“Hamilton” and the historical record: frequently asked questions


When “Hamilton” was created on stage in 2015, the musical attracted a wide audience among historians, who were delighted with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shameless attention to primary documents and scholarly literature.

But historians being historians, they also offered many footnotes, reviews, and fixes, which weren’t always appreciated by ardent fans of the series, who saw a bunch of humorous and humming rumbles. the literal mind to kill their buzz.

Now with the Disney + filmed version, the critical questions about Alexander Hamilton and the show’s portrayal of him are back, and they’re not just from the ivory tower.

Director Ava DuVernay tweeted her appreciation for Miranda’s artistic talent on Friday as well as a real-life explosion A.Ham, who was not the progressive paragon of multicultural democracy that some who watch the show may assume .

“Believed in the mission, not in abolition,” she wrote. “Wrote violent filth on the natives. Believed in only elites who held political power and had no term limits. And banking innovation has troubled roots. “

Historians, many of whom participated in an evening watch on Twitter under the hashtag #HATM (Historians at the Movies), took a generally milder tone, although they reiterated some of their previous warnings. Here’s what some of them have said about “Hamilton” – and Hamilton – since Miranda’s take on the “founding father of ten dollars” took America by storm.

Wasn’t Hamilton an abolitionist? I’m confused.

At the start of the show, Hamilton calls himself and his friends “Revolutionary Abolitionists of Manumission,” a line that has raised a lot of eyebrows among researchers.

Hamilton was truly anti-slavery, although some researchers say the intensity of his opposition has been overestimated. He was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society, created in 1785, which, among other things, pushed for progressive emancipation law in New York State. (Such a law was passed in 1799.)

The manumission involved the voluntary release of the slaves. Abolition was a more radical proposition and Hamilton did not advocate it. And while he publicly criticized Thomas Jefferson’s view on black biological inferiority, Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed noted that his records and writings from the 1790s until his death in 1804 understand little or nothing against the ‘slavery.

As the show shows, Hamilton supported John Laurens’ 1779 plan to allow black soldiers to fight in the Revolution (and many eventually did). But it was as far as it went.

“Okay, Hamilton didn’t write anti-slavery pamphlets with Laurens,” Gordon-Reed tweeted at the #HATM waking night, adding, “I hate being this historian. “

So which characters on the show owned slaves?

Most of them, in fact. In one of the Cabinet rap battles, Jefferson touts the agrarian economy of the South and Hamilton steps back. “Yeah, keep declaiming. We know who really does the planting, “he taunts, dismissing Jefferson’s argument as” a civic lesson from a slaver. “

But slavery was little more than a southern affair. In 1790, about 40% of the households located immediately in New York included slaves. Most of the Hamilton associates who toast to freedom at the start of the series were slave owners, including Aaron Burr and Hercules Mulligan (whose slave servant Cato worked alongside him in an anti spy network -British).

The Schuylers, the prominent family with whom Hamilton married, were great slave owners. In fact, the mayor of Albany announced last month that the city would remove a statue of Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s stepfather, who at various times owned up to 27 slaves.

Angelica Schuyler and her husband also owned slaves, and Hamilton, who was a lawyer, assisted them in their slavery transactions, including the purchase of $ 225 from a mother and child.

Wait. Did Hamilton himself have slaves?

Perhaps. When her mother died in 1768, she left Hamilton and her brother a slave boy, but they could not inherit since they were born out of wedlock.

And some documents suggest that Hamilton would have owned slaves later, after his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler. Historian Michelle DuRoss, in a 2010 article, noted that Hamilton’s grandson had said that Hamilton owned slaves, citing references from family registers.

But the evidence is ambiguous. Ankeet Ball, in a paper for the Columbia & Slavery research project, noted a 1804 letter from Angelica Schuyler regretting that Elizabeth and Alexander had no bonded servants to help them with a party.

Ball, echoing many other scholars, noted that Hamilton, although he hates slavery, consented. “Hamilton finally agreed to protect slavery in the Constitution to solidify the union of North and South, which was crucial to the financial growth that Hamilton envisioned,” wrote Ball.

Was Hamilton pro-immigrant?

“Immigrants, we do the job”, sung by Hamilton (who was born in Nevis) and the Marquis de Lafayette during the Battle of Yorktown, quickly became one of the biggest applause in the series. And while Hamilton, as a subject of the British crown moving from one British colony to another, was not an immigrant in the contemporary sense, he saw himself (and was sometimes seen by others) as a stranger.

But his perspective on immigrants and their integration into the United States was complicated. As historian Joanne Freeman has pointed out, he wanted immigrant workers to fuel the manufacturing economy he envisioned, but he was concerned about their impact on the country.

In 1798, amid naval hostilities against revolutionary France, Hamilton and other federalists supported the aliens and sedition laws, which extended the waiting time for immigrants to apply for citizenship and allowed the president to deport immigrants deemed “enemies”.

The backlash against the laws, which were designed to weaken Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, contributed to Jefferson’s victory in 1800. After the election, when Jefferson proposed to loosen citizenship requirements, Professor Freeman wrote : “Hamilton protested, worried about national corruption. He even suggested that if only “aboriginal citizens” were allowed to vote, Jefferson would not have become president.

But Hamilton, who started out as a penniless orphan, was a little guy champion, right?

Even before the musical (and the biography of Ron Chernow that inspired it), Hamilton experienced a resurgence in popularity, driven in part by conservatives and centrists who saw it as an avatar of capitalism and a strong national government.

And Hamilton, many historians have pointed out, was hardly a fashionable populist. He was an imperturbable elitist who had proposed that senators serve for life and that the president be an “elective monarch”. He also had a sometimes uncertain relationship with representative democracy.

Hamil’s skeptics refer to episodes such as the Newburgh conspiracy of 1783, when Continental army forces frustrated by lack of pay and other problems argued that the military should challenge the authority of Congress. In a confidential letter, Hamilton, then a member of Congress, urged George Washington to “take the lead” in the army’s grievances, without appearing – advice that some researchers have interpreted as calling for a military coup.

Hamilton later dreamed of invading Florida and Louisiana (which were still under Spanish control). He even launched the idea of ​​deploying the army to Virginia will crush the political opposition. And then there is his quote (probably apocryphal), relayed by Henry Adams (the great-grandson of his sworn enemy John Adams): “Your people sir – your people are a great beast.” “

Sheesh, relax. “Hamilton” is a work of fiction, right?

The renewed critical commentary on Hamilton the man did not fail to roll his eyes, including from some historians. “Guys, I don’t think this is how the Battle of Yorktown really went,” historian Kevin Gannon tweeted on the day before #HATM. “I mean, I’m sure there was at least one more unit of dancers.” “

For some historians, one of the most exciting things about the show is the way it plays with the tension between history and memory, the bias of sources and the importance of who tells the story. And Miranda’s musical, despite all its phenomenal success, may not have the last word.

One of the last times that A.Ham played an important role on Broadway, in Sidney Kingsley, in 1943, in the play “The Patriots”, America was plunged into a world struggle for democracy. Hamilton was not a populist hero, but a borderline fascist trying to impose a financial aristocracy on America. Jefferson, with his vision of the autonomous people, was the champion of democracy.

Who knows next time?



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