Slavery and Revolution



By Christer Petley |

Hamilton is ‘the musical of the Obama era’, according to Adam Gopnik in a recent article in The New YorkerIt is a story about one of America’s Founding Fathers, brought to the stage via the medium of hip-hop, along with many other modern musical styles—from R&B and soul through to boogie-woogie and Britpop. And it is clear that the show’s prodigiously talented creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is keen to be associated with Obama, and vice versa.

In Hamilton the musical—Miranda’s smash hit Broadway sensation—we have the tale of the dead white man whose face is on the ten dollar bill, brought to us by a multi-ethnic cast of modern Americans. Miranda was born in New York—the child of Caribbean immigrants from Puerto Rico. Most of the leading characters (with the exception of King George III) are played by actors of colour. On and off Broadway, the characters of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—all of them white Virginia slaveholders in real life—are played by black or mixed-race actors. The music and casting of Hamilton is bold and challenging. Like Obama, they offer a new departure: they symbolise the arrival of marginalised people at the heart of the national story. And like Obama they offer something refreshingly cool and irresistibly attractive. But perhaps (and perhaps like Obama) they serve to distract from what is in many regards a fairly conventional production.

Like the debates about Obama’s presidency, critical disagreements over Miranda’s musical often seem to hinge on the question of whether this is a radical departure, or not. Is this a progressive piece of musical theatre—transforming our perceptions of the Revolutionary era with its eclectic blend of music and audacious casting decisions—or does it fail to deliver on its promises—offering up a show hidebound by Broadway traditions and the predictable re-telling of recognisable myths about great men and the founding of America? The fact that it is both can be gleaned from a YouTube clip of Miranda at the White House in 2009. Miranda presents his crazy idea—of a hip-hop take on the life of the first Secretary of the Treasury told by the third Vice President of the United States—to ripples of laughter. It is a knowing laughter, because Miranda’s in the company of the President and his guests, offering them a familiar story about well-known characters. He gives it an edgy new twist. But he’s rapping about the man on the money, about the birth of a nation and the American Dream.

Last semester, I played that video to a group of second year students studying the history of the British Atlantic world. The narrative that Miranda gives runs counter to a lot of the work that we did on that module. He sets up the Caribbean as ‘a forgotten spot’ of the Atlantic World, in counterpoint to ‘the mainland’. Alexander Hamilton’s tale, in Miranda’s rhyme, is one of migration and renewal. But it runs a familiar detour around the beating economic heart of the eighteenth century British Atlantic in the Caribbean. The sons of wealthy slaveholding West Indian planters were more likely to go to Eton, Oxford or Cambridge for their education than to be dropped in the peripheral spot of a New Jersey grammar school, and the planters of the British Caribbean were so rich, content and powerful that they did not feel the need to join the likes of American slaveholders like Washington, Jefferson and Madison in revolution against the mother country. But that’s a pedantic point. It is silly to expect Hamilton the musical to have reflected recent scholarly turns towards Caribbean perspectives on British Atlantic history … and for Alexander Hamilton, New York and, more importantly, the American Revolution, did give him his shot at becoming ‘a new man’, a shot that—as we all now know—he did not throw away.

It is perhaps more sensible then to ask whether this musical tests old assumptions about the American story of the Revolution. Some reviewers have claimed that Miranda’s Hamilton in his rap battles with Jefferson puts slavery at the centre of the debate about the future of the Revolution. Jefferson’s advocacy of decentralised power revolved around slavery, and some passages in the battles allude to this. For instance, in response to Jefferson’s complaints about his scheme for the assumption of state debts, Hamilton responds:

A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor

Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor

He mocks Jefferson, the planter, and his ranting, telling him bluntly, ‘We know who’s really doing the planting’. But these neat quips hardly put the issue of slavery at the centre of the show, in part because of the very nature of the show. That the American Revolution helped protect American slaveholders from the abolitionist tendencies of big government until the second half of the nineteenth century is not a very uplifting message for the kind of upbeat Broadway musical that Miranda has created. And neither are the realities of slavery, an institution that rested on assumptions by whites (slaveholders and non-slaveholders) that black people were, in one way or another, less than fully human. At some level most whites of the Revolutionary era bought into that view of Africans and their descendants, including Alexander Hamilton who, though an adversary of southern planters and some-time opponent of the institution of slavery, married into a wealthy family of New York slaveholders. Those realities remain obscured in Miranda’s vision.

This is a story about America then, told by America now‘, Miranda has claimed. But while his creative vision and bold casting breathe fresh life into the re-telling of that story, it skips over important parts of what we now understand about ‘America then’. For instance, the lyric ‘look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now’—about the new United States in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War—does not speak for all inhabitants of America in the 1780s. Far from it. For enslaved African Americans and for Native Americans, the Revolution was a disaster, strengthening the power of southern slaveholders and unleashing the westward irruption of an expansionary new ‘Empire of Liberty’.

Debates about Hamilton the musical in the press have served to underscore the fact that it is at once a boldly radical and a deeply conventional production. ‘The theatrical, corporeal point’ of Miranda’s Hamilton, argues Alisa Solomon, writing in The Nation, ‘is that America’s history—and its future—belong to men and women of color as profoundly as to anyone else’. The blogger Notinourstars celebrates Miranda’s sampling of multiple modern musical styles, and his casting choices, as major achievements, arguing that ‘when the players change, so does the story’. It certainly democratises popular engagement with the history of the Revolutionary era. But I’m not convinced that changing the players, on its own, does that much to alter the story of the founding of America. What it does instead (for Americans) is to represent men like Hamilton and Jefferson as having been, somehow, all our Founding Fathers, and in ways that perpetuate myths about the young, scrappy and hungry slaveholding Early Republic’s unique commitments to progress and liberty.

I’m inclined, therefore, to agree with Gopnik, who points out that for all that is exciting and novel about Hamilton, ‘the story stays the same’. As Solomon notes in her Nation article, Miranda has received accolades largely because he has so ‘smoothly incorporated’ rap music ‘into an old, beloved form’—the Broadway blockbuster. She likens Hamilton to an older generation of musicals—like Oklahoma or Fiddler on the Roof—providing ‘that sense of community and sense of promise’ that come ‘from a wistful idea of America’. Despite all that is energising and progressive about Hamilton, then, it offers us a relatively familiar type of entertainment as well as a fairly conservative picture of Alexander Hamilton and of the word he and his co-founding fathers helped create via their achievements and dramatic beefs. Like Obama’s presidency, it offers a hopeful sense of purpose—in several important ways it represents a new vision of America—but it is also limited and shaped by deep-rooted American traditions: old wine served up in a new star-spangled bottle.