I first encountered Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton thanks to my wife and her students. My wife, Casey, teaches at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, a residential public boarding school for gifted students. These high schoolers, from different races and socio-economic backgrounds, had all become obsessed with the musical. They shared it with Casey and she shared it with me. As a fan of musicals and a historian, I was interested but cautious. How could someone write an entertaining musical about the man who created the American banking system? After listening to the soundtrack, I was immediately hooked. I was especially taken by how Miranda breathed new life into the popular view of American history—the high politics of the white founding fathers and myth of America as a meritocracy—by reinterpreting it through the lenses of hip-hop, race, and gender.
Miranda rests the thesis of his musical on the idea—one that has existed in some form since the Founding—that Americans, regardless of their abilities, can become whatever they want if they work hard enough for it. The characters in the musical all share in this vision of American greatness, whether they achieve it or not is unclear. Alexander Hamilton, a penniless immigrant born “impoverished in squalor,” grows up to be a “hero and a scholar, the ten dollar Founding Father.” His compatriot Hercules Mulligan boasts of how the American Revolution will provide him a “chance to socially advance instead of sewin’ some pants.” Even the ostensible villain of the show, Aaron Burr, sings of his desire to see his daughter, Theodosia, “come of age with our young nation” and promises to “lay a strong enough foundation” for her to succeed. Angelica Schuyler decries the conventions of her gender as she searches for an intellect to match her own. Anything seems possible in America if you’re willing to work for it.
Through the show’s casting, Miranda has taken a new approach to what many historians deride as “old white man history”—the high politics of the Revolution with a focus on Washington, Adams, Jefferson etc. He has recast the stodgy old white men of the past to reflect the America of today. Alexander Hamilton is played by the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Thomas Jefferson by the son of a Jewish mother and African American father, and the nation’s first president, George Washington by an African American. By portraying Americans of the past as Americans of today, Miranda opens up American history to those who learned it solely as the province of dead white men. The Founders aren’t dead, he argues. They’re alive and they look just like us.
Miranda takes what are often difficult issues for students to understand, the competing visions of America articulated by Jefferson and Hamilton, and translates them into a language they can understand—hip hop. Students have trouble unpacking the language of the Federalist papers before they can even understand the ideas within the text. The complexity of each character’s raps and even the kind of music they sing embody their characters. At the beginning of the musical, John Laurens and Hercules Mulligan employ a rudimentary rap structure, while Hamilton’s is layered and complex (and only matched by Angelica’s). When Thomas Jefferson appears, he’s singing in a jazz style while the rest of the country has moved on to hip-hop. If the nuances of financial policy and cabinet debates fall upon deaf ears in the classroom, when re-conceptualized as a rap battle they become more understandable.
Miranda challenges this white-male centric view of the Founding by providing the women of Hamilton with their own agency. Angelica Schuyler is introduced searching the streets of New York City for someone who can match her intellect. She rejects men, like Burr, who fail to measure up. But reflecting her status in Revolutionary America, Angelica cannot have the life she wants. She finds an intellectual equal in Hamilton, but directs him towards her sister Eliza in a show of sisterly love and in acquiescence to the social demands of her time—the penniless son of an immigrant is no fit for the eldest daughter of one of the colony’s richest men. Hamilton wins Eliza over, but his relentless ambition drives a wedge into their relationship. When he cheats on her, Eliza destroys their correspondence, striking a blow at Hamilton’s most prized possession, his legacy. She asserts her own agency through this act of destruction. In depicting the Schuyler sisters as fully realized characters with motivations outside of their relationships to men, Miranda embraces a broader understanding of the Founding generation. It is not just the Washingtons, Adamses, and Jeffersons that are worthy of our attention.
This more inclusive view of the Founding gives everyone a stake in American history. In Hamilton, everyone can be in the room where it happens.