Prince died, and I went to see Hamilton
My husband and I were in the audience of the Grammy and Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway musical Hamilton on the day that Prince died. Hamilton was conceived, written, and is currently performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is also a MacArthur Foundation “genius.”
Hamilton was a revelation – goosebump good from the first minute through to almost three hours later. Like my favorite books, it made we wish it would not end. But as I spent the next few days reading, with an open mind, the many and various critiques of the work that are available online, I found that taken together, they form a statement about this moment in our time and culture.
The critiques of Hamilton come together in several threads – and few of these complaints actually come from the multi-racial casting of our founding fathers, or the use of contemporary music to tell the story. These are not the issues that get ink. There are threads, and several of them generally are woven together in the complaints. First, there are the academic concerns about factual inaccuracies and what are seen as flawed or inappropriate interpretations of the facts. One example is that it is not accurate, by any real stretch, to suggest that the American Revolution was an uprising of the downtrodden, no matter how lofty the ideals that the revolutionaries expressed. A second concern that is widely expressed is that in suggesting that Alexander Hamilton, the bastard immigrant, achieved success by “Working a lot harder/Being a lot smarter/Being a self-starter” the musical allows one to assume that immigrants who do not achieve success are stupid and lazy, playing right into the ethnic stereotypes that the show’s casting seeks to disrupt, and ignoring the role that systemic racism and economic injustice play in our lives. Critics also focus on the unreality of bringing feminism and racial inequities into the story at all – since it is claimed that these issues were not at play at the time of the story Miranda is telling. Finally, we hear a great number of assertions that Hamilton himself was not a feminist, not really an abolitionist, and most emphatically did not desire to be a man of the people – he believed in consolidated power, and worked to create the banking system that became the heart of American capitalism. It is suggested that this production, in spite of all that is revolutionary in it, is just a modern version of Founder Chic – or the worship of great white men.
None of these concerns are entirely spurious, but there is another outlook. And let me start by presenting the place from which my perspective arises as I make the argument. I am a practitioner of public history at the Newport Historical Society. In our role as a public history organization, we are translators of scholarship to the public, and advocates for the idea that history is an asset in thinking about today and the future. Personally, I am an advocate for starting with the facts. I think they matter. But, the facts of history are almost impossibly complex, and when we interpret, we can fall into a trap of adopting the perspective first, and then choosing from the vast assemblage of facts only those that already fit the story we want to tell.
Today, we have many perspectives at play in our culture about our history, about immigration, and about success. There are in fact so many on the table that it can be hard to know what our starting point is when we begin to discuss an issue. In addition, it has become hard to make a distinction between an act of scholarship and a work of art. Memoirs are revealed to be invented, fictional movies look like documentaries, and historical settings are used to create art that has nothing to do with history.
But I do not want to appear to absolve Hamilton of its “flaws” by suggesting that it is “simply” a work of art with no real relationship to history. I think it is far better, and more interesting than that. I think it is a work of art, of genius even. I also think it is a work of public history, and it does what all public history desires to do: it brings the story to who we are right now. It does this by making today’s music, vernacular language, and ethnic diversity part of the story telling. Also by reminding us throughout that what we believe about the foundation of our nation is based on a narrative written for us by others, some of which has become myth. And, that it is possible to look more closely at these myths by turning them on their heads. The show also points out that the culture and morals of the time were both similar and different from what they are now.
Miranda has created a new addition to our origin myths, and one that does not appear to accept some baseline assumptions that appear in academic history. Today, one trend is to suggest that iniquity is everywhere, and good is rare, and perhaps accidental. People rarely act against their own self-interest, and societal, cultural and economic forces are more influential than ideals in any given setting. These things may very well be true. But, it is furthermore popular to suggest that craven behavior completely erases any goodness. Miranda has created a narrative in counterpoint, wherein all characters are flawed, and yet he unabashedly celebrates their humanity, and their very real contributions to the future.
Miranda also gets some of the history just right at the same time that he busts some older myths. He uses the historical figures’ own words often, which is a good place to start. In doing so, he shows that women in the colonial period had literacy, agency, humor, and the capacity to think unconventional thoughts: Martha Washington did really name her tomcat after Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler really did suggest to her sister, Hamilton’s wife, that they share him. Our victory in the American Revolution was far from inevitable; George Washington knew he was losing the war, and did ask for help in order to win it. These are just two examples.
What are the big lessons of the story that Hamilton tells us, beyond the historical story? It tells us that in history, there are moments when things actually change, that individual people are involved in that change, and that often, the change agents include those at the fringe of society. It also suggests that ambition, creativity, thoughtfulness and intelligence, combined with incredibly hard work, do have a yield, even if those results are not everything that is dreamed of. After all, Hamilton dies disappointed, discredited, and in debt. Hamilton is at pains to tell us the narrative of history than we engage with is that which is written by individual people – we do not know everything, because everything is not preserved or told. The show makes clear that Hamilton might have been at risk of being written out of the history books except for the devoted work of his widow and children. Finally, it does suggest that history is kindest to the revolutions that seek to expand individual liberties, and that the good that resulted from American Revolution is not erased by understanding the flaws of its instigators and the culture in which they lived. These are meaningful and important lessons, and they are good compensations, at least for me, for not pointing out that Hamilton was an elitist.
And what do the critiques highlight? For me, they illustrate a cultural moment wherein we are struggling to deal with culture change, origin myths, and a growing recognition that our past does still delimit our lives today, and not always to our benefit. We struggle to understand and to deal. So some tear down the statues of famous men, relentlessly critique the past and search for any sign of hypocrisy. Much is done to put distance between the crimes of our ancestors and ourselves, today. I think much of the criticism of Hamilton falls into that uncomfortable zone – where some hypocrisy also lives. People in the past often recognized their own moral failings through the lens of their own culture, and struggled to deal with them — succeeding too slowly, and failing too often. This could as easily be said about us, today. By pulling a thread forward, and pulling us back as he does so, I do not think Miranda does history, or his story, a disservice.
There of course is no doubt that the system of African slavery, which permeated the colonial culture, set up norms of behavior and thinking that are a continued source of misery over 150 years after the practice was nationally abolished in war. Patterns of patriarchy also persist in our attitudes and organizations today. Which brings me around to Prince.
Few in our popular culture have engaged with myth-making and breaking, and the busting of historical norms of gender and race, more than Prince. Like Hamilton, he was a man originally on the fringes, filled with a galactic talent and relentless ambition. The night I saw Hamilton, the cast closed the night by dancing to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” which includes the advice “if the elevator tries to bring you down/go crazy, punch a higher floor,” the spirit of which would, I think, have pleased Alexander Hamilton. The bridge that was built that night between the 18th century and the 21st was multifaceted and rich; I will not soon forget it or stop thinking about it.