Back in the Narrative: Hamilton as a Model for Women’s History

Last September, the soundtrack of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-nominated Hamilton: An American Musical became available online to Americans everywhere, and history changed.

All right, that might be a strong claim — after all, it’s just a Broadway musical, 47 tracks following the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a hip-hop reinterpretation of U.S. History. But the unprecedented buzz Hamilton has generated outside Broadway circles has proved its influence is more than musical: it’s been called “an artistic watershed,” a work of “cultural criticism,” and “the best and most important Broadway musical of the past decade.” Clearly, people are watching — and listening to — Hamilton as more than entertainment. And it’s no wonder. In 2016, with the Black Lives Matter movement firmly established in national politics and the looming presidential election electrifying public discourse, a musical that casts exclusively non-white actors in the roles of the Great (White) Men of American history must inevitably become a part of a broader national discussion about contemporary racial politics.

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The same powerful, even revolutionary, choices that catapulted the musical to its remarkable place on the national stage have also generated questions, most notably: Is the show historically accurate? It’s not just your pedantic uncle on Facebook objecting to seeing Thomas Jefferson played by a black man (the phenomenal Daveed Diggs): professional historians have stepped forward to point out the discontinuities between Miranda’s musical and the historical record, particularly with regard to the Founding Fathers’ position on slavery and the erasure of non-white historical actors in the period Hamilton covers. The intensity of debate over this topic is no more surprising than the hype surrounding the show itself — as any history buff will know, we historians love facts. Call it the legacy of Ranke, call it a fetish, history as a field depends upon an obsession with accuracy and truth.

But I think the focus on historical accuracy may be slightly misplaced in this case — and not just because Hamilton is, after all, a work of entertainment and not a history book. It is also, in all its unlikely, inaccurate, obstinate glory, one of the most compelling, honest pieces of history I’ve encountered in years. Most surprising of all, in a story ostensibly about the men who founded our country, Lin-Manuel Miranda has crafted a uniquely powerful — and, I think, uniquely true — picture of women in history.

Hamilton has three major female characters (four, if you count Hamilton’s young sister-in-law Margaret “Peggy” Schuyler): Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler, and Maria Reynolds, Alexander Hamilton’s wife, sister-in-law, and mistress, respectively. Yet, unlike so many wives and lovers in history, these women don’t appear as satellites to the “real” story: they are, in fact, its most powerful narrators.

Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (Philippa Soo) and Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) in Hamilton. (hamiltonmusical/Instagram)
Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (Philippa Soo) and Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) in Hamilton. (hamiltonmusical/Instagram)

If Hamilton’s primary plot is American history as told by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the writing of history is a second plot, and in this crucial metanarrative the principal actors are women. Take Eliza Hamilton, who begins her character arc frustrated with her distance from the “action” of history (“Oh, let me be a part of the narrative”) and moves through a conscious decision to separate herself from Hamilton’s legacy into the final number of the show, when she takes center stage as the embodied voice of history, singing with her sister “We tell your story.” Angelica, Eliza’s older sister and rival for Hamilton’s affection, is a narrator in her own right: twice in the show (“Satisfied” in Act One and “It’s Quiet Uptown” in Act Two), the progress of history slows or reverses for Angelica’s knowing commentary. Even Maria Reynolds, who sings in only one song, becomes the chronicler of one of the show’s most crucial moments when, in the staged version of “Hurricane,” she hands Hamilton the pen he will use to write the damning Reynolds Pamphlet and invite the disastrous rewriting of his own legacy.

Hamilton is a show about history — about legacies — about men engaged in building a country, desperate to leave a lasting and positive mark of their presence on the narrative told by future generations. The men of Hamilton are keenly aware that they are acting within a story that is, for all their ambition, ultimately out of their hands: George Washington repeatedly punctuates his part in the story with the helpless refrain “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory / You have no control / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” In Hamilton, it is women — precisely those people who have most reason to be aware of their own lack of control — who repeatedly become the writers of history.

Yet this reversal of historical agency coexists, in Miranda’s book and director Thomas Kail’s staging, with an honest and knowing representation of women’s historical invisibility. Many historians have tended to consider women’s role in most of American history in a spirit best summed up by the phrase “out of sight, out of mind.” Here we come back to our obsession with facts — if the documents don’t exist, then women can hardly have been part of the story. And the inevitable lack of documents from a group not often educated or given opportunities for publication for much of recorded history means that women’s history too often ends up either a trendy footnote to “real” history or a kind of supplement to which those interested can refer for an embellishment of the primary narrative. Hamilton understands that women out of sight are not absent — they are simply living history in a different way from their male counterparts.

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, ca. 1787. (Ralph Earl/Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia)
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, ca. 1787. (Ralph Earl/Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia)

In the historical silences left behind by the women of the early republic, Miranda and Kail have found not a dead end, but an opportunity to honor women’s lived experience, however inscrutable. In the aftermath of Hamilton’s infidelity, Miranda chooses to treat the lack of documented reaction from Eliza as a conscious choice, as she declares “I’m erasing myself from the narrative / Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted.” Kail’s staging of “Hurricane” also allows us to reimagine Maria Reynolds as a co-author of the infamous document that bears her name — a challenge to the very concept of a stable source. Perhaps most importantly, the show underscores the distance between the history on the page and the history women lived by having its female characters almost constantly on stage: at the margins looking in, on the balconies looking down, but always watching, always knowing. The constant presence of women in Hamilton reminds us of something all too easy to forget: that even if women do not seem to act in history, they lived the very history they appear absent from.

For some, Miranda and Kail’s efforts to honor the women of Hamilton are, in Eliza’s own words, not enough. Critic James McMaster complains that “the female characters simply do not get enough stage time and, when they do appear onstage, their desires, fears, hopes, plans, and narratives exist only in relation to Alexander, the man at the center of Miranda’s musical.” He is not the first to point out that Hamilton fails that popular litmus test for sexism, the Bechdel test, nor is he wrong in observing that the women’s stories turn on the person of A. Ham. But in zeroing in on these factors as gauges of feminist intent, Mr. McMaster (who seems to be defining “stage time” as “speaking time”) is demanding that female characters be written as though they lived as men. In so doing, he misses the power of what Hamilton has done by representing the silent presence of women and their intimate, if alternative and therefore invisible, involvement in the visible narrative of history.

So how can we learn from Hamilton’s effort to honor the historical experience of women? To be sure, the musical is at liberty to manipulate history for its own purposes, and it takes advantage of that freedom — a freedom not necessarily available to professional historians. The speculation and approximation on which Miranda and Kail’s picture of historical women is based are taboo in history departments and academic journals, which want, like Thomas Gradgrind, “nothing but Facts.” Yet the creative approach of Hamilton may actually provide a better understanding of our history precisely because it is not tied to “Fact.” Miranda and Kail give us new models for understanding the women glossed over by history: women who choose to stay silent, women whose words are credited to the men whose stories they touch, women who speak without writing and thus dissolve into silence as surely as if they had never spoken at all. Hamilton urges us towards a more imaginative understanding of women in history, and proves that it is possible to see entire lifetimes in the empty space between the pages.

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