When “Hamilton” premiered onstage in 2015, the musical attracted a big following among historians, who were delighted by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s unabashedly nerdy attention to primary documents and the scholarly literature.
But historians being historians, they also offered plenty of footnotes, criticisms and correctives, which weren’t always appreciated by the show’s ardent fans, who saw a bunch of humorless, literal-minded scolds out to kill their buzz.
Now, with the filmed version streaming on Disney+, the critical questions about Alexander Hamilton and the show’s depiction of him are back, and they aren’t just coming from the ivory tower.
On Friday, the director Ava DuVernay tweeted her appreciation for Miranda’s artistry, along with a blast at the real-life A.Ham, who was not the progressive paragon of multicultural democracy some who watch the show may assume.
“Believed in manumission, not abolition,” she wrote. “Wrote violent filth about Native people. Believed in only elites holding political power and no term limits. And the banking innovation has troubled roots.”
Historians, many of whom took part in a Twitter watch party under the hashtag #HATM (Historians at the Movies), took a generally milder tone, even as they reiterated some of their earlier caveats. Here’s what some of them have been saying about “Hamilton” — and Hamilton — since Miranda’s take on the “ten-dollar founding father” took America by storm.
Hamilton wasn’t an abolitionist? I’m confused.
Early in the show, Hamilton calls himself and his friends “revolutionary manumission abolitionists,” a line that raised a lot of eyebrows among scholars.
Hamilton was genuinely antislavery, even if some scholars say the intensity of his opposition has been overstated. He was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society, created in 1785, which among other things, pushed for a gradual emancipation law in New York State. (Such a law was passed in 1799.)
Manumission involved voluntary release by enslavers. Abolition was a more radical proposition, and Hamilton did not advocate it. And while he publicly criticized Thomas Jefferson’s views on the biological inferiority of Black people, the Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed has noted that his record and his writings from the 1790s until his death in 1804 include little to nothing against slavery.
As the show indicates, Hamilton did support John Laurens’s 1779 plan to allow Black soldiers to fight in the Revolution (and many eventually did). But that’s as far as he went.
“OK, Hamilton did not write pamphlets against slavery with Laurens,” Gordon-Reed tweeted during the #HATM watch party, adding: “I hate to be that historian.”
So which characters in the show owned slaves?
Most of them, actually. In one of the Cabinet rap battles, Jefferson extols the South’s agrarian economy, and Hamilton slaps back. “Yeah, keep ranting. We know who’s really doing the planting,” he sneers, dismissing Jefferson’s argument as “a civics lesson from a slaver.”
But slavery was hardly just a Southern affair. In 1790, about 40 percent of households immediately around New York City included enslaved people. Most of Hamilton’s associates who toast freedom early in the show were slaveowners, including Aaron Burr and Hercules Mulligan (whose enslaved servant Cato worked alongside him in an anti-British spy ring).
The Schuylers, the prominent family Hamilton marries into, were major slaveholders. In fact, the mayor of Albany announced last month that the city would remove a statue of Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, who at various points owned as many as 27 slaves.
Angelica Schuyler and her husband also owned slaves, and Hamilton, who was a lawyer, helped them with their slavery-related transactions, including the $225 purchase of a mother and child.
Wait. Did Hamilton himself own slaves?
Possibly. When his mother died in 1768, she left Hamilton and his brother an enslaved boy but they were not able to inherit since they had been born out of wedlock.
And there is some documentation suggesting that Hamilton may have owned slaves later, after his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler. The historian Michelle DuRoss, in a 2010 paper, noted that Hamilton’s grandson had said Hamilton owned slaves, citing references in family ledgers.
But the evidence is ambiguous. Ankeet Ball, in a paper for the Columbia & Slavery research project, noted an 1804 letter from Angelica Schuyler regretting that Elizabeth and Alexander did not have any enslaved servants to help them with a party.
Ball, echoing many other scholars, pointed out that Hamilton, however much he may have hated slavery, acquiesced to it. “Hamilton ultimately accepted protecting slavery in the Constitution to solidify the union of the North and the South, which was crucial to the financial growth that Hamilton envisioned,” Ball wrote.
Was Hamilton pro-immigrant?
“Immigrants, we get the job done,” sung by Hamilton (who was born in Nevis) and the Marquis de Lafayette during the Battle of Yorktown, quickly emerged as one of the biggest applause lines in the show. And while Hamilton, as a subject of the British crown moving from one British colony to another, was not an immigrant in the contemporary sense, he did see himself (and was sometimes seen by others) as an outsider.
But his views of immigrants and how they fit into America were complicated. As the historian Joanne Freeman has pointed out, he wanted immigrant workers to fuel the manufacturing economy he envisioned, but he worried about their impact on the nation.
In 1798, in the middle of naval hostilities with revolutionary France, Hamilton and other Federalists supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, which extended the length of time immigrants had to wait to apply for citizenship and allowed the president to deport immigrants deemed “enemies.”
Backlash against the laws, which were designed to weaken Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, contributed to Jefferson’s victory in 1800. After the election, when Jefferson proposed loosening citizenship requirements, Professor Freeman wrote, “Hamilton protested, fretting about the corruption of national character.” He even suggested that if only “native citizens” had been allowed to vote, Jefferson would not have become president.
But Hamilton, who started out as a penniless orphan, was a champion of the little guy, right?
Even before the musical (and the Ron Chernow biography that inspired it), Hamilton had a resurgence of popularity, driven in part by conservatives and centrists who saw him as an avatar of capitalism and a strong national government.
And Hamilton, many historians have pointed out, was hardly an up-by-the-bootstraps populist. He was an unabashed elitist who had proposed that senators serve for life and the president be an “elective monarch.” He also had a sometimes iffy relationship with representative democracy.
Hamil-skeptics point to episodes like the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783, when forces within the Continental Army who were frustrated over lack of pay and other issues argued that the army should challenge the authority of Congress. In a confidential letter, Hamilton, then a congressman, urged George Washington to “take the direction of” the army’s grievances, without appearing to — advice some scholars have interpreted as urging a military coup.
Later, Hamilton dreamed of invading Florida and Louisiana (which were still under the control of Spain). He even floated the idea of deploying the army to Virginia to crush political opposition. And then there’s his (likely apocryphal) quotation, relayed by Henry Adams (the great-grandson of his nemesis John Adams): “Your people sir — your people is a great beast.”
Sheesh, chill out. “Hamilton” is a work of fiction, right?
The renewed critical commentary on Hamilton the man has prompted no shortage of eye-rolling, including from some historians. “Guys, I don’t think that’s how the Battle of Yorktown really went,” the historian Kevin Gannon tweeted during the #HATM watch. “I mean, I’m sure there was at least one more unit of dancers.”
For some historians, one of the most thrilling things about the show is the way it plays with the tension between history and memory, the biases of sources and the importance of who tells the story. And Miranda’s musical, for all its phenomenal success, may not have the last word.
One of the last times A.Ham was prominently on Broadway, in Sidney Kingsley 1943 play “The Patriots,” America was deep in a global fight for democracy. Hamilton wasn’t a populist hero, but a borderline fascist trying to impose a moneyed aristocracy on America. Jefferson, with his vision of self-governing common folk, was the champion of democracy.
The next time around, who knows?