"Hamilton" and Politics TodayHistorians/History
tags: Alexander Hamilton, popular culture, partisanship
Donald J. Fraser has spent a lifetime working in a variety of capacities in government. Fraser holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public policy and administration and currently teaches history through U.C. Davis’s Osher Center. He is a regular contributor to the History New Network and the author of The Emergence of One American Nation and the The Growth and Collapse of One American Nation. He recently released a podcast entitled The Real Hamilton.
Last year I was invited to prepare a podcast entitled The Real Hamilton, which was recently released. It was my first foray into podcasting, and I saw it as a great opportunity to compare the actual history of Alexander Hamilton and the founding generation to how Lin Manuel Miranda’s play depicts events.
The play itself is quite the phenomenon. Over 2.6 million people have seen it on Broadway since it opened in 2015 and another 8 million at other venues around the country. It won the Tony Award for best play in 2016 and the release of a filmed performance by Disney reached 2.7 million people in a ten-day period in July.
Listening to the music first and then seeing the play, I would ask myself, how much of this is true. I had a pretty good grounding in the founding era, have released a book about the period back in 2016 (The Emergence of One American Nation). Miranda wanted historians to take the play seriously, so I took him up on it. I found the play a largely accurate depiction (as much as a play can be) of events at a broad level. But I did find a few things out of place, which I point out in the podcast. Here are some of the most important.
One of the most glaring factual errors in the play has to do with the relationship between Hamilton, his future wife Eliza Schuyler and her sister Angelica. Two songs, “Helpless” and “Satisfied”, spaced apart in the play, provide a compelling plot line. Together the songs depict that Angelica was really in love with Hamilton but she gave him up to her sister Eliza. She did this partly because Eliza fell in love with Alexander at first sight, and partly because Angelica, as the older sister, needed to marry a rich man since there were no male heirs. It is a compelling plot line. The only problem is, it’s not true, although the play contains an underlying truth in the relationship between the three.
In fact, Angelica was already married by the time Eliza met Alexander. Still, Hamilton’s relationship with Angelica has always interested historians. He called Eliza and Angelica “my dear brunettes.” “Together the two eldest sisters formed a composite portrait of Hamilton’s ideal women, each appealing to a different facet of his personality,” Chernow writes. Rumors swirled that Alexander and Angelica were secret lovers. While there is no evidence of this, Eliza was no doubt aware of the speculation. At one point, Angelica told Eliza in jest that she should share her husband. “I love him very much and if you were as generous as the Old Romans you would lend him to me for a little while.” Yet Eliza never resented her older sister’s flirtations with her husband.
The play often depicts Hamilton as being on the side of the common person. For example, in the song the “Farmer Refuted” Hamilton sings that the “Have-nots are gonna win” in regard to the American Revolution. Alexander Hamilton, despite his background as a poor immigrant from the Caribbean, was never on the side of the have-nots, but rather, on the side of the rich and powerful. Many of the battles that he fought with Thomas Jefferson over his financial plans in the 1790s were over how Hamilton’s policies would impact equality, battles which have been repeated throughout our history. Hamilton would implement a financial system designed to promote what today we would call “trickle down economics” in an attempt to tie the wealthy to the new American government. His policies were not considered an attempt to promote the have-nots or to expand democracy. It was in fact Jefferson who was on the side of expanding democracy and policies that would promote the have-nots during the revolutionary period, not Hamilton. Jefferson feared that Hamilton’s policies would lead to ever expanding inequality and wanted a “rough equality of condition for a republican society---with every man an independent property owner,” Gordon Wood has written.
One of the glaring errors in the play is the depiction of Jefferson. As a writer for the Atlantic observes, Jefferson is shown as “a well dressed dandy” and a “dilettante.” To me, Jefferson was cast as a person who was not serious. Jefferson was many things, some of them quite unflattering, but he was a most serious person. President Kennedy, tongue in cheek, once told a group of Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
In this era of Black Lives Matter, Jefferson can appear to be quite a monster. His support for the common man in politics did not extend to black people or women, only white men. Jefferson himself was a life-long slave owner, although he also understood that slavery was evil. He viewed blacks as inferior to whites yet had a long-term relationship with his wife’s black half-sister, Sally Hemmings, who bore him six children. Jefferson never believed that white and black people could live together in a racially mixed society, and so he proposed numerous schemes for the colonization of black people somewhere else upon their emancipation.
Hamilton is depicted in the plan as an abolitionist and there is some historical support for this view. In the song “My Shot”, Hamilton sings about how he and his friends are “a bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists.” Hamilton did seem to also understand from an early age that slavery was an evil that should be eliminated. He supported his friend John Lauren’s plan to allow slaves to fight in the Revolution to gain their freedom and thought black people “would make excellent soldiers.” In the mid 1780’s Hamilton joined the New York Manumission Society. Of all of the northern states, New York had the largest slave population. Hamilton served on a committee that put forth a plan to end slavery in the state. It was considered too radical and dropped by the Society, although it would later be adopted by the state of New York.
Still, Hamilton’s hands may not have been entirely clean on the issue of slavery. He had married into the Schuyler family, which owned as many as 27 slaves. Eliza and Alexander may have also owned a few slaves themselves. And new research conducted by a historian with the Schuyler Mansion State Historic site in Albany indicates that Hamilton engaged in the buying and selling of slaves for his family members and also legal clients. The evidence has not yet been weighed fully by other historians. Historian Annette Gordon Reed, who provided the original research substantiating Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings, argues that “It shows that the founders were nearly all implicated in slavery in some way.”
Even the events of January 6, 2021 can be read into the play. On that day a mob instigated by former President Donald J. Trump attacked the Capitol and upended our history of a peaceful transfer of power. In the song “One Last Time” Washington tells Hamilton he plans retire and not run for a third term as president. Washington asks Hamilton for his assistance in updating a draft of his Farewell Address. By the time Washington decided to retire in 1796, partisanship was out of control, much as it is today. Washington understood that political parties were “inseparable from our nature” and that they have existed “under different shapes in all governments.” The danger was when parties, led by “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” pursue despotism. “The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual…[who] turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation…” One cannot help but think of Donald Trump when reading those words.
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