Hamilton and American revisionism

Miranda’s portrayal of Hamilton as a staunch abolitionist Hamilton is odd, considering Hamilton’s proximity to and readiness to profit from the act of slavery. Photo by Blueee77 on shutterstock.com

Hamilton is easily the most significant musical of the last 20 years. The show has been a hit since its debut in 2015. It has earned countless awards, reached No.2 on the charts and become an international phenomenon. 

Audiences have praised the show for its diverse casting and hip-hop-inspired songwriting. The show’s biggest supporters often call it an example of modern American excellence. 

While the show’s casting is genuinely something to behold, Hamilton is ultimately a tired, whitewashed interpretation of a history that defangs the atrocities of the slave trade and venerates men who wholeheartedly believed in their racial supremacy

Admittedly, the real-life Alexander Hamilton was never openly in favor of slavery. However, the real-life Hamilton was not the abolitionist that Lin Manuel-Miranda portrays him as in the play. 

Hamilton, in real life, married into one of the most prominent slave-owning families in colonial America and regularly procured slaves for them. On top of this, Hamilton’ proposed a federal military force for the explicit purposes of committing genocide against tribes of indigenous people. 

Perhaps Alexander Hamilton was not acting out of malice, and that is likely the case.  However, the reconfiguring of Hamilton and his ilk into these progressive heroes is not only unrealistically optimistic but erases much of what was critical to their ideology.

The portrayal of other founders is not much better. The slavery fanatic, George Washington, is depicted as the fatherly and strong general of the revolution and our first president. It is a picture taught to American children from a young age. 

Perhaps the onstage most criticism towards these figures is leveled at Thomas Jefferson. He has become, in many respects, the most controversial of the founding fathers for sexually assaulting 14-year old slave Sally Hemmings

While the play mentions Hemmings, she gets no dialogue, and the portrayal of Jefferson, while at times unsympathetic, he is still one of the main characters. His character is uncontrollably likable, with Daveed Diggs’ portrayal adding to the character’s popularity. However, many of the play’s butchered themes all stem from its creator. 

Miranda is adamant in his stance as a believer in the American dream. The opening song contains the lyrics, “The ten-dollar founding father without a father/Got a lot farther by working a lot harder/By being a lot smarter.” 

Hamilton, at its core, is the story of an immigrant who, through hard work and dedication, changed the world. This idea of bootstrapping is rather pervasive in American culture, and the survivorship biases of those who break the poverty cycle perpetuate it. It implies that any immigrant unable to succeed is somehow deserving of their socioeconomic status. 

Alexander Hamilton may have worked tirelessly, but America never gave the enslaved people he exploited the opportunities he had, regardless of their intelligence. The real-life Hamilton supported the original sin of America that denied opportunities to millions. 

Framing Hamilton’s story as an “Immigrant-Bootstrap” narrative feels particularly odd. Mainly as politicians have stereotyped immigrants of color as lazy people, which consequences carry on to this day.

This article is not the first critical piece written about Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda has responded to the criticism surrounding his play’s portrayal of slavery and its treatment of its characters. The show was written knee-deep in the Obama years, during a wave of short-sighted optimism

Hamilton’s staunchest critics have likened its existence to Confederate monuments. The comparison is thin and misses Miranda’s more benevolent (though still myopic) politics than the United Daughters of the Confederacy. 

Nevertheless, the attitude that inspires such comparisons is the same. The idea is that America and its founders are used to gloss over current injustices.