So like every other dork in the world I have been listening lately to the hit musical Hamilton, which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the $10 bill. If you pay attention to this stuff, you will know that it is a huge hit, blends hip-hop with Broadway, yadda yadda. And, of course, it’s about a historical figure, which makes it particularly interesting to me.
Hamilton is particularly interesting because he’s one of those people where I think most people know who he was but I doubt any of us who aren’t really serious students of American history have a sense of what he was like, which is what the musical really appears to be about.
Now, me being me, and having a heart of stone, I like the political songs best. Obviously “The Room Where It Happens” is great, but I’m currently enjoying “Washington on Your Side.”
Let’s show these Federalists who they’re up against / Southern motherfuckin’ Democratic-Republicans! is a great line.
Of course, the play tends to elide much of its history — for instance, it has the Burr-Hamilton duel take place right after the 1800 Presidential election (which is also a fun song) rather than several years later. And this elision has some weird effects. For example, in “The World Was Wide Enough,” Burr sings:
Now I’m the villain in your history / I was too young and blind to see / I should have known, I should have known the world was wide enough / for both Hamilton and me
OK, fair enough, but I suspect “too young” is an artefact of casting a handsome actor in his mid-30s to play the part.
Burr, by contrast, was 48 at the time of the duel — something that the narrative of the play makes clear when Hamilton describes their “thirty years of disagreements.”
Anyway, I’m not nitpicking — that’s the nature of historical adaptation and telling a story that takes place over a long period. What are they gonna do, run off and subtly change the makeup every time they get the chance?
What I’m curious about is how this is going to affect public perception of Hamilton. In cases where there’s only really one work of popular media about a character, we often see that our sense of who that person was — and our sort of instinctive sense of whether we like them — comes from that portrayal. I think that goes double for someone like Hamilton, a guy who people kind of assumed was just another boring pillar of patriotic virtue.
The other really interesting thing about this is that the portrayal of Washington, as far as I can tell, is very much within tolerances: unbending moral rectitude, far-seeing concern, etc. Some things you can’t mess with.
I think that I’d like to see the early US done as some disastrous third-world post-independence shambles, which is what it must have looked like to contemporary British observers.