Hamilton is amazing, just don’t take it as history

This week, I was lucky enough to see the West End production of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about the life of one of the lesser-known American founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. It’s an incredible piece of theatre. You can’t look away from the stage, nor would you want to, every second is worth watching. If anyone is lucky enough to find themselves with the opportunity to go, any other plans should be cancelled or postponed, no matter their importance, it is that good.

With Hamilton being such a cultural phenomenon, and its soundtrack being readily available, it is unsurprising that history teachers have been using it to ensure students take an interest in the period of the American Revolution. Linda Flanagan reported for KQED News that Andrea Moverman, a history teacher in New York, has used techniques such as showing students the rap cabinet battles featured in the second act of the musical, and asking them to come up with their own rap battles about the period. She also comments that when she played the beginning of “Guns and Ships,” another song from the musical, the students urged her to “keep playing it!”

Moverman is one of many teachers doing this, and the fact that students are being enthused about such an important historical topic is incredibly positive. It shows that with creativity and imagination dry topics such as debates about financial systems can be made not just palatable for students, but exciting to learn about. The best thing about Hamilton is that it humanises its protagonists and brings a period that now feels so far in the past back to life. It is now easier to imagine that Alexander Hamilton was a real person.

But in using Hamilton, teachers could inadvertently give students a warped picture of the past. One student tells Flanagan that she has never felt for a historical figure like she has for Alexander Hamilton. Another says he was a “super inspiring person who changed the world for the better.” The comments highlight the danger of using an art form to inspire interest, and how this can lead to the art form teaching an incorrect and dangerous kind of history.

Because Hamilton, like almost every other dramatic interpretation of history, is littered with historical inaccuracies. Some are small, like Angelica Schuyler not being the eldest child of three, but instead being one of fifteen. Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did not confront Hamilton about his affair, instead it was James Monroe, Frederick Muhlenberg and Abraham Venable. But these errors are not particularly grating, and dramatic license should always be allowed in an interpretation.

However, more troubling is the picture the musical paints of Hamilton himself. It is based on the historian Ron Chernow’s biography of the man, who has called Hamilton an “abolitionist…who…sounds like a modern democrat.” Hamilton would certainly not be welcome in the modern Democratic Party: he was far from an abolitionist. It’s a line the musical takes, and Hamilton notably ribs Jefferson for his defence of slavery in one of the cabinet battles. And yet Hamilton purchased slaves. It is unclear whether they were for himself or for others, but it is impossible to declare a man who buys another human being an abolitionist.

The slavery debate is further highlighted by Shane White, who says that Hamilton let its namesake and inspiration “off the hook.” White states that “although Hamilton was a member of the New York Manumission Society, that organization proposed a deliberate, some would say glacial, pace for ending slavery. One of its earliest acts, in 1786, was to organize a petition to prevent the export of slaves from New York.”

Hamilton skirts around the issue of slavery. It features none in the musical itself and mentions it only sparingly. It simplifies, villainises and parodies Thomas Jefferson (a man who should absolutely not be glorified) and is far too easy on Alexander Hamilton.

The musical also portrays Hamilton and those around him as lovers of democracy, men who want to get away from British tyranny to govern in a more meritocratic system. Hammered home throughout the musical is the fact that Hamilton was an orphaned immigrant who came from nothing, implying that his motives once he got to the top would be conscious of those like him. But as Matt Stoller points out for The Baffler, Hamilton’s recommendation to the Continental Congress was that it should select a president who would serve for life, and one who would not be governed by the same laws. Stoller also states that Hamilton labelled democracy a “disease.”

Angelica Schuyler scolds Thomas Jefferson for not including women in the phrase “all men are created equal”, but the musical neglects to mention that the revolution itself, the one that Hamilton and George Washington and Aaron Burr accomplish within the first act, also neglected and ignored women. The American Revolution also did not free the slaves (some historians, such as Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen, posit that the entire revolution was built upon the desire to own slaves, that the whole thing would not have happened had the British not threatened to take them away). Portraying a founding father of that revolution as a hero is incredibly problematic.

But Hamilton is a musical. It is not meant to be a faithful recreation of the American Revolution. That Revolution took decades, Hamilton has just three hours to tell its story. It is still a wonderful piece of theatre, and its capacity to inspire future historians should not be discounted. But those using it in the classroom should be mindful of its bias and its inaccuracies. Hamilton should be shown, and then debunked, and loved for what it is, a musical.

Photo Credit: Sarah Krulwich/New York Times.