I was lucky enough to see the musical Hamilton on Broadway in New York. I have always loved history and was a history major in college. But this portrayal, of events from a period I thought I knew, was a revelation. Let me explain.
If asked for a short list of Founding Fathers of the United States, I immediately think of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, our first 3 presidents, and James Madison, considered the brains behind the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton would be included, but almost as an afterthought. He didn’t have as much influence as Thomas Jefferson, who had always been my hero. Hamilton was a second tier Founding Father.
But if art can influence history, the hip-hop musical Hamilton, based on the book of the same name by Ron Chernow, will upend convention and recognize the immense influence Alexander Hamilton had on history.
Hamilton was George Washington’s right hand man and confidant or most of the Revolution until, towards the end, he got a command of his own, making him the only Founding Father, other than Washington, to actually fight in the war. He wrote most of the Federalist Papers, far more than James Madison, to explain the wisdom behind creating a new government. He agitated tirelessly for ratification of the Constitution and a strong central government, and this is where the rebels broke apart. Jefferson and Madison, large landholders in one of the wealthier states, opposed him, arguing for individual state supremacy. the inside story of that battle never made the history books. In his role as Secretary of the Treasury for President Washington, Hamilton stabilized the new country’s credit and finances with a structure that continues today. In his time he was charismatic, powerful, and controversial.
The musical is extraordinary as a theater production. I’m not a fan of hip hop, but the music here is so compelling, I bought the soundtrack and play it regularly. Ben Brantley, the New York Times reviewer, on August 6th, 2015 lauded the production “as proof that the American musical is not only surviving but also evolving….”
But the real thrill of Hamilton is how it brings history alive. Alexander Hamilton did much in his short life to put the United States on the road to greatness. At every step, he was hotly contested, often by those who had previously been friends who had opposing political views. The musical follows Chernow’s book in revealing the dynamic tension between the Founding Fathers. As Brantley observes, history is the center of the show and it’s history as we never saw it. Our history books, buttressed by paintings made later in life, portrayed the Founding Fathers as thoughtful, dignified, staid, and bordering on stodgy. Hamilton reminds us that before they were consigned to history as our Founding Fathers, they were rebellious youth, fired up with political fervor, moving to a pulsating, liberating beat that the hip hop music perfectly captures.