U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History Has Its Eye on Me: Hamilton, An American Musical

Hamilton0044r

Courtesy of The Public Theater

Like most of you, I imagine, I wish I could say I have seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blazingly brilliant Hamilton: An American Musical. Alas. So the following reflections come from what little I can glean that is available on YouTube and, more helpfully, on the website Genius, which contains lyrics and recordings of the whole soundtrack, as well as numerous annotations.[1]

The smash success of the musical, which just won a Grammy, has frequently been billed as an out-of-nowhere transformation of Hamilton’s reputation from the wonky to the romantic. And indeed, the idea of a hip-hop musical about the life of the first Secretary of the Treasury was not likely to occur spontaneously to most people; apart from the notorious duel which ended his life, there would seem to be little material from his life that obviously translates to the Broadway stage, and even less so that could reasonably (apart from a vigorous diss track or two) be proclaimed to “embody hip-hop,” as Miranda announced early on to the Obamas and… to laughter. Reasonable laughter: “Cabinet Battle #2” and “The Farmer Refuted” somehow don’t sound like bangers.

But is Hamilton really so suddenly sexy? Below the fold, I look at an earlier case of a Hamilton revival that also found in his life abundant material for romance.

I was just about to write that it is absurd to argue that the romance of Hamilton’s life has never been given full rein, for in 1902… and then I realized that 114 years is, after all, a long time, and that it is perhaps a little pedantic to argue for the pertinence of a precedent beyond living memory (at least in this instance). But in 1902 nonetheless, the controversial novelist Gertrude Atherton published The Conqueror: Being the True and Romantic Story of Alexander Hamilton to enthusiastic reviews, many of which luxuriated in Atherton’s indulgence in what she herself called “my romancing propensity.” The anonymous reviewer in the Literary Digest, for instance, quiveringly enthused that she “had become inebriated by the romance that prodigally clusters about Alexander Hamilton… Mrs. Atherton pulls out all the stops and makes the reader rock with the ululations of her p[a]eans.” The reviewer also notes that it “is one of the longest books of the year!” (Which is a nice moment to admit that my fascination with the book has nevertheless not extended to reading the whole thing… yet. It’s also dreadfully written, some of the plushest purplest prose you will ever encounter.)

Atherton was widely known at the time as a sexual radical; many of her female protagonists spurn the shame that was supposed to go hand-in-hand with any form of extra-marital sex. So it was only natural that this element would be played up in her narrative of Hamilton’s life: as the New York Times review noted, “with Mrs. Atherton… commanding intellect and marital constancy are not coexistent.” The Times quotes her on this matter: “To expect a man of Hamilton’s order of genius to keep faith with one woman for a lifetime would be as reasonable as to look for such genius without the transcendent passions which are its furnace.”[2] As another reviewer huffed, “It ought to be added that in this, as in some of her earlier books, Mrs. Atherton shows a curious moral indifference to the tremendous significance of sex relations.”[3]

But another aspect of the romantic element of Hamilton’s life which is carried forward by the Miranda musical is that Atherton emphasized to a much greater extent than was customary the West Indian part of the story. The publicity for the novel played up the fact that Atherton had done her own research in archives in St. Kitts and St. Croix, and reviewers took note. What they were particularly interested in was Atherton’s determination to solve “the mystery of [Hamilton’s] birth,” which had a double meaning: that Hamilton was a bastard and that he had one or more non-white ancestors.[4] Atherton seems to have been entirely comfortable with the former rumor, but determined to stop the second: in an account of her research trip for the North American Review titled “The Hunt for Hamilton’s Mother,” she wrote, “The first time this [idea] was flung at me, I will confess I was almost ill. Not to prove a truth of this sort had I undertaken a long and difficult journey. Were it a truth, the journey would be for nothing, for I would not write the biography. I admire Booker Washington, and I wish the colored race all the success that it deserves; but inherited instincts are strongest in us, and both enthusiasm and imagination would shrivel were I obliged to accept as a fact that Alexander Hamilton had negro blood in him.”

Obviously, Atherton would not be a fan of Miranda’s Hamilton. But like Miranda, she uses Hamilton’s Caribbean origins as an interpretive frame for his life. Miranda understands Hamilton’s early life as a crucible in which he forged an indomitable will, a sense of destiny, and a determination to “write like you’re running out of time.” Atherton also saw Hamilton’s Caribbean experiences as the basis of an exceptional drive and self-possession, but she also, I think, more complicatedly linked Hamilton’s relative eclipse in popular memory with the declining fortunes of his birthplace. In a four-page prologue simply titled “Nevis,” Atherton recalls the glory days of that island as “The Mother of the English Leeward Caribbees,” as the seat of government and home to glorious estates (which were, of course, sugar forced labor camps). Just as Nevis had seen enormous reverses, she implies, so had Hamilton’s reputation.

Hamilton would undergo a more respectable revival over the next decade or so: Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909) advocated a mixture of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian ideas as the proper course for U.S. policies, with a decided emphasis on the former:

We must begin consequently with critical accounts of the ideas both of Jefferson and of Hamilton; and we must seek to discover wherein each of these sets of ideas was right, and wherein each was wrong; in what proportions they were subsequently combined in order to form “our noble national theory” and what were the advantages, the limitations, and the effects of this combination. I shall not disguise the fact that, on the whole, my own preferences are on the side of Hamilton rather than of Jefferson. He was the sound thinker, the constructive statesman, the candid and honorable, if erring, gentleman; while Jefferson was the amiable enthusiast, who understood his fellow countrymen better and trusted them more than his rival, but who was incapable either of uniting with his fine phrases a habit of candid and honorable private dealing or of embodying those phrases in a set of efficient institutions. But although Hamilton is much the finer man and much the sounder thinker and statesman, there were certain limitations in his ideas and sympathies the effects of which have been almost as baleful as the effects of Jefferson’s intellectual superficiality and insincerity. (29)

The Hamilton revival (or rather, periodic Hamiltonian revivals) following Croly across the rest of the twentieth century is far too large a topic to tackle here, but it would be interesting to know if Croly read Atherton’s book. I think we are on safe ground, regardless, in saying that he, like everyone else, would enjoy Hamilton: An American Musical.

[1] More informed commentary can be found at the always excellent The Junto (1, 2, 3, 4). This article by Matthew Yglesias is also an interesting look at how Hamilton fits into historiography as well as current politics.

[2] The Times notes that Atherton strangely draws back from actually turning Hamilton into a “Lothario,” discounting many items of gossip and emphasizing his deep love for his wife. This is certainly true of the passage I just quoted, for it continues: “but he was far from being a man who sought adventure. Under certain being sought conditions his horizon abruptly contracted, and life was dual and isolated; but when the opportunity had passed he dismissed its memory with contrite philosophy, and was so charming to Betsey that he persuaded himself, as her, that he wished never to behold the face of another woman. Nor did he—overwhelming temptation being absent: he was the most driven man in the United States, with no time to run about after women, had such been his proclivity; and his romantic temperament, having found high satisfaction in his courtship and marriage with one of the most bewitching and notable girls in America, was smothered under a mountain of work and domestic bliss” (290).

[3] “Some Recent Stories,” The Outlook, July 19, 1902, 744.

[4] The rumor of Hamilton’s mixed race ancestry was popular among African-American intelligentsia of the time: W. E. B. DuBois referred to it in a 1907 speech before the Society for Ethical Culture in February 1907 and raised it in a 1906 German-language publication, “Der Negenfrage in den Vereinigten Staaten,” later reprinted and translated by Joseph Fraccia in The New Centennial Review 6.3 (2007): 241-290. William Pickens’s 1916 collection of essays, The New Negro: His Political, Civil and Mental Status and Related Essays (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1916) contained an entire essay on Hamilton.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this, Andy! Enlightening. FWIW: Hamilton: An American Musical will be in Chicago soon. I’m going to do everything I can to go. I wonder if the Chicago version will be exactly the same as NYC’s? – TL

  2. I haven’t seen the musical (so maybe they broach this there too!) but while reading the scandal of racial impurity implied going on here I thought also of Hamilton’s relationship with John Laurens and how that has long been a case of speculation. Maybe the next romantic Hamilton will be an exploration of that relationship! In any case, the Hamilton-Laurens statue in Lafayette Park has supposedly been a rendezvous spot for gay couples for decades, a fact which cannot help but strike me as lovely.

  3. Tim,
    Lucky! I don’t know–I imagine they will try to keep it the same, but I’m not sure if the original cast will be touring. I’m sure they’ll try to make it as similar as they can, though.

    Robin Marie,
    Laurens is definitely in the musical. Oddly, his major song, “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us” has been left off the soundtrack, although you can read the lyrics here. There’s not a lot to indicate how the scene is played, and I don’t believe there’s anything explicit anywhere else in the lyrics that positively indicates a relationship between the two men, but maybe someone who has seen the play can fill us in?

  4. Thanks for this post, Andy. Clearly, a #USIH field trip to enjoy “Hamilton” is in order! You’ve captured the revival-as-reliquary phenomenon that can encase new cultural work on early America (and that’s a good thing, for it regenerates the field).
    A quick skim of Atherton’s biography suggests another contrasting frame to consider when we weigh Atherton’s interpretation and Broadway’s best-selling version: gender. As I understand it, throughout the musical, the Schuyler sisters are shown as driving the progress of people, politics, and philanthropy at key moments in early American development. To understand why Hamilton hogs the spotlight, we might think about how his “supporting cast” has been treated, too. In Atherton’s tale, any scene-setting between women (i.e. Hamilton’s mother at home) succumbs to exchanges like this: “‘Rachael,’ said her mother gently, ‘put down your tapestry. I have something to say to you, something of great import.'” Hardly fated to be a “conqueror,” she. Or so Atherton writes.
    Finally, tho Atherton disdains it, I’d add another work to the revival reading list: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s depiction of Aaron Burr in “The Minister’s Wooing” (http://bit.ly/1n0BmP3), a short, Victorian case study in how a “child of many prayers” and “man of gallantry” could morph into Hamilton’s rival. For those of you who’ve seen it, I’m curious to know about how religion factors into the musical’s interpretation of A. Hamilton.

    • Sara,
      Thanks for these great comments! I would also like to hear from anyone who has seen the musical how gender and religion are handled. I’ve read that Hamilton‘s feminism has been overstated–that, while the Schuyler sisters are strong women, they still orbit around him. (This seemingly well-informed piece questions whether the musical even passes the Bechdel test.) Which, if true, would be very disappointing.

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