Alexander Hamilton, hero or zero?
Hamilton was recently released on Disney+, but it’s been a massive cultural moment for a good few years now. Like Emily Dennis said in her review of the recording, it’s a great show, and a ‘truly American musical’, with it having received a record-breaking 16 nominations at the 2016 Tony Awards. It’s one of the most successful musicals of all time. When watching the show, however, it’s important that we as viewers are aware of the true history of these dancing singing founding fathers.
Lin Manuel Miranda, the writer, lyricist and star of Hamilton in this recording, has been put under fire recently for his romanticisation of a group of men who certainly were not the likeable, relatable and charming characters that we see on the stage before us. The real-life Alexander Hamilton was not a champion for the little guy, nor a rags-to-riches immigrant story akin to the fantasies of today; he was a cisgender, white man who advocated for a world dominated by capitalist ideals that destroyed low-income families, a government that favoured the elite, and owned slaves. Hamilton is quietly dangerous in the inaccurate presentation of these historical figures, in that it ignores the crimes that they committed.
There is an abolitionist sentiment that runs throughout Hamilton, with the titular character often mentioning his apparent anti-slavery beliefs, alongside that of John Laurens (who actually was a real-life anti-slavery advocate). In reality, however, Alexander Hamilton owned and sold slaves, and abolition was never a topic that he outwardly supported. In the musical, Jefferson is shown to be a slave owner (‘A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbour/ Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labour’), but there is little mention of any of the other founding fathers owning slaves, when in reality nearly all of them did, including our protagonist Alexander Hamilton. The founding fathers being slavers is never really mentioned outside of this one comment. That is a major issue; slavery was a huge part of the creation of America and the centuries that followed, and all those people that suffered under slavery as an institution, as enforced by these dancing, singing founding fathers, are erased through this. As a twitter user aptly said, Hamilton’s ‘near erasure of slavery in the narrative is like a musical about Hitler that focuses on the painting.’.
Using people of colour to portray said founding fathers is equally celebratory and self-contradictory. In using people of colour, such as Miranda, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs and many other actors, the racist ideals that these fathers held are, at least partly, reclaimed and taken from them, repainting the face of America as that of the immigrant rather than as that of the racist white man. However, at the same time, in doing this, the racist ideals that these founding fathers held are brushed over, covered up by the person of colour portraying them, hidden through the very people that these historical figures stood against. The play is ultimately about slave owners, there is literally no denying that. Using people of colour as the face for these racists helps disguise their prejudices.
There could be an argument made that Hamilton in the musical is never presented as a hero, and rather both the antagonist and protagonist of his own story; his brashness and hubris does, after all, lead to his own downfall as his ultimate hamartia. But choosing to create a musical centred around such a person, and to present him as almost noble and desirable to boot, is inherently problematic. Alexander Hamilton may be pro-immigrant on stage (see iconic line ‘Immigrants: we get the job done!’), but the real-life Alexander Hamilton was an anti-immigration, elitist, slave-owning man. Why not give voices to those that the founding fathers destroyed to become the ‘historical heroes’ as they’re known as today? Where are the Native Americans they uprooted and murdered, the Black men and women that they enslaved to build their country, the servants that waited on them as they wrote the Constitution that discriminated against those very same people? I want to hear their stories.
I love Hamilton. The music is brilliant, the actors are great and the story, when placed against the cultural backdrop that it emerged within, is breathtaking. However, it is not accurate, nor should it be taken as such. The portrayal of the founding fathers is, in a word, problematic; these men were not moral, they were not good and they certainly weren’t heroes. A musical does not have to be historically accurate, but there’s a very thin line between dramatising the past and scrubbing it clean entirely. Hamilton glorifies some of the biggest villains in history and paints them as loveable heroes. Watch and listen to Hamilton as much as you like (I know I will be), but take what you see and hear with a grain of salt.
Hamilton is available to stream via Disney+ and the soundtrack can be found on Spotify/Apple Music.