Lin Manuel-Miranda has a lot to be proud of. His hit play, Hamilton, easily the most popular and successful Broadway show of the past decade, catapulted the careers of its star and writer, along with castmates Leslie Odom, Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Jonathan Groff to name a few. The show brought a new perspective on the Revolutionary War and its widespread acclaim will no doubt lead to implementation in American history classes nationwide.
But is that necessarily a good thing? At first glance, Hamilton does seem to put a revolutionary (so to speak) spin on political history, with a color-blind cast and an array of musical genres meant to showcase a wider emotional palette to the otherwise stuffy and overdone story. And while those factors maintain a great deal of importance in their own right, the substance of the musical puts an almost backward spin on the events surrounding the Revolution.
For starters, there’s a divide between “right” and “wrong.” Viewing history shouldn’t be about deciding whose life most encapsulates the nation of present day, for that nation is fluid and prone to change constantly. Yet here we have full scenes dedicated to snobby, foppish remarks by King George about how if America doesn’t comply he’ll kill them all or some such nonsense. As with most armed conflicts, the two main parties stumbled ass-backwards into war and later chose to either aggrandize or denigrate the event depending on the outcome. America and Britain were no different.
Then there’s Thomas Jefferson. Bad enough as the mishandling of actual events is, at least precedent of the fabling of America’s history can be taken into account. No such excuse exists for Jefferson’s Hamilton revision. First of all, Jefferson is presented as a cocksure aristocrat who simply floats into the Secretary of State position on reputation alone. While Jefferson was in fact a deep idealist who strongly believed himself to be right in most situations, he was decidedly not so goddamn swaggeringly arrogant all the time. In his 8 years as president, the man only gave two public speeches due to crippling social anxiety, both of which on the days of his inaugurations; truly a far cry from the play’s exceedingly dickish figure, who acts and does only in seeming opposition to Hamilton himself.
That isn’t to say I’m a Jefferson purist. His openly held views on the subservience of black people are about as villainous as any historical figure can get without twirling his mustache and enacting genocide. I find the true problem is in the blindspot Miranda seems to have towards the fact that, ideals aside, Jefferson and Hamilton are nearly identical. Stubborn, intelligent, arrogant, prolific thinkers and writers they both were, and yet the play chooses to sidestep this connection in favor of Aaron Burr. And while Miranda does do a good job showcasing the pair’s muddy relationship—from sort-of friends to out-and-out adversaries—as well as giving Burr credence as a person and a character, it didn’t need to come at the expense of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson barely even mentions his plans for a future nation—or more importantly, the reasons for his beliefs—except either in passing or to show how much clearer Hamilton’s vision for the future was in hindsight. Though it can be said that Hamilton’s argument for a strong central government obviously warranted itself in time, Jefferson’s obsession with maintaining states’ rights was fairly popular for one simple reason: he (and many others) didn’t want a monarchy. Considering the track record of most developing nations’ tendency to devolve into authoritarian rule, it’s not like, given his position, his view wasn’t justified.
And that might be the biggest failing of Hamilton, including—to some degree—most retellings of the Revolutionary War. Without appropriate context, America’s War for Independence (as it’s known in most other countries) becomes a story too easy to mold into a digestible parable of good vs. evil, when in reality there were countless factors that went into each and every soldier’s’ decision to fight.
The only reason Alexander Hamilton found it so easy to enter the fray without a second thought was because he didn’t have a family or status to maintain. That could be the reason why his story is so easy to adopt from a POV perspective, but it also leaves out a great deal of decision making the other Founders had to endure. Washington and Jefferson in particular were wealthy men from prominent families—concerning themselves with a war not destined to end in victory is a tricky position to put oneself in, especially considering if they lost they’d be committing treason and likely jailed, exiled, or put to death, disgraced and dishonored.
In Hamilton, the titular character and some of his friends take turns making fun of a British loyalist, when in reality more people were on the fence than the play cares to portray; Hamilton himself would’ve likely fought wherever if only to show his strategic and scholarly worth. The problem with co-opting historical events to serve a narrative function is that history has and always will be written by the victors. By this I mean there’s nothing critical about America’s portrayal in Hamilton—the budding country is often described as “young, scrappy, and hungry,” adjectives that do not hold up at all today and probably didn’t even greatly apply back then.
This “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” jingoism, coupled with an attitude of American exceptionalism in a time where the current president became elected on the slogan “Make America Great Again” tends to ring a bit hollow. Coupled with the fact that the musical can only be seen by exceedingly wealthy—presumably white—people makes the whole ordeal come off as self-congratulatory, possibly even masturbatory. Here we have a bunch of multi-ethnic performers, singing and dancing for an elite upper crust about how great their country has and always been, disregarding the fact that non-white, non-male people were considered at this time to be second class citizens or slaves.
It’s unfortunate to see such a widely acclaimed show, one that will likely extend its influence for years to come, offer so little in the way of offering a truly distinctive narrative. Though a technical marvel of redefined aesthetic and musical conventions, its disappointment lies in wasted potential to tell a truly unique story. Sadly, Hamilton’s beauty remains skin deep, thus merely rewrapping a familiar tale in more colorful packaging and transfixing the world with what ultimately amounts to insignificant noise.