Hamilton & Public History: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Second in a series of three posts about the musical Hamilton. Read the first here.

In starting an essay on Hamilton it might be best to state my bias upfront. A work of genius, Hamilton soars for a variety of reasons including the hip hop allusions, the allegory to modern life, and the purposeful diverse casting, all of which have already been covered extensively elsewhere. But while I yet to have the privilege of seeing it in person there is one very large reason why I think the musical is fantastic:

Hamilton is an almost perfect example of public history.*

Public history is about meaning. It’s not always 100% accurate and is rooted in how various publics perceive their own past. Hamilton the musical plays with that idea while engaging with the very real themes of legacy and memory.

But it’s about more than that. A few weeks ago, at the PastForward conference Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative spoke eloquently about the need to open up the narrative of our history to achieve social justice, he states “I believe that the opposite of poverty is not wealth….I believe that the opposite of poverty is justice. And we do an injustice when we tell stories about our space, our history, our identity that are incomplete.”

While Hamilton isn’t exactly an active agent in social justice, it does, in just over two hours, show how the narrative of a Founding Father is also the African-American story, the immigrant story, the story of women, and a story of the impoverished. As with most artistic interpretations there is an element of anachronism, as this American Historical Association piece mentions, but the musical’s ability to engage the public on the importance of history in all its forms is worth its weight in gold.

For me it all comes down to resonance and relevance.

The Two R’s

Resonance is an emotional reaction. In history it is the ability to relate to the past in a way that feeds your identity. In my case it was clear almost immediately that the lyrics and narrative of Hamilton would feed my history-loving, poetry-inspired soul and really hit home in making some abstract subjects real.

This is perhaps best illustrated through “Satisfied“, sung by Angelica Schuyler at her sister’s wedding to Alexander Hamilton.

I’m a girl in a world in which
My only job is to marry rich
My father has no sons so I’m the one
Who has to social climb for one
So I’m the oldest and the wittiest and the gossip in
New York City is insidious
And Alexander is penniless
Ha! That doesn’t mean I want him any less.

In one song we learn more about the social standing of women in 18th century America in a way that is ridiculously catchy and human. We hear Angelica’s conflicting feelingsbetween what she wants and what society expects–and really feel her plight. While intellectually I saw this as a vehicle for showing the way class and gender determined pathways in early America, emotionally I felt Angelica’s conflict.

Then there is relevance. A lot of the issues we grapple with as a country are rooted in a very real awareness that while “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” huge segments of the country were left behind. (Angelica: And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!). And so one of the biggest reasons this show is a great example of public history is its ability to be relevant to the here and now.

But sometimes you can’t think about resonance and relevance as separate entities. I found that I was emotionally drawn to songs that subtly link to the practice of history. Specifically how Miranda is able to explain why we know some things and not others i.e. “no one else was in the room where it happened,” “I’m taking myself out of the narrative.” As a result Hamilton feels not only historically accurate (within reason), but also authentic. During the Smithsonian interview, Miranda mentioned that for the purposes of the art, some level of suspension of belief had to happen. I believe that in sacrificing some accuracy for the spirit of the past, Hamilton accomplishes something that is uniquely powerful.

As a public historian I walk around the world knowing that our present is influenced by what came before. We grow and change based on how we take those experiences in our own lives. The strength of Hamilton is the way it is able to take a very traditional narrative of the past and create tethers to our current existence. I see this in these two oft-repeated phrases “look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now” coupled with the reminder “Look at where you are. Look at where you started. The fact that you’re alive is a miracle.” Both are reminder to us, the audience, that to create a better future we need to pause and recognize how far we’ve come. That it is worth taking a breath as we continue to fight the social ills of our own age.

Who Lives. Who Dies. Who Tells Your Story

During the Q&A last at the Smithsonian, an audience member asked Lin Manuel Miranda what he wanted his legacy to be. He said (paraphrasing) that Hamilton touches upon the notion that there is not a lot of time in this world (Why do you write like you’re running out of time, running out of time.) and so “I want to leave behind as much as possible. I know that’s selfish, but there is so much in my brain that when I go I want it all out, I want to always throw rocks in the pond.”

And that is the final reason why Hamilton an almost perfect piece of public history. We only have one life to live and it’s fitting that it is Eliza’s (Hamilton’s wife) words at the end of the show are what left me energized and in tears all at the same time. In the final song she sings of her own legacy, telling not only Hamilton’s story, but also her own, adding another layer to an already rich story. Perhaps, more importantly the show’s ultimate message is that it’s not about finding someone to tell your story, but rather to “put yourself back in the narrative” and tell it yourself. After all, the greatest impact of history can have on the public is to inspire — and Hamilton the musical does that in spades.

*Why is this not perfect? It comes down to accessibility. Right now, while grants have been given to allow school children to see it, the show is cost prohibitive for most people (unless you win the ticket lottery). But I suspect this will change with time — and hopefully a feature film?

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3 thoughts on “Hamilton & Public History: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

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