Monday, August 31, 2015

Historians Are Crazy About "Hamilton: An American Musical"

Lin-Manuel Miranda has managed to get Americans excited about Alexander Hamilton. His hip-hop musical about the first Treasury Secretary is taking Broadway by storm. It is even getting rave reviews from early American historians. In fact, a group of historians (and Pulitzer-Prize winners) went to see Hamilton last week and met with Miranda following the show.  If the twittersphere and blogosphere is any indication, these historians gave the show and Miranda rave reviews.

For example, here are some representative tweets:


















Even Miranda himself got into the mix on Twitter:




I have yet to see the musical, but my history-buff daughter has been begging me to go.  In the meantime, I have been enjoying these reviews:

Bruce Chadwick, "Alexander Hamilton and the Hip Hop Founding of America"

Benjamin Carp, "Bastard Out of Nevis"

Robert Snyder, "Why 'Hamilton' Is the Right Musical for Our Time"

Ishmael Reed, "'Hamilton: the Musical:' Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders...and It's Not Halloween."

Terry Teachout, "The Revolution Moves Uptown"

Today at "The Junto," historian Joseph Adelman, who was part of the group of historians who saw the musical last week, has a thoughtful review.  Here is a taste:

What makes that argument compelling is that Miranda gets the history right and also approaches a deeper truth about his subject, in a way that for most historians in our forms of writing is inaccessible. I’ll give you just one example from the show that doesn’t give much away. Miranda re-imagines the Cabinet meetings of the Washington administration, in which Hamilton and Jefferson frequently butted heads, as a series of rap battles between the two. The lyrics are spot-on in describing the position of the two on hot-button questions of the day: Should Congress adopt Hamilton’s economic plan? Should Washington back France or Britain in their never-ending imperial fight?

Of course they literally didn’t have a rap battle, but in reproducing their words in rapid-fire meter, Miranda reveals the deep discord within the Washington administration as well as the fragility and instability of early Republic politics. Throughout the show, the theme of early American politics as hip-hop war works to convey a really complicated argument in a way that’s immediately accessible. Watching the show as a historian who works in that era, I can rattle off the books that have clearly influenced Miranda. They’re sitting right in the open (and as it happens when I attended some of them were sitting a few rows from me). Certainly scholars of the early American republic make arguments that rely on the messiness (and contingency) of politics and the political system. So I’m not saying they don’t.

But for most academics and history students, “presentism” is something to avoid. If a student or scholar submitted a paper that argued that the Revolutionary era was really a hip-hop-style battle, we would reject it out of hand. But an artistic project can be imaginative in that way. In so doing, Miranda comes at the past with a completely different eye and without any of the baggage that academics burden ourselves with. And though he doesn’t make a unique argument about the past—and his primary objective is to tell a story, not make an argument—he presents the past in a way that reflects on human nature and how people interact with one another. It’s a trans-historical claim to connect Jefferson, Burr, and Hamilton with Biggie and Tupac, but it cuts to the heart of the matter and, more importantly, it works.