Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s catchy musical portrait of the life and times of the Little Lion, has captivated America’s progressive elites for months. But on some quarters of the Left, dissent is brewing, according to a recent New York Times report (‘Hamilton’ and History: Are They in Sync?):
[E]ven among historians who love the musical and its multiethnic cast, a question has also quietly simmered: does “Hamilton” really get Hamilton right?
In articles, blog posts and Facebook threads, scholars have debated whether “Hamilton” over-glorifies the man, inflating his opposition to slavery while glossing over less attractive aspects of his politics, which were not necessarily as in tune with contemporary progressive values as audiences leaving the theater might assume.
The conversation has yet to erupt into a full-fledged historians’ rap battle. But some scholars are wondering if one is due to start.
There is a lot to unpack in the Times’ airing of grievances against the show. First of all—as many exasperated Times readers have pointed out—of course Hamilton is not a perfect transcription of history—Broadway musicals rarely are. Miranda’s priority was to entertain his audiences, generate interest in one of the most impressive Americans who ever lived, and highlight our country’s history of raucous pluralism. If viewers wanted a detailed and scholarly examination of the man and the era he shaped, they could always read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton—the magisterial biography from which Miranda famously drew his inspiration. And many no doubt will, even though one of the play’s critics quoted in the Times has elsewhere dismissed Chernow as “a prototypical white historian.”
It’s also at least somewhat ironic that the same people tut-tutting the musical’s alleged historical inaccuracies have no objection to the most salient—and innovative—historical “inaccuracy” of all: that America’s uniformly white, aristocratic class of founders is represented by a multiethnic cast fluent in hip-hop.
More interesting, though, are the politics underlying the Hamilton craze among wealthy social liberals. While it’s risky to try to transpose any 18th-century figure’s views onto 21st-century political debates, it’s clear that Hamilton’s were in tension with many of the official tenets of the modern Democratic Party: America’s first Treasury Secretary was an unapologetic nationalist, a staunch ally of business interests, and an instinctive defender of established orders and hierarchies. To be sure, there are also aspects of Hamiltonianism that would today be coded as left-of center, such as his relatively forward-looking views on race and his support for a strong and active federal government. But few historians would deny that Hamilton’s impulses on important questions were reliably anti-egalitarian, and, in the Burkean sense, conservative. Indeed, as a one of the most outspoken opponents of the French Revolution on this side of the Atlantic, one might say he was a reactionary, in the original sense of the term.
Given all this, the real question is not why some elements of the Left are just now starting to criticize Hamilton, but why the liberal establishment celebrated the show so enthusiastically in the first place. Perhaps the multiethnic casting, non-traditional presentation and come-from-behind message is sufficient to make Washington’s right-hand man feel progressive to Broadway audiences—or perhaps politics has not played a major role in propelling the show’s popularity.
But politics probably are in the mix, and Alexander Hamilton is, in a sense, a “safe” choice for liberal elites in the age of Obama to latch onto. The people who run today’s Democratic Party are more business-friendly, more technocratic, and more comfortable with class inequalities than their 20th-century predecessors, and their rainbow-coalition liberalism often focuses more on issues of race and culture and identity than on economic populism. It’s not a coincidence that the member of the Hamilton cast who has lost the most cachet in recent times has been his arch-rival Thomas Jefferson: While 20th-century liberals like Franklin Delano Roosevelt held Jefferson in high regard for his radically egalitarian economic vision, today’s Democrats are formally severing ties with the author of the Declaration due to his ownership of slaves.
Will Hamilton eventually be shown the door as well? Strikingly, most of the progressive critiques of Lin Manuel’s magnum opus have barely mentioned Hamilton’s economic elitism, or his sympathy for monarchy, or his mistrust of mass movements. Rather, critics are arguing that the Left should be wary of Hamilton because he was insufficiently anti-slavery, and generally too white and too male to be at the vanguard of today’s progressive project. This critique seems unlikely to stick, because Hamilton was genuinely the most cosmopolitan and racially progressive of the major founders. Disowning Hamilton on “diversity” grounds would mean disowning all the architects of the American experiment.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room for a left-wing attack on Hamilton. One can imagine Sandernistas arguing that the show glorifies a man who was, at his core, an aristocrat and bourgeois institutionalist, a guardian of elite privilege who held the judgment of ordinary people in contempt. But this would be an awkward argument for Broadway-going liberal elites to accept—especially at a time when they are trying to shepherd the Democratic rank-and-file behind Hillary Rodham Clinton.