take it for granted that I have particular Intelligence of every Thing from others. But I have not. If any one wants a Vote for a Commission, he vouchsafes me a Letter, but tells me very little News. I have more particulars from you than any one else. Pray keep me constantly informed, what ships are in the Harbour and what Fortifications are going on.  I am quite impatient to hear of more vigorous Measures for fortifying Boston Harbour. Not a Moment should be neglected. Every Man ought to go down as they did after the Battle of Lexington and work untill it is done. I would willingly pay half a Dozen Hands my self, and subsist them, rather than it should not be done immediately. It is of more importance than to raise Corn.”

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Museum of the American Revolution (Part One)


A good museum is a gift to all.  A bad one is more than just a missed opportunity; it is a canker sore to the collective soul.

It has been with a certain amount of trepidation that I have watched these last few years as, across the street from the First National Bank, a plot of ground slowly turned into a museum.  The trepidation came from recent history.  I am not a big fan of the Constitution Museum, which I consider al flash and outward beauty surrounding little inner substance.  I was concerned that the Museum of the American Revolution might be the same, a big, beautiful, dumbed-down museum full of cliché.  However, when I saw some of the museum’s creators and historians discussing the tent they had unearthed that belonged to George Washington at Valley Forge, I believe, it gave me both a tinge of excitement (I wanted to see that tent!) and hope.  These seemed like serious people discussing a serious subject.

I love museums.  My book, Chasing History:  One Man’s Road Trip Through the Presidential Libraries, is partially about the museums I visited at each of the thirteen official presidential libraries.  Some were old fashioned and some were new-fangled.  Some slanted toward their president’s point of view, some painstakingly neutral.  Some – most, actually – were very good, a few disappointing.

It was during my trips to the official presidential libraries that I stopped off to see the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and spoke to Tom Schwartz, one of the creators of the museum and a man credited with pushing museums up and into modern times.  He wanted to show Lincoln as a man, and not a god, and, toward that end, offered up something considered sacrilegious by some of the Lincoln stalwarts – instead of portraying him in statues, he put them in life-like form.  He put together a museum that is a fun, unpretentious, but generally authoritative and honest look at Lincoln.  It is not what I would call in-depth, but nor is it frivolous.  It is not a perfect museum – I would have liked a lot more meat on that bone – but it was a good one, and I could imagine it exciting the interests of adults and children and causing them to seek more information.

As I approached the new Revolution Museum, I hoped or something similar.  But, still, I couldn’t get out of my mind the disappointment I’d felt upon coming to that Constitution Center, couldn’t forget their program, a bit of stagy cornball Americana in which the narrator turns to her audience and says, portentously:  “We the people means…YOU…and YOU…and You…”  Still, I am a Philadelphia sports fan.  I hope for the best but prepare for the worst.  I still remember the first museum I ever saw that particularly struck me, which was the Salem Witch Museum around Boston, where I was on vacation with my family.  Everything I felt, saw, or ate was touched by the magic of summer and vacation.  But my favorite part was that museum, which did its best to exploit the excitement of witchcraft without ignoring the issues of human psychology that the event encompassed.   I stared at the wax figures unblinkingly, watched the portrayal of the men placing rock after rock on one of these unfortunate women.

So, you get the idea of what I am after.  I am after a touch of magic.

But…I am a historian as well.  I am disturbed enough about the lack of historical knowledge people have to have left my job as a lawyer and begun Bow Tie Tours, a non-profit meant to do what it can to reverse that trend.  This museum, of course, with its backing and its publicity can do much more.  It is important that it not waste that opportunity in an attempt to dumb down events enough to reach the addled, spoiled, video-obsessed and perpetually A.D.D. youth of our nation.

If this all sounds like a difficult job for those folks putting together this museum, I can only say that it is.

And so, today I went on-line and took the step of becoming a “Patron” of the Museum.  This meant I could take my time looking at the exhibits, not fly through them as most tourists will be required to do.  I want to see what it has to offer, and offer a fair appraisal.

Initial Reactions on my First Visit

 The first thing I noticed upon walking through the doors is the same thing I have been noticing all around Philadelphia lately, and that is an attempt to present things in a classy, posh manner.  Philadelphia has grown tired of its status as second class city, or, even worse, third world city.  Sometimes I sense a bit of an inferiority complex, as if it wants to be New York.  Well, it isn’t New York (thank God,) and if it wants to be treated seriously, it might want to upgrade its transit system before it worries about fixing up the Bourse Building and the Market Street East Mall and kicking the homeless out of Love Park.

Nevertheless, the outside of the building is beautiful, as is the inside which features a nice stairway (which is going to be a gigantic pain in the neck for people trying to go the opposite direction from a recently finished movie or event.). My first stop was on the first floor, where I saw a series of tables and projects for younger children to take part in, all of which with a colonial theme.  All well and fine.

Today’s main event for me was to be the main movie.  I felt that this would give me an idea of what to expect with the rest of it.  After all, it was the asinine program at the Constitution Center that truly caused me to go sour on the whole thing.  If this movie stunk, then probably the entire museum would stink.

And so I sat and I watched.  It didn’t stink.  No, in fact I was fairly impressed with the breadth of it, and its seriousness.  It was a nice job.

There have been some complaints made, by the Wall Street Journal among others, that the museum is PC.  The movie discusses the indigenous people and it discusses slavery.  Now, I hate to break it to the WSJ, but that isn’t PC, that’s history.  Get over it.  If we do not deal with issues such as slavery and the displacement of the American Indians, it will further serve to diminish the point of studying American History at all.  It is part of the story, and to ignore it would be as silly and disingenuous as the JFK Library’s ignoring Kennedy’s health issues, his womanizing, and, in fact, the Bay of Pigs.  Museums are not merely places to celebrate, but to contemplate as well, and if people are uncomfortable bringing such subjects up, then perhaps making them uncomfortable is a useful service.  ‘Nuff said on that score.

I begin my walking tours at the Visitors Center which offers up its ancient video directed by John Huston and starring E.G. Marshall, a video so out of date that there are parts of it where you need to strain to see what is being portrayed.  So perhaps my bar was a low one.  But in fact, the museum did a nice job of portraying the early issues of the Revolution.  No bells or whistles – no, no loud gunshot or the smoke of battle that you have at the Lincoln Museum, no snow like you get at Mount Vernon, and I am enough of a kid at heart to be a bit disappointed by this lack, but only a bit.  In general, I walked out of the theater feeling reassured and hopeful, and ready to see the first exhibit…



History Nerd Hell

I am sitting in my office writing my lecture for my upcoming ten week lecture series on George Washington at Golden Slippers, when I realize I need to take a look at a George Washington journal entry discussing Barbados.  I dial up and come upon the following notice –


Oh 2016, will your cruelty never stop?

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


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


More Positive Reviews


“Our tour guide was amazing. He was extremely knowledgeable and more than qualified to conduct the walking tour of Philadelphia. He provided great fun facts for my family and was very personable and friendly. His name was David and I would recommend him to anyone who signs up with bow tie tours. David is actually a published author who has written books on this topic. Amazing.”