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Since Christmas, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack from the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton. I realize I’m a little late to the game, as per usual. Historians aren’t in a rush, apparently. My colleagues here at The Twelve have written excellent reflections on Hamilton (see Debra Rienstra’s piece here and Brian Keepers’ piece here) and I heartily agree with their astute observations. As I have been listening and singing along, however, I’ve realized a musical such as Hamilton very much reflects the current cultural climate. Rienstra and others have pointed out that the magic of Hamilton is that it is history told well. History is amazing, if it is told well. But I would also offer that history is amazing if told well to the right audience. It is hard to imagine anything like the Hamilton view of the founders in any other time but right now. Would Hamilton have been a hit 20 years ago? I doubt it. The emphasis on “immigrants…they get the job done,” Hamilton’s poor working class background, hip hop and rap influences, as well as the vision of the founders as non-white strikes a chord for today’s Americans.

The field of public history, loosely defined as history outside of the classroom and for public consumption, has changed significantly over time. Here’s a quick version: Americans were not always sentimental about their national history. During the war of 1812, Pennsylvania tried to demolish Independence Hall in order to sell the land to commercial developers. It was only during the approach to the Civil War, as the republic looked like it was falling apart, that the first widespread inklings of preserving a sense of national identity arrived. Mount Vernon was chosen as the first historic house in the United States in 1850. By the 1880s and into the turn of the century, prominent (i.e. wealthy and powerful, white and male) Americans sought to Americanize the vast new immigrant population by more clearly asserting the identity of the United States and established shrines, memorials, ancestral societies and historical associations. This was also the era of immigration hysteria, strikes, raids on radical parties, incarceration and deportation of critics, and the support of lynch mobs and vigilante justice. As such, the vision of US history presented to immigrants was a singular vision, very white and bourgeoisie. By the 1920s, business leaders became involved in bringing history to the masses and ‘Americanizing’ the immigrant workers. Henry Ford and his creation of Greenfield Village and John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s establishment of Colonial Williamsburg are the two most prominent examples of US history that enshrined the so-called agrarian roots of “the good old days” for industrialized immigrants. Notably, Colonial Williamsburg emphasized opportunity, individual liberties, self-government, the integrity of the individual, and responsible leadership. No mention of equality, anti-colonialism, or slavery. The crash, depression and resulting New Deal era established a number of programs aimed at preserving American historical sites and recording US history through programs like the WPA slave narrative collection. By the 1960s, cultural movements encouraged sites of US history to reflect the diversity of the Americans that always played a role in US history but were considered invisible. Women, Native peoples, Chicanos, African Americans, immigrants, and working class Americans pushed for public history to actually reflect their own experiences as Americans.

While the white male Protestant upper class history is a dominant narrative, it is not the only narrative of US history. What did the average American know about Alexander Hamilton before the hit Broadway musical? If we’re lucky, the response might include something with the treasury or finance. But what about that version of Alexander Hamilton has any connection to us today? For many Americans, a discussion of treasury and finance conjures images of Wall Street bankers, greedy and rich, who swindled hard working Americans out of their hard earned money.

Yet, when Lin Manuel Miranda tells the story of Hamilton, along with the other cast of Revolutionary figures, we are riveted by the story. We are riveted because Miranda understood his audience and his time. While the ideals of hard work and education are not new, the emphasis on a man, battered by life and family and circumstance, who “put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain, and he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain” is something that today’s Americans can identify with:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished,
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter

And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted away
Across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up
Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

Well, the word got around, they said, this kid is insane, man
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came
And the world is gonna know your name
What’s your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton
My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait, just you wait

When he was ten his father split, full of it, debt-ridden
Two years later, see Alex and his mother bed-ridden
Half-dead sittin’ in their own sick, the scent thick
And Alex got better but his mother went quick

Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide
Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, something new inside voice saying
Alex, you gotta fend for yourself

He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf

There would have been nothin’ left to do for someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute without a cent of restitution
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future see him now as he stands on the bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man
In New York you can be a new man
In New York you can be a new man
In New York you can be a new man
In New York you can be a new man
Just you wait

Alexander Hamilton

We are waiting in the wings for you
You could never back down
You never learned to take your time
Oh, Alexander Hamilton
When America sings for you
Will they know what you overcame?
Will they know you rewrote your game?

The world will never be the same, oh
The ship is in the harbor now
See if you can spot him
Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom
His enemies destroyed his rep America forgot him

We fought with him
Me, I died for him
Me, I trusted him
Me, I loved him
And me, I’m the damn fool that shot him

There’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait

What’s your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton

 

Public history historiography loosely based on Mike Wallace, Mickey Mouse History: And Other Essays on American Memory, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), chapter 1.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

7 Comments

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    The book was excellent. In fact, for years I equated Hamilton with “good” and Jefferson with “bad”. Now I understand that both men had their strengths and weaknesses. I’m really thankful that James Madison was around back then to put everything together.

    I have only seen videos of the play and heard some of the songs. Not really my thing, but I can see why young people are attracted to the story.

    If only, in addition to the Horatio Alger theme and some nebulous Diversity! homage, the play would extoll the providential genius of the Country’s founding. Natural rights derived from our Creator, limited government, and stuff like that are what make revolutions seem appealing.

    My fear is that nobody is learning these history lessons. In fact, I suspect that many young people today can not discern the moral superiority of our Constitution compared to Socialist and Communist drivel from Rousseau to Marx to Chomsky.

    Who will be there to teach our youth?

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Me, for one. I’m here, teaching our youth.
      However, I don’t think that most adults read political theory or converse intelligently about political theory.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        I agree with you there. People know more about the Kardashians than the Founders. And many equate political theory with Game of Thrones.

        However…. is there a better political theory than free market capitalism combined with limited, representative government? If not, it should be your priority as
        a history teacher to make sure your students understand this. Maybe you do. If so, I applaud you.

        If Northwestern College (and virtually every other college) as a whole would embrace theories, concepts, and ideas that pursued truth rather than fashion, blessings would follow. The only “class struggle” you would have to contend with would be where to fit all the incoming students.

  • William Harris says:

    At least with the high school kids I hang out with, we’re past “peak Hamilton.” Still, listening closely to the soundtrack, it is clear that in addition to being an able wordsmith, Lin Miranda is also a musical theatre kid. The actual show is pure Rogers and Hammerstein plotting (and of course, what Broadway audience wouldn’t love “in New York you can be a new man?” or the chorus to Thomas Jefferson about “… the greatest city in world”? Shameless, delightful Broadway. And of course as long as there s APUSH, Hamilton is never going away.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Rebecca. It does seem that great artists “read the times” in almost uncanny ways. Shakespeare did the same with his history plays. Your contextualizing of today’s “moment” is really helpful. Thanks.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    We just finished visiting Montpelier and various other restored and preserved plantations in the south. Interestingly, at almost all of them, the story of the enslaved people is given more time and space than the story of those whose life they made possible. We heard and saw a major shift in the way that the story of southern antebellum life is being told. So, who is telling and the time it is being told in does shape the story. Thanks for a great read and, yes, I have been listening to the Hamilton music since Christmas, too.

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