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The Hamilton Pushback

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Finally, a well-deserved pushback to the politics of the Hamilton musical is happening.

The show does include one named black character, Sally Hemings, who appears in a quick cameo that lands mainly as a dig at Jefferson. (The slaveholdings of the Schuyler family, which Hamilton married into, go unmentioned.) The show, Mr. Chernow said, also makes clear that black soldiers fought in the Revolution.

Ms. Monteiro, in her article, points out that other historical African-American individuals could have figured in the story.

The show depicts John Laurens’s plan to create a battalion of slaves who would fight in exchange for freedom, which Hamilton supported. But it omits, Ms. Monteiro noted, the known role of individuals like Cato, a slave who worked as an anti-British spy alongside his owner, Hercules Mulligan, an Irish-immigrant tailor whose espionage exploits are celebrated in the musical.

And then there’s the question of Hamilton the “uncompromising abolitionist,” as Mr. Chernow puts it in his book. 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.

In the show’s last song, his widow, Eliza, sings that Hamilton would have “done so much more” against slavery had he lived longer.

But Ms. Gordon-Reed, in an interview, said that while Hamilton publicly criticized Jefferson’s views on the biological inferiority of blacks, his record from the 1790s until his death in 1804 includes little to no action against slavery.

Race and slavery, she added, are invoked directly in the show mainly to underline Hamilton’s “goodness,” especially in contrast to Jefferson. But Hamilton the ardent lifelong abolitionist, she said, is “an idea of who we would like Hamilton to be.”

Part of the problem here is that Chernow, who has spent a career openly celebrating capitalism, is problematic as the sole interpreter of Hamilton, which he basically is in the public eye, now through his influence on the play. His comment about African-Americans fighting in the American Revolution is telling. True, some did fight for the revolution. A whole lot more fled to the British because they wanted their freedom and they knew that the army of the slaver George Washington and his aide Alexander Hamilton was going to bind them in slavery. They fled to the British lines by the thousands, as they would again in the War of 1812. Much of the play’s historical narrative, primarily that Jefferson is pure hypocrite compared to the abolitionist Hamilton wash up on the rocks of reality. Hamilton married into a big slaver family, he helped write and defend the pro-slavery Constitution, etc. He’s also a huge hypocrite on slavery, if that’s how we are judging the Founders, which evidently we are. Hamilton didn’t actually do anything at all against slavery, even when he had the opportunity. “Done so much had he lived longer” is an absurd line. Hamilton’s power in American life was already seriously declining when he died. Jefferson republicanism starting to transition into the white male democracy of the Jacksonian period was completely overwhelming Federalism, especially the extremely elitist version of Federalism held by Hamilton. Not to mention a lot of the love of the cast has to do with the casting of African-Americans in white roles. That’s fine. It’s not really that transgressive for theatre in 2016 but given we are talking about a play about the Founders here, I guess it still sort of is. But Gordon-Reed asks the right question. Is that what we are basing this reconsideration of Hamilton through a popular play upon? Is that enough?

Of course, this says nothing about the quality of the play, which is of course high and widely acclaimed. That’s fine. We all need high quality art, especially in the era of 48 superhero movies put out every month. But part of the popularity on the left, where Hamilton is very popular, is about pure political tribalism. I think the roots of the needs to connect our current politics to the Founders has its roots in Scalia’s originalism that was generated by and built upon by the larger conservative movement that made exclusive claims to understanding the Constitution. Trying to find our own wealthy white men of 225 years ago to serve as lodestones for our politics perhaps was a natural reaction but isn’t a very useful one except perhaps in the rhetorical intellectual universe of the political world. In other words, no, I don’t think Alexander Hamilton has anything useful to teach us about climate change.

The reality is that both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were wealthy elites who were incredibly complicated figures. If we squint hard enough, we can be inspired by both of them. Neither of them are monsters. But the idea that we should recreate Alexander Hamilton, a man who openly despised democracy and the poor as a man of the modern left during an era of income inequality and massive corporate wealth is deeply problematic. We should stop it. More broadly, we should stop trying to read elites of over two centuries ago into our present politics. And if we really have to, can we at least make the historical analysis realistic?

As art, portrayals of the past can be judged solely by the standards of art. Lots of people have been portrayed inaccurately in good art over the century of film, not to mention other art forms. And I guess that’s fine. But there aren’t lessons for modern politics to be taken out of Hamilton. Enjoy the art. Don’t believe the severely problematic narrative about the real Alexander Hamilton.

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