It was bound to happen. After months and months of near-universal acclaim and applause, the hit Broadway musical Hamilton was bound to receive some historical criticism. The New York Times published a piece this morning demonstrating as such.
There are the usual complaints you would expect from the usual suspects. Sean Wilentz, great historian of Jacksonian Democracy, of course mentions that Hamilton “was more a man for the 1% than for the 99%,” while the NYT article notes “it’s an odd moment for the public to embrace an unabashed elitist who liked big banks, mistrusted the masses and at one point called for a monarchal presidency and a Senate that served for life.”
There’s nothing new there- historians and politicians have despised the ten-dollar founding father without a father for two centuries, for the reasons listed above. It’s fitting, actually, for his legacy.
But another critique cannot help but tickle the humor of those of us disposed to disdain liberal academia’s justice-advancing tendencies. Here’s Harvard history professor Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed responding favorably to Rutgers professor Lyra Monteiro’s critical essay on Hamilton, and I’m not making this up:
“How could a work that so unabashedly celebrates the founding fathers, and has no storyline for black characters, not take some hits from academic historians who have spent the past several decades arguing against unrealistically heroic portrayals of the founders and arguing for including people of color in the story of America’s creation?”
You read that right. Dr. Gordon-Reed is concerned that the musical portrays Hamilton and Co. heroically and excludes the stories of African-Americans in the Founding. We can assume she probably thinks the heretical white hero-worship will lead us impressionable young folk to perpetuate injustice and such.
This would be laughable if it didn’t point to the moral rot (and utter cluelessness) at the heart of liberal academia in the Western world today.
First off, Hamilton is a work of political or diplomatic history- not social history. Social history, like that of David Hackett Fischer or Fernand Braudel, holistically examines all the groups, cultures, and broad long-term trends that affect a given society. This kind of history dominates academic history today, and while I personally think it’s fascinating, you literally can’t turn it into a story. I mean, seriously- “Albion’s Seed, America’s Four Founding Folkways, An American Musical-“ really?
Political or diplomatic history is necessarily less all-encompassing, focusing as it does on the actions and interactions of key individuals and groups- the stuff of drama and literature. Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Hamilton, upon which the play was based, is political history of the first order.
Why is this important, in light of Dr. Gordon-Reed’s critique?
Quite simply, Hamilton is a political history story about the Founders, rather than a social history story about the American people as a whole. Were it a story about the American people as a whole, it would make more sense for African-American characters to feature prominently- but given that the Founding was carried out by straight, rich, white men, does it not make sense that the story revolves around such characters? I’m eagerly anticipating a historical dramatization of the black regiments of the American Revolution, but frankly that’s not what Lin-Manuel Miranda set out to write this time. He set out to tell Alexander Hamilton’s story.
Then there’s the “silencing” issue- Gordon-Reed and Monteiro, in arguing that the multiracial cast “excuses the failure to portray black historical figures, “don’t seem to understand that Hamilton’s cast is multiracialspecifically to overcome the idea that Americanism is white-only. Lin-Manuel Miranda has repeatedly claimed that the cast was designed to show that the Founders’ story really belongs to ALL Americans-
“Our goal was: This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance — our story should look the way our country looks. Then we found the best people to embody these parts. I think it’s a very powerful statement without having to be a statement.”
But the biggest indicator of Gordon-Reed’s and Monteiro’s misunderstanding of Hamilton is their callous denunciation of the play’s “hero-worship.” Dr. Gordon-Reed specifically mentions that she has “spent the past several decades arguing against unrealistically heroic portrayals of the founders,” and doesn’t seem at all shy to admit it.
The whole point of telling the hero-story of Alexander Hamilton as an epic is to inspire- to uplift- to preserve the glory that is our nation’s heritage and pass it on to a new generation of Americans. That’s the point of myth- to sate the primal need for belonging and transcendent purpose endemic to every human breast, and more practically, to preserve the common inheritance of any cultural grouping, and steel it against challenges to come. Liberal academics trained in deconstructionism, like Gordon-Reed and Monteiro, are more concerned with tearing apart such myths and the “oppression” they uphold, rather than seeking to better understand their impact and appeal and, using that understanding, tailor them to the best social ends. (I doubt they’d have the genius Miranda brought to that task, even if they tried.)
The myth of Hamilton is one of moral realism- valor, excellence, sacrifice, duty to country before all things. This necessarily glamorizes virtues that idle theorists and speculative philosophers in the academy find to be “geometrically untrue,” as Hamilton himself might have noted. But it serves an important social and moral purpose for those of us not polluted by the ivory tower’s politically-correct dogmas. It reminds us why the American nation exists, what we’re doing here- and in an age where our political and intellectual leaders cannot even do that, Lin-Manuel Miranda ought to be celebrated as a Homer, Virgil, or Shakespeare in his talent for reminding the American people of who they are. The academics and critical revisionists be damned.