What could be more improbable than a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton—in which Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington are all played by African-Americans?
Maybe that it has garnered rave reviews and is bound for Broadway this summer. Written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda (who is himself Puerto Rican), “Hamilton” seems destined to be a hit.
But what does a historian make of the show? Kelly Brennan Arehart, who teaches history at the College of William and Mary, is not only a scholar but a Hamilton enthusiast.
“I started reading about him in high school,” she said. “Reading scholarly books on him inspired me to become an academic historian.”
Arehart says much of the show is accurate and true to the interpretation of Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton inspired Miranda. But the show does have some biases.
“For example, from my perspective, they overplay Hamilton’s role in the American Revolution and make it sound like it would have been impossible to win without him,” Arehart says. “The show also makes Hamilton out to be the single most significant participant in the founding of the nation.”
This type of bias is common among biographers, Arehart adds. “We also saw it in David McCullough’s ‘John Adams.’ I don’t begrudge Chernow or the writers and producers of the show taking this approach – it makes for more dramatic storytelling. Besides, everyone is the hero of his or her own life story.”
The show features a rap battle between Hamilton and Jefferson. But, Arehart says, other founders’ stories don’t lend themselves as well to this kind of treatment.
“Hamilton, much like the musical, was so ahead of his time,” Arehart says. “He planned for the future — his own and the nation’s — with the same manic energy exhibited in the show. The show’s structure and approach captures Hamilton’s spirit as well as the content does. Hip-hop, an American creation, pairs well with Hamilton, the epitome of the American self-made man.”
Hamilton’s life, Arehart notes, looks like a soap opera compared to the other Founding Fathers. Orphaned at a young age, he came to America to build a better life. He accomplished this only to lose his life in a duel.
Says Arehart: “I always wondered why it took so long for writers and performers to take an interest in him. It may be, in part, that there wasn’t a suitable medium to tell his story until now.”
Arehart would love to see teachers incorporate the musical into their classrooms: “Not only does it place Hamilton in the spotlight he deserves, it makes history more engaging to students with little prior interest.”
Her only concern is the musical’s bias, but even that could be of use to teachers: “It would be important for teachers using ‘Hamilton’ to address that issue head on. Many teachers often spend a lot of time discussing bias in primary sources, but fewer encourage their students to examine bias in secondary sources—especially their textbooks.”
Paul Aron is Director of Publications for Colonial Williamsburg and the author of many entertaining reads on American history, including We Hold These Truths and Other Words that Made America and Unsolved Mysteries of America History.