Saturday, July 8, 2017
July 8-9, 2017: Representing the Revolution: Hamilton
[For this year’s July 4th series, I’ve AmericanStudied cultural representations of the Revolution and its era, leading up to a special post on the most popular such representation ever!]
I’ve already featured Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in two posts on this blog: my own thoughts here; and Emily Lauer’s Guest Post here. I would also recommend this great We’re History piece by Michael McLean, and you can’t go wrong with Joanne Freeman’s always important and incisive thoughts on the musical. So here I just wanted to share a couple follow-up thoughts, on one of the musical’s limits as history and one of its most important contributions to 21st century society:
1) Hamilton and Slavery: I expressed my main thoughts on this issue, which has become pretty dominant in my own perspective on the musical as it has evolved over the last year or so, in a comment on Michael McLean’s post. It’s understandable that the musical largely reduces the slavery issue to a North-South debate, although that is inaccurate both to the period’s overall histories (slavery was still legal in every colony as of the Revolution) and to the specifics of Hamilton’s life and story (including his first job as a clerk for the slave trade and his marriage into the slaveowning Schuyler family). Yet to my mind the problem is deeper still, on two levels: the musical’s opening song links Hamilton to slaves by association (note these two back-to-back lines: “And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted/Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up”) a slippage that might lead audiences to think that Hamilton and his mother were themselves slaves; and by casting performers of color in the roles of Hamilton, the Schuyler sisters, Thomas Jefferson, and other slaveowners (to be clear, I love the musical’s casting choices overall, but this is an unfortunate side effect at the least), Miranda and his colleagues further that slippage and really suggest a far different (and at best historically inaccurate) relationship between these slaveowning figures and African American slaves.
2) Hamilton and Kids: So, like pretty much every cultural representation of the Revolution and of history, Hamilton isn’t perfect (although that commonality doesn’t excuse or mitigate the musical’s specific historical problems). But what it is, among other positive qualities, is hugely popular and engaging, most especially (I have consistently found) with young people. That popularity has already become so widely known and accepted that we perhaps take it for granted; but if we take a step back and realize that one of the last few years’ biggest cultural crazes with teens and pre-teens is a Broadway musical about the American Revolution and national identity, we can recognize just how unlikely and significant this achievement has been and remains. Of course my hope, like that of all AmericanStudiers, would be that the musical’s audiences, young and otherwise, would extend their interests and researches well beyond this one text, and in the process learn more about issues such as slavery and the Revolution (among many many others). But that has to start somewhere, and whatever my reservations about particular aspects of the show, that it has started with Hamilton is a pretty exciting prospect.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on Hamilton, or other Revolutionary representations you’d highlight?