As those of you with more exciting social calendars than mine may not know, this past Friday PBS aired a documentary about the making of the Broadway hit Hamilton: An American Musical. The documentary, entitled Hamilton’s America, provides Hamilfans and relative newcomers alike with backstage passes to the drama we may never get to see. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s well worth 82 minutes of your life, and it’s streaming. Vive public television!
The “Hamildoc,” as it’s affectionately titled by superfans (like…cough…cough…me), does so much more than just put us in the room where this masterpiece of American theater happened. It pulls the curtain back so that we can see the humanity of the people involved in this project, both living and dead. As historian Karin Wulf so eloquently put it, “The genius of Hamilton doesn’t lie in its historical accuracy, but rather in its willingness to ask what history is, what it does, and how it is made.” Hamilton’s America extrapolates this process. We see the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, assert that “There’s no saints in this show. Not a one.” For an hour and a half, twenty-first-century artists, politicians, and historians grapple with the fact that1 the past, like the present, is filled with inevitably flawed human beings just trying to tell their story. Our job as consumers of these stories is to listen, even if we don’t always like what we hear.
While I agree wholeheartedly with this quote from Luis Miranda Jr., please bear with me for a second while I say what my background as a historian-in-training compels me to say — Hamilton would not have been considered an immigrant during his lifetime. A “creole bastard”? Certainly! But in Hamilton’s day, “immigrant” and its modern polarizing connotations wouldn’t have applied to someone who was born within the British Empire. Whew! Aren’t you glad that we got that out of the way?
Now on to the more important part: maybe it doesn’t matter at all that Hamilton wouldn’t have been an “immigrant” in the eighteenth century. I’m not here to write the hundredth blog entry that tackles the historical inaccuracies of the show. Miranda has been very honest about them from the outset. He is also not a historian. As the brilliant historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who is featured in the Hamildoc, writes, “It is Miranda’s task to create great art, and he has done that.” We can, and should, think critically about the past it presents, but we can also perhaps acknowledge that more Americans in 2016 can identify with Hamilton the “Founding Father” if he’s presented instead as “another immigrant coming up from the bottom.”
In the documentary, at least, we see that Hamilton wouldn’t have existed at all had Miranda not recognized Hamilton the man as someone whose story was familiar to him. Miranda, while talking about his initial reaction to Chernow’s tome of a Hamilton biography, says “Hey! I know this guy!” We then cut to a scene of Miranda with his father Luis Miranda Jr. wherein they discuss Luis’s arrival in New York City from Puerto Rico. Miranda also mentions numerous times how his own life parallels Hamilton’s in surprising and downright goosebump-inducing ways. If Miranda saw Hamilton as an immigrant, and if that, in turn, gifts us with such a thoughtful, ground-breaking piece of theater and allows millions of listeners to connect with that narrative on a profound level, then a sacrifice of absolute historical accuracy is one that I’m more than willing to make.
This Stephen Sondheim quote from the documentary reminds viewers that individuals like the Schuyler sisters only had some idea of how lucky they were to be alive in the revolutionary moment. In the documentary, President Obama identifies with founders who, more often than not, were “flying by the seats of their pants and making it up as they went along.” We see original Broadway cast members Christopher Jackson, Anthony Ramos, Okieriete Onaodowan, and Daveed Diggs tour Valley Forge National Historic Park, where they get a sense of the pressures Washington and his men were under at that moment in the Revolutionary War. We also see Hamilton’s leading ladies, Phillippa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, explore the house where Eliza Schuyler Hamilton first met Alexander.
As a historian, I loved these scenes for the same reason that I love teaching. In both cases, I get a glimpse of Americans connecting to their past on a personal, tangible basis. They realize that history is anything but inevitable and try to understand the people who lived through those moments that we’ve deemed “historically significant:” not as omniscient “Founding Fathers,” but as humans. These folks used their skills to the best of their ability to make it through the day and (hopefully) further a cause that was important to them. More days than not, don’t you do the exact same thing? You are also living through history. Miranda and the documentarians have a gift for doing what the humanities are supposed to do: help people identify, respect, contextualize, and maybe even admire the humanity in others.
As the above Daveed Diggs quote suggests, seeing that humanity in others is sometimes more difficult than it sounds. One of the greatest contributions of the Hamildoc is the way in which it accentuates the flaws and foibles of the nation’s “founders” to an even greater extent than the musical does, especially when it comes to the topic of slavery and slaveholding. The documentary makers tread lightly with their implicit critiques of the show, and frame them not as criticism but as part of the character development process for some of the leading actors. Christopher Jackson, who played Washington on Broadway, states, “Our understanding of history goes awry when we only seek, or care to listen to, one part of a story.” Jackson could not, and did not want to, separate Washington’s triumphs from his life as a slaveholder. He was both a charismatic leader and someone who owned hundreds of human beings.
Daveed Diggs is critical of his character in the second half of the show, Thomas Jefferson, for the same reasons. Though Jefferson wrote brilliant, meaningful things, at the same time, “he sucks.” Historian and Hamilton expert Joanne Freeman makes it clear that, to most people most of the time, the real Hamilton was “an arrogant, irritating asshole,” and few historians would be as willing as Miranda to label him an abolitionist.
Hamilton plays with these flaws, but when push comes to shove, I still find myself rooting for Hamilton at the end and grieving his [SPOILER ALERT] death. In real life, I probably would have hated the guy. You can’t have a great story without a protagonist, even a problematic one. Since Miranda saw so much of himself in the real-life Hamilton, he wasn’t about to make him into an “asshole” either. Miranda has also been lauded and criticized for his treatment of his female protagonists in the show, which is simultaneously poignant and limited (as it is in the documentary). As someone whose master’s thesis is about a woman (also coincidentally named Eliza) who felt ambivalent about her place in “the narrative,” I sympathize with Miranda. It’s difficult to fully, respectfully, truthfully incorporate women back into the historical narrative who weren’t sure they wanted to be there during their lifetimes. People of the “founding generation” weren’t perfect. The musical isn’t perfect. The documentary isn’t perfect. Our histories aren’t perfect.
As she so often does, Senator Elizabeth Warren dropped one of the biggest truth bombs of the night. She said, “These are deeply flawed people, but they made contributions.” Miranda and the documentarians never ask us to see them or their work as perfect. They just ask that we listen to the stories that they have to tell about Alexander Hamilton, his world, the whirlwind that is the life of this musical, and the world we live in today, all of which are inimitable. The #1 hit on Broadway right now, and for the past year or so, asks every audience member to think critically about “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” That fact alone gives me, as a historian, no choice but to reflect on how lucky I am to be alive right now.
- Hamilfans, you just finished that in your head with “not every issue can be settled by committee,” didn’t you? I KNEW it! Return to text.