Here are a few thoughts in response to the claim that liking Hamilton (recently released to stream on Disney+) is “problematic.”
1. First and foremost, Hamilton is a play, not history. For this reason, Hamilton is about the Revolutionary Era in the way Romeo and Juliet is about Italy or Macbeth is about monarchy in Scotland. That is, it’s simply a backdrop against which to construct a story about more universal themes such as love, death, and betrayal. When faced with a choice between historical accuracy and literary power, Miranda sacrificed the former for the sake of the latter rather than the other way around.
2. The historical setting not unimportant, of course. But Hamilton the character tells us how to interpret the play’s relationship to the real, historical past. Indeed, in a seemingly off-hand comment, Hamilton the character alludes to Macbeth in Hamilton. Hamilton the character makes this allusion because he recognizes his friends and enemies in that particular play. But Miranda the playwright makes this allusion for another reason: to signal that he intends his play to be a type of American Macbeth.
Why does this matter? Thus, Hamilton the play is about U.S. American history in the same way that Hamilton the character believes it is about his life. Put another way, to the extent that Hamilton the play really IS about actual American history, then it is in this sense: more than Miranda wants us to see the historical figures featured in his play for who they “really” were, he wants us to see ourselves for who we really are by seeing ourselves in them.
3. This insight allows us to notice what many critics miss: in the logic of Hamilton, the fact that”we have no control [over] who lives who dies who tells our story” is not just a universal truth to which every audience member is meant to relate, but it applies with particular force to the so-called “Founding Fathers” as well. We tell their story now. Thus, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” means not just what the “Founding Fathers” thought it meant; it ultimately means what we decide it does. The “Founding” is not locked in the past; it is re-made in the future.
4. We even get to decide who the country’s Founders are. I do not here mean simply that we get to cast appropriate moral judgement on who they were as human beings. We get to decide who they are today. And in the world that Hamilton has built, our Founding Fathers were black.
Because I read the play this way, I think those who critique Hamilton’s cross-racial casting on the ground that it hides, downplays, or obfuscates the role that slavery played in the United States’ founding simply miss the point.
Rather than burying the true story of our nation’s founding in order to celebrate those who should be shamed, Hamilton’s cross-racial casting captures the truth about our nation’s founding in a way conventional narratives simply do not: the freedom fought for in the American Revolution and granted through its founding is true and worthy only to the extent that it is understood as freedom from actual slavery and not just as the metaphorical slavery to the tyranny of a monarch or mob. And it is black people, more than anyone else, who have realized this connection and have worked to make it truer than ever before.
It is not just for their role in the historical Alexander Hamilton’s life that James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington are, along with Hamilton, the only “Founding Fathers” to appear as major characters in the play. All of them are typically credited with “founding” or “fathering” the nation: Madison is remembered as “the Father of the Constitution,” Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, Washington of course is similarly remembered as the Father of the nation due to his role as our first President, and Hamilton (as the play argues) in many ways “fathered” our financial system.
Thus, in the story Hamilton tells, our Founding Fathers are black, and Hamilton, our previously forgotten Father, is a non-white immigrant.
This reversal is especially poignant in the case of Jefferson because we know that he non-consensually fathered children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, but it applies to Madison and Washington as well. In real life, these slave-holding “Fathers” could not recognize themselves in their black children whether literal or figurative, but in Hamilton the play it is contemporary black men whom we “see” as our Fathers.
5. Finally, for me at least, this cross racial casting makes it impossible to forget about the role that slavery played in those particular men’s lives. I found myself thinking about slavery often throughout the play, especially when Daveed Diggs’ Jefferson was on the stage.
6. And yes, we need more art that features historical figures who actually were black in real life. But don’t “Reviewer Two” Lin Manuel Miranda. I guess what I’m saying is, “the world is wide enough” for Hamilton and Harriet and Birth of a Nation (the Nat Turner one) and The Book of Negroes.
Thanks for this brilliant analysis!
Thank you so much for reading!
yes, my perhaps inelegant way of trying to acknowledge that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemmings was not consensual. See Annette-Gordon Reed’s The Hemmings of Monticello for more on this. https://www.amazon.com/Hemingses-Monticello-American-Family/dp/0393337766
Thank you for this Katie – really well stated.
Thank you so much, Fran.