“History Is Happening”: Creating and Recreating History in Hamilton

And now it’s time for me to write something about the musical Hamilton. 

In case you missed it, Hamilton is the musical sensation currently sweeping the nation – it just won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has been nominated for 16 Tony Awards (more than there are categories). The story is centered around lesser known founding father Alexander Hamilton – “the ten dollar founding father”, as the musical’s opening number puts it – and his rise from his roots on the Caribbean island of Nevis to Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington, and eventually his death in a duel at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr. Blending rap, hip-hop, showtunes, and R&B style influences, Hamilton is a masterwork of storytelling and musical prowess, a testament to its creator’s genius.

But I’m not just here to rhapsodize about how great Hamilton is (though I could do that for a while). I’m here to talk about a recent spate of articles I’ve noticed “debunking” the historical inaccuracies of Hamilton. Nancy Isenberg in particular took umbrage with the musical’s portrayal of Aaron Burr, arguing that he is villainized and that Hamilton in general portrays a morally simplistic history. Others argue that the show overplays Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionism, or point out a potential irony in making Hamilton a populist hero when he held deep mistrust of the people (as did most of the founders).

Are they right? Probably – history, at the very least, is complicated, and seldom fits neatly into any one linear narrative. Like any story – or any history book, for that matter – Hamilton made choices about what to emphasize and what to take out. But I’m also not here to quibble over details that may or may not be accurate.

Cries of “historically inaccurate!” leveled at Hamilton are missing the point. There are a lot of themes to Hamilton, but one of them is absolutely the role of storytelling and the conscious creation of history. Lin Manuel Miranda is absolutely aware that he is retelling a story that has reached the level of legend in American culture; if there is an American mythology then the story of the American Revolution and the founding fathers is the center of it. The role of story and (my favorite word!) metafiction is key throughout Hamilton from the beginning.

Ideas of image and legacy ring through the story from the opening number. In “Alexander Hamilton”, the eponymous protagonist takes center stage with the declaration that “there’s a million things I haven’t done/but just you wait”. Later on, the chorus looks forward toward the view history will take of Hamilton’s accomplishments: “when America sings for you/will they know what you overcame/will you know you rewrote the game”, they sing, addressing the audience itself. There is also a level of metatheatrical awareness in the song: the phrase “waiting in the wings” draws attention to the fact that the audience is watching a staged performance. Then, again, “when America sings for you” calls to the fact that the musical itself is America singing for Hamilton. 

Then there is the position Burr takes in the musical as both narrator and actor within the narrative. He exists simultaneously within and outside of the action – he is literally both telling the story and creating it through his actions. He is at times aware of the audience, addressing them directly even as he then turns to interact with his contemporaries on stage. This “breaking of the fourth wall” blurs the line between history and present, and also between fiction and reality, which has a destabilizing effect on both categories.

The next song with a blatant nod to the self-conscious creation of history is in “The Schuyler Sisters”. As Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy Schuyler jaunt around town enjoying the buzz of pre-revolution New York, Angelica exhorts her sisters to “look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now” and notes that “history is happening” around them. Again, there is the awareness that history is being written by the characters, but at the same time history is being written by Miranda in this performance. 

Going through the musical song by song reveals this kind of play with the idea of history and its writing in almost every number. In George Washington’s song “History Has Its Eyes On You”, the resonance is in the title itself, but also in the line “you have no control/who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. The difference between “history” and “story” is also not insignificant here: the line between fiction and “truth” once again blurs. Washington knows that there is no way to know the narrative that might be made of his or Hamilton’s actions in the future, but exhorts Alexander nonetheless to be aware that a narrative will be made. Other instances include:

  • “Right Hand Man”: Hamilton sings “If they tell my story/I am either going to die on the battlefield in glory or rise up” – the assumption that his story will be told and that he is defining what that story will be.
  • “Wait for It”: Burr, like Hamilton, is preoccupied with legacy and its connection to image; the death of his parents “left no instructions/just a legacy to protect”.
  • “That Would Be Enough”: Eliza repeats the refrain from “The Schuyler Sisters” about “how lucky we are to be alive right now” but this time referring to their personal life and her marriage to Alexander, rather than the larger political situation. Further, she references “the worlds you keep creating and erasing in your mind”, which is as much a reference to the creative process of writing fiction as to Alexander’s attempts to help construct a nation. Finally, she closes with the plea: “let me be a part of the narrative/in the story they will write one day”. She asks not to be written out, not just metaphorically from Alexander’s life but also literally out of history – as the wives of many famous men are.
  • “Non-Stop”: Opening with the first murder trial in the new United States, Hamilton asks the jury “are you aware that we are making history?”

And so on.

In “The Room Where It Happens” Lin-Manuel Miranda writes a song that both serves to move Burr fully into politics while simultaneously presenting the notorious problem of historians everywhere: a lack of sources. When “no one else was in the room where it happened”, it is impossible to know the ‘truth’ behind closed doors. The repeated use of “Thomas claims” emphasizes the reported nature of the events, and draws attention to the potential unreliability of that report (especially given the characterization of Jefferson and his antagonism toward Hamilton). The complete truth of the matter is, simply, inaccessible; history is historiography. This comes up again in the duel between Burr and Hamilton at the play’s end, in which Burr says “I wish I could tell you what was happening in his brain”. The audience does, of course, receive Hamilton’s final internal monologue, but Burr does not, and his statement draws attention to the uncertainty surrounding the events on July 11, 1804.

The use of writing and letters serves the same role of emphasizing source materials and the literal “writing” of history. Both “Hurricane” and the connected “The Reynolds Pamphlet” focus on documentation and writing as a means of both escape and security – the power of being able to tell one’s own story. Hamilton recalls in “Hurricane” how he has literally written his own life:

I wrote my way out of hell
I wrote my way to revolution
I was louder than the crack in the bell
I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell
I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well
And in the face of ignorance and resistance
I wrote financial systems into existence
And when my prayers to God were met with indifference
I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance

He channels this conviction into an attempt to write his way out of accusations of financial misconduct by confessing to his adultery in “The Reynolds Pamphlet” – the beginning of his downfall. The song primarily concerns the shocked and disbelieving reactions of others to Hamilton’s confession, especially the fact that he wrote it down. The Reynolds Pamphlet was a real document, though it was called Observations on Certain Documents. By referring to/referencing an extant source that can be read in full within the play – going so far as to quote from it in the lyrics – Lin-Manuel Miranda establishes the play firmly in the context not just of history but of written history.

In “Burn”, Eliza sets letters from Hamilton on fire, “erasing [herself] from the narrative/let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart”. Later on, she sings that “the world has no right to my heart/the world has no place in our bed/they don’t get to know what I said”, cutting off access of her thoughts and emotions to posterity, and most importantly, self-consciously doing so.

The reference to history as “narrative” once again emphasizes the triple similarity between history as a thing created, the musical’s story as the same, and Alexander’s own writings as an act of  creation themselves (“you built me palaces out of paragraphs/you built cathedrals”). The creative work of all these things is, to use a literary term, constructed. It is not inevitable, but takes shape through the action of storytellers, composers, and historians.

Hamilton the character, as well as Hamilton the musical, is obsessed with ideas of legacy and what a legacy means. Burr has the same fixation – his parents “left no instructions/just a legacy to protect” when they died. Philip Hamilton enters his fatal duel to defend his father’s legacy. Ideas of remembrance, history, and story come up again and again, all inextricably linked.

The divisions between history and myth can become very blurry when it comes to historical figures of great prominence. The founding fathers are the perfect example. Untangling the figures themselves from their mythology is an interesting process, but it isn’t the one that this musical is engaging in. Instead, this musical is about the process of that mythology being made. The audience watches not a history taking shape, but a narrative being born. This is why it matters so much “who tells your story” – because who that is decides how that story gets told.

In the finale of the musical, Eliza comes forward, speaking directly to the audience – her “let me show you what I’m proudest of” invites them to step into the world of the musical, to respond. She “[puts] herself back in the narrative” as the protector of Alexander’s legacy – the teller of his story: organizing his papers, interviewing soldiers under his command, all the actions of a meticulous historian. One of the most poignant touches about the play is Eliza’s question:

And when my time is up
Have I done enough?
Will they tell my story?

It is a reminder that, like so many female figures in history, the answer is too often “no.”

The play closes on Eliza’s upturned face, facing the audience, as the chorus behind her sings the last line of the play: “who tells your story?” The question could be directed at Eliza, but it could also be directed at the audience, who has become a part of the narrative of the play, woven into the history it recalls and the new history it writes.

A piece on Vox argues that Hamilton the musical functions in many ways like fanfiction. The reason this works is because this story is familiar. Jefferson, Washington, and Madison are all deeply embedded in American storytelling and mythology; they are familiar names attached to a familiar narrative. Lin Manuel Miranda isn’t writing a history as much as he’s writing a narrative about history, and about how history is written – and about the limitations of that history as it is received and retold.

Complete historical accuracy isn’t the point, though the musical is remarkably accurate on a number of points, and even borrows exact wording in several cases. But that isn’t the story Miranda is trying to tell. Hamilton is a work that is as much about storytelling and creative work as it is about history.

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