What ‘Hamilton’ Forgets About Hamilton
By JASON FRANK and ISAAC KRAMNICK JUNE 10, 2016
ALEXANDER HAMILTON is all the rage. Sold out for months in advance, the musical “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remarkable hip-hop dramatization of this founder’s life, is arguably the most celebrated American cultural phenomenon of our time. Reported on from every conceivable angle, the show has helped keep Hamilton on the $10 bill and prompted a new nickname for this weekend’s Broadway awards ceremony: the “Hamiltonys.”
Central to the musical’s power is the way it and its extraordinarily talented multiracial cast use Hamilton’s immigrant hustle to explain the most important political episodes of his life. …
In Hamilton’s tumultuous life, Mr. Miranda saw the drive and promise of the immigrant story of America. … Hamilton announces this entrepreneurial ambition early in the show: “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry.” The night’s biggest applause line, “Immigrants: We get the job done!,” proclaims that, contra Donald J. Trump, immigrants are the source of America’s greatness and renewal, not its decline.
After all, who can’t name countless Puerto Rican immigrants who have been economic dynamos in America, such as … uh … [checking Wikipedia] hmmhmmhhh … a bunch of people whom I am apparently not enough of a corporate insider to have ever heard of. But even though I can’t name many, obviously Puerto Ricans have made New York the financial powerhouse that it is, or otherwise all those Puerto Ricans who are dropping four figures for tickets couldn’t afford to be attending “Hamilton” in such vast numbers. It’s simple logic. As we all know, “Hamilton” is attracting a New, Diverse audience to Broadway. This isn’t like 15 years ago when The Producers musical was, briefly, a huge smash on Broadway on the backs of an older white audience from the Greater New York area that found Mel Brooks’ sense of humor to their taste.
Vast numbers of Puerto Ricans are attending “Hamilton,” right?
Hmmmhmmhhh … looking around the Internet I see eyeball estimates of “Hamilton’s” audience as 98% white and there being more nonwhites on stage than in the audience, but that couldn’t possibly be correct, could it?
… But the musical avoids an equally pronounced feature of Hamilton’s beliefs: his deeply ingrained elitism, his disdain for the lower classes and his fear of democratic politics. The musical’s misleading portrayal of Hamilton as a “scrappy and hungry” man of the people obscures his loathing of the egalitarian tendencies of the revolutionary era in which he lived.
Hamilton mistrusted the political capacities of the common people and insisted on deference to elites. In a speech delivered at the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton praised the hierarchical principles of the British political system. He argued, for example, that the new American president and senators should serve for life. Many of the Convention participants feared the “excess of democracy,” but Hamilton went much further. He wanted to bring an elective monarchy and restore non-titled aristocracy to America. “The people are turbulent and changing,” he declared. “They seldom judge or determine right.” They must be ruled by “landholders, merchants and men of the learned professions,” whose experience and wisdom “travel beyond the circle” of their neighbors. For America to become an enduring republic, Hamilton argued, it had to insulate rulers and the economy as much as possible from the jealous multitude.
One of the musical’s most memorable scenes portrays Hamilton’s debate with Thomas Jefferson over the establishment of a national bank. What it doesn’t convey is Jefferson’s populist resistance to an economic plan that, in his view, supported the rule of commercial oligarchs who manipulated credit and currency at the expense of debtors and yeoman farmers. Instead, Mr. Miranda stages a confrontation between a hypocritical republican slave owner and an abolitionist visionary (“A civics lesson from a slaver,” a scoffing Hamilton says in response to Jefferson. “Hey, neighbor, your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor”) that conceals as much as it reveals.
Hamilton’s opposition to slavery — reflected, for example, in his being a founder of New York’s Manumission Society — was not central to his political vision. The musical’s suggestion that had he not been killed in the duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton would have gone on to play an important role in the abolitionist struggle is fantasy. Even the lionization of Hamilton as the exemplar of America’s immigrant ideal neglects his ultimate endorsement of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which made it harder for immigrants to become citizens while allowing their deportation if they were suspected of disloyalty (he urged exceptions, though, for some foreign merchants and those “whose demeanor among us has been unexceptionable”). Jefferson led the opposition to this policy, and his victory in the presidential election of 1800 brought most of its provisions to an end. …
Hamilton, with his contemptuous attitude toward the lower classes, was perfectly comfortable with the inegalitarian and antidemocratic implications of his economic vision. One has to wonder if the audiences in the Richard Rodgers Theater would be as enthusiastic about a musical openly affirming such convictions. No founder of this country more clearly envisioned the greatness of a future empire enabled by drastic inequalities of wealth and power. In this sense, too, “Hamilton” is very much a musical for our times.
Jason Frank and Isaac Kramnick teach political theory in the department of government at Cornell.
Indeed. The Obama Era has been very, very good for Manhattan and the parts of Brooklyn that are close to Wall Street. Hamiltonmania is the victory lap of the Obama Era.
It couldn’t be that the economic genius of “Hamilton,” which is based on Ron Chernow’s hagiography of the New York Founding Father, is in its pandering to the prejudices of the same affluent audience that made “The Producers” and “Fiddler on the Roof” huge hits on Broadway, could it?
Of course not. That Lin-Manuel Miranda’s beloved father, political consultant Luis Miranda, had a front-row seat for understanding the mindset of representative white New Yorkers like three term Mayor Ed Koch (the Mayor character in “Bonfire of the Vanities”) is totally irrelevant. From a 2013 obituary for Koch:
“In 1986, when the federal government approved an amnesty immigration law for the undocumented, Ed Koch made sure that all New Yorkers without documents knew how to apply, and provided assistance through community organizations,” said Luis Miranda, founding president of the Hispanic Federation and Koch’s special advisor for Hispanic Affairs.
But, obviously, that Miranda Senior is a master marketer of political claptrap in New York has nothing to do with the success of Miranda Junior’s musical.