The Uses Of History in Hamilton: An American Musical

Some of you already know Hamilton: An American Musical, a Broadway musical that premiered this year and which uses varied musical styles and fast, clever lyrics to tell the story of US Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. I first heard about Hamilton from Liz Gorinsky, Tor and editor, and then several months ago started hearing shouts of delight and praise from other feminist sci-fi fans. Now I’m one of those terrible proselytizing fans, walking along Mercer Street singing along to the cast album and filling my Twitter feed with incomprehensible comparisons (e.g., between Alexander’s son Philip and the Mahabharata‘s Abhimanyu). Speculative fiction fans who sometimes enjoy historical fiction but haven’t considered Hamilton—perhaps because it’s a musical—ought to check it out, especially as an example of some intriguing trends in how we fictionalize history.

To get a taste of Hamilton I—like many fans—recommend you start with the first song, an economical bit of exposition about Hamilton’s early life as an orphan in the Caribbean, as performed in 2009 at the White House. (If audio is not for you, check out the musical’s full lyrics, annotated by fans and by creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.)

I’m no Ada Palmer but I find something fascinating in how Miranda uses the history of the American Revolution. For one thing, Hamilton‘s part of a longer trend in historiography, as Matthew Yglesias has described, rendering the political disputes in the play according to a very modern liberal sensibility:

Miranda gives us a version of the Hamilton-Jefferson showdown that would have been unrecognizable to mid-20th-century audiences, and not just because they are depicted as people of color engaged in a stylized rap battle….

Hamilton’s long-term vision of a United States with sound credit and a functioning financial system looks compelling, but his opponents’ critique of the practical economic consequences also seems persuasive. Hamilton was missing two critical elements of the modern policy toolkit — progressive taxes and the welfare state….

But what about the general narrative approach Miranda takes, focusing on sincere earnestness, emotional vulnerability, intense enthusiasm, and dope rhymes? It’s a far cry from the sort of darker-and-grittier approach of, for instance, the 2008 John Adams HBO miniseries, which I just watched as a kind of Hamilton methadone. (Cautionary note to fellow Hamilton fans: the Alexander Hamilton in John Adams is a duplicitous, elitist micromanager who never sings. But the final episode shows Adams acidly commenting on the inaccuracy of John Trumbull’s iconic painting “Declaration of Independence” in case you’re jonesing for metatextuality.)

Hamilton is exuberant and sentimental and loving, and certainly one of its forebearers is the 1972 musical effort 1776. But—with the occasional exception like the song “Molasses to Rum”—1776 doesn’t let itself criticize the hypocrisy and complicity of these white men. Hamilton is more self-consciously anachronistic, in its race-bending casting and in the genres of music it uses, and in its willingness to impose modern morality on the past, not as a thoughtless default, but as a conscious and intentional (sometimes metatextual) decision. So I locate its fourth-wall-breaking peers in Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant” and in Derek Waters’s Drunk History.


Comic by Kate Beaton

Hamilton is not quite as infernokrusher as Beaton’s or Waters’s efforts but the difference is only one of degree. Hamilton aims at a rare alchemy of epic history, friendship, romance, wordplay, song, dance, wit, and political commentary, and it succeeds; it knows when it’s inspiring and it knows when it’s being silly, and both modes work. You can see these same modes emerge in individual episodes of Drunk History and Hark! A Vagrant. Beaton’s comics and Drunk History share a bathetic anachronistic conversational style, in which historical characters often go so far as to speak their subtext (examples: Ida B. Wells, various explorers, Perry and Henson, Juarez and Maximilian, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, World War I generals).

In Drunk History, figures we view today as heroes tend to see the dramatic irony that the villains can’t (see Nikola Tesla complain to Thomas Edison, “I am trying to invent electricity and you are being an asshole.“). Hamilton, like Hark! A Vagrant, tends to give everyone soliloquies with more of a God’s-eye view of history; super-meta fanfic “Waited For It” by PunkHazard (Summary: “The Founding Fathers™ score some hard-won tickets to the hottest new show on Broadway”) feels natural and right because it continues the characters’ and the show’s momentum in this regard.

As aca-fan jjhunter discusses, Hamilton constantly comments on itself as history, with songs like “Farmer Refuted” or song pairs like “Helpless” / “Satisfied” contrasting “external/public and internal/private complicating annotations to narratives” (including the gendered nature of the creation of public history):

For all that Eliza calls it ‘the’ narrative, and Washington speaks of History in the singular, the play actively subverts singular readings (or as Burr puts it, “History obliterates /In every picture it paints”)….

While everyone writes letters and engages in conversation, men also use private duels as a way to control or test each other’s narratives (force retractions or discredit the one speaking); verbal dueling in taverns and public meetings to connect, establish rep, and/or push directions; and essays and editorials published in newspapers under pseudonyms or their own names to influence public narratives; whereas women seem to act primarily as editors of the narrative through choices of curation (what should be archived?), documentation (interviews adding desired individual stories to the written narrative), and education (what knowledge & frames for interpreting narrative should children have? etc.).

For a longer, more explicitly wishful treatment of this, see Ada Palmer’s wish that Machiavelli could participate in an all-stars philosophical salon. (I’d also be curious to hear, in the comments, about other recent fictionalized history that’s in conversation with the trends I’ve discussed above, especially those that engage with the fantastic or speculative; I suspect Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette might be among them, and Courtney Milan’s Brother Sinister and Worth series look to be headed in a similar direction.)

As a scifi fan, I particularly appreciate how Hamilton also uses history the way science fiction does, to give us a glimpse of another world’s constraints and opportunities.

“History is the trade secret of science fiction” — that quote’s attributed to me, but I think I got it from Asimov.

–Ken MacLeod, “Working the Wet End” interview, The Human Front Plus…, 2013, PM Press

Scifi is about understanding the Other, and that includes people from other eras; “the past is another country,” right? Hamilton is a fantasy of political agency and of changing the world, just like much science fiction. And the particular history that Hamilton focuses on, with its abundance of pamphlets, public and private letters, speeches, and flamewars, feels particularly relevant to speculative fiction fandom in 2015. “We smack each other in the press, and we don’t print retractions,” Jefferson laments; the modern-setting fanfic “The Platonic Ideal of a PR Nightmare” by gladdecease, in which Hamilton engages in multiple Twitter arguments at once, rings super true, because Hamilton’s real-life super-fighty pamphleteering ended up hurting him, in the end.

But we see why he does it. It’s not all ego; he’s fired up to pursue his vision of a better nation. I think we (scifi fans like me) miss adventures about patriotism and government. Hamilton, like The West Wing, Parks and Recreation, and Star Trek, is about the thrilling, epic adventure of using one’s brain and one’s passion for public service to implement democracy and advance the project of civilization (thanks to Jonathan Sterne for the heart of that comparison: “stories about the ambitions of the professional-managerial class”). There’s a hole in our heart where those shows belong, and Hamilton fills it (as “the challenge demands satisfaction,” a modern-setting fic by magneticwave, demonstrates admirably).

The kind of melancholy, determined patriotism I’m talking about is the kind mirrored in those Allen Ginsberg lines in “America”: “I’d better get right down to the job. / …. / America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Or that whole Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again”—that complicated love of the meritocratic dream, where we re-dedicate ourselves to transmuting it into reality. Or Sassafrass’s “Somebody Will”, about the willingness to imagine and work towards a future someone else will inherit. (Hamilton: “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”)

Metatextual historical fiction always implicitly engages with legacy—with the shape of its own narrative, with the reasons why you, the readers, are being told this story in the first place. Perhaps that’s the heart of why I’m keen on this thread in recent fictionalized history; it marries unapologetic moralizing and sentimentality with a self-critical lens. The very first “Drunk History,” from 2007, was about Hamilton, the duel that ended his life, and ends:

But Hamilton won, even though he was killed and Aaron Burr won the duel. Fucking Aaron Burr’s not on money. You know who is? Alexander Hamilton. He’s on the ten.

Sumana Harihareswara is a project management consultant and open source expert living in Queens, New York. She co-edited the 2009 speculative fiction anthology Thoughtcrime Experiments and frequently speaks and performs at WisCon and writes about tech and fiction at Geek Feminism. You can follow her on Twitter or on as @brainwane; her personal blog is Cogito, Ergo Sumana.


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