So the Hamilton discourse is back. The #Hamilcourse? (why does no one on that marketing team get how plays on words work? you can’t just put ‘hamil’ in front of literally any word!!!) Part of this has entailed historians tweeting to point out various historical inaccuracies in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, and fans responding, ‘who cares?’ Which all in all is probably fair enough.
I hate accuracy nitpicking. Nothing annoys me more than someone saying they refuse to watch a Jane Austen film because of the modern-looking hair. When you’re condensing the vast sprawl of historical events into a play or movie or book, things have to be omitted and changed to make something you can actually contain in around two hours, and frankly a lot of those things (like hair) do not matter. This is inevitable and fine.
Historical accuracy also becomes a stick with which to bludgeon people, especially marginalized people. I saw Emma Smith give a fantastic talk on this topic, referencing the infamous Margaret of Anjou swan tweet. Basically, the (itself inaccurate!) rallying cry of ‘it’s historically inaccurate for Black people to exist in that time period/women to do anything/homosexual romance to happen before the modern era/etc!’ is an inevitable and deeply annoying part of the backlash to any historical story that attempts to talk about anyone but white men.
Depictions of marginalized people are also left vulnerable to these accusations because their presence in standard historical records is almost inevitably less robust. It’s hard to find queer stories that aren’t located in police records, or personal lives of enslaved people, or pre-modern (and later, frankly) women existing beyond the registration of their marriage. Historical inaccuracy, anachronism, creative gap-filling, what-have-you is an important tool for people to find a place for themselves within a history that has not recorded the presence of people like them.
Now for the inevitable… but. Hamilton is a myth-making tool. The creators have claimed it’s just a story, not a historical document, and if we accept that as true and ignore the fact that the producers invited high school history students to see it, curated museum exhibitions around it, a historian gets royalties for it, and it explicitly in the text refers to itself as designed to preserve Alexander Hamilton’s unjustly lost legacy… it’s still an adaptation of a (historical) text, and therefore it’s still interesting to think about what it chose to amend, erase, or ignore from its source materials. It’s interesting to think about the image of early America and the lost, ideal founding father that Miranda wanted to create/rescue from centuries of white supremacist history-telling, and what had to be changed to allow that to happen.
So sure, someone pointing out that the tomcat line– you know, the one Hamilton explicitly breaks the fourth wall to reassure us is true– isn’t true… doesn’t really matter. It’s just a fun fact! That’s fine! People sneering in the comments that it’s just a story and no one cares are seriously missing the point, no one is saying this invalidates the whole musical.
But what about slavery? What about immigration? What about the core, inclusive messages that the musical takes such pains to allude to? Does it matter that the Schuylers owned slaves and Hamilton, despite belonging to the New York Manumission Society, hired slave labor throughout his life and never seems to have made any effort to push abolitionist ideals in law? Does it matter that he advocated for nativist immigration policies, perhaps out of his own shame at his illegitimate Caribbean background– a background he successfully hid for his entire career? Does it matter that Hamilton’s disdain for the French Revolution, painted with the benefit of hindsight as sharp pragmatism, was probably rooted in his belief that poor people, Americans included, were generally too stupid to be trusted with having a hand in government?
(Citation… I was obsessed with Alexander Hamilton in high school, fully ten years before the musical existed. Yes, really.)
Hamilton is fairly overtly by and for people who are desperate to be allowed to believe in America. They know that Thomas Jefferson is Bad Now because he was a rapist and a brutal slave owner; they kinda know the same about George Washington, though the musical doesn’t want them to think about that too hard because he’s Hamilton’s daddy figure. We aren’t able to like the guys on our dollar bills anymore, the guys we grew up hearing were heroes. But what if the founding was reimagined as the story of young, scrappy and hungry immigrants? Marginalized people fighting for a land of their own against smug white guys? What if we told you there was a way, despite the racism and sexism and xenophobia and brutality, to be inspired by the story of America’s founding– and by extension, America itself and being American– just like they taught you to be in elementary school?
But because of its omissions, Hamilton seeks to grant this permission not by grappling with the actual problems we now have with these guys– a task that might be impossible– but instead by unearthing a new, squeaky-clean founding father who we can love without complications. Sure, Hamilton is a #problematicfave because he cheats on his wife and is a bit of a loudmouth, but that’s nothing compared to, you know, enslaving people. And this is why I think historically inaccuracy in favor of progressive ideals can be just as frustrating and potentially damaging as inaccuracy in favor of regressive or bigoted ones.
Remember that great part in ‘Yorktown’ when Hercules Mulligan bursts out of a bunch of coats to reveal that while working as a tailor, he was also a spy? Yeah, he was doing that in partnership with his slave Cato, who was allowed through enemy lines because he was enslaved and therefore nobody suspected him of anything. And the shown never even alludes to him. Because our good guys have to be good people, they have to be a version of early Americans we can root for now (and obviously because having a Black actor directly depicted as owning a slave desperately complicates the conceit behind the casting). They have to believe what we believe. But doing that doesn’t just erase inconvenient facts for the sake of ‘just good storytelling,’ as the case of Cato demonstrates– it erases actual people and the realities of their lives.
This is where the question of identity that I mentioned before gets sticky. I understand the urge to find– to speak, as an example, from my own experience– not only cool queer people in the historical record, but cool queer people who recognizably share that identity. I understand, even though I don’t share, the frustration with being told that it’s ahistorical to think about those categories of identity before a certain point in history. The same can be said for race, disability, and a lot of other identities. It feels like yet another use of the historical accuracy bludgeon: “He wouldn’t have called himself gay, you people didn’t exist then.” But I don’t think that’s always what’s being said.
At least when I think about or say these things, it’s an attempt at nuance. The things we see as immovable and inevitable about identities just… aren’t. Our present era is not the apex of understanding, where suddenly we fully grasp every human category in an objectively correct way. If you want to do justice to the experiences of marginalized people in the past, you have to try understand them in their own language and on their own terms. Doing so will sometimes result in something much more contemporary-feeling than we expect, and the historical accuracy bludgeon will come out, but oh well. And sometimes it won’t… but it may still result in something more interesting and radical than just painting the present over whatever’s there.
Of course it’s also fine to say you don’t care and Emily Dickinson is going to be a lesbian girlboss. But I think that creates problems.
I’m digressing slightly because Hamilton doesn’t really deal with those kinds of identities (even though in 2014, Lin-Manuel Miranda implied to me in tweet that there would be a Hamilton/Laurens/Lafayette love triangle and that was a lie, this show is super straight). But the show does do this with immigrants, using Hamilton and Lafayette to suggest that not only was the concept of an immigrant exactly the same back then as it is now, but immigrants– especially Caribbean immigrants– faced exactly the same types of prejudices. And maybe it doesn’t matter that thinking about Lafayette as an immigrant just… does not capture who he was or what he was seen to be doing by others. Isn’t it more important for a group of people who, especially now, are treated not only as less than American but often as less than human, to be granted an essential, heroic piece of America’s founding? I mean, yes, obviously (if they even want it). But as with the case of Cato, there were also people who were actually perceived as immigrants by the culture at large, people whom Hamilton’s own exclusionary rhetoric targeted, a category that was inevitably complicated in ways that have no contemporary parallel by the fact that the new USA had just been a colony, who are thereby erased. Both things can be true at once.
And because I’d be betraying my #brand if I didn’t mention women… we see this constantly in historical stories about women, where a patina of contemporary feminism is apparently a requirement. Angelica Schuyler sings that she wants to meet Thomas Jefferson (which, incidentally, she did) and “compel him to include women in the sequel” to the Declaration of Independence. And listen, maybe this is descending to the level of stupid nitpicking, but why not have Angelica shout out the female intellectual tradition that was already emerging at that point? Why not have her be a fan of Phyllis Wheatley’s pro-revolution poetry (which would have brought the show’s references to specific historical Black people up to… two)? Why frame her as the only woman, even amongst her sisters, who cares about or understands politics, or who recognizes the limits of her gender role in society? I realize it makes no sense for her to pop up in the second act like “I was also in Paris and just read this amazing pamphlet by Mary Wollstonecraft, it really is a sequel to the Declaration of Independence, wow, other women do think like I do but also not exactly the same as all you out there in the audience because it’s the 1790s!”, but the deeply cliche framing of one of the romantic leads as Not Like Other Girls (“some men say that I’m intense or I’m insane”) is, once again, such a disservice to all the historical women who were trying to do that work, just in terms that can seem insufficient from the vantage point of the twenty-first century.
And I just want to be clear: I think Hamilton is an amazing show. Some of the songs and lyrics make my brain hurt, they’re so good. The line ‘I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory’ was one of those moments in art where you’re like, ‘it’s extremely rude of you to have put my own personal individual thoughts and feelings on a stage for everyone here to look at.’ I think the second act is kind of a mess, but most second acts of musicals are. Hamilton is great.
And that’s why we need to offer it the respect due to a great, popular, influential work of art and actually rigorously examine it. It’s not enough to dismiss a cultural juggernaut as ‘just a story,’ partly because nothing is ever ‘just a story’– but especially not when it’s dealing with a country’s founding myths, and especially not when it’s a once-in-a-generation artistic phenomenon. More people will see Hamilton calling out Jefferson (but not Washington) about owning slaves in a rap this year than will see the musical 1776‘s number where a southerner calls out all the northerners in the room, including the historically explicitly anti-slavery #problematicfave protagonist John Adams, for their participation in the triangle trade, for their deep embeddedness in the slave economy despite the fact that they have not enslaved anyone and disdain those who do.
1776‘s triangle trade song doesn’t offer any solutions. Jefferson, mortified at being called out for hypocrisy for including anti-slavery passages in the first place, allows them to be stricken from the draft of the Declaration of Independence. Adams is furious, but can’t do anything. The room full of white men move on, kicking the can down the road in order to pursue the immediate goal. It’s not very satisfying. But then again, it wasn’t a very satisfying moment in our history. The musical’s climax of hard-won victory, startlingly triumphant for a scene that’s literally names being read out while dudes sign a paper, is irrevocably tainted by what we know has been left out of that paper. We feel good, but not that good. I’m not saying it’s a perfect musical by any stretch, but it does what Hamilton by definition cannot do: allows historical accuracy to complicate its message, to make us uncomfortable.
And I get the impulse to say, ‘Hamilton is just a story! Let me have this story I can feel good about!’ because that’s exactly the impulse the musical itself is expressing and hoping to tap into in its audience. Please, please, just let me feel like America isn’t absolute shit. Let me feel like it doesn’t hate BIPOC on some sick, primal level. Let me feel the way I felt my freshman year of college when I stood in a tent on the lawn and watched Obama be elected for the first time on a giant outdoor screen and just wept while around me, students fully, unironically chanted ‘USA!’. Even typing that makes me want to crawl out of my skin now. I was so, so ignorant then, it’s embarrassing. But man that complete ignorance felt good.
We don’t get to have that. Because Hamilton’s inaccuracies demonstrate what letting American history be ‘just a story’ costs. Yes, there’s a Black George Washington. But there are no Black Patriots. Our heroes are “just like their country… young, scrappy, and hungry” but there are no Native Americans remind them that the land really isn’t that young, and isn’t theirs. It’s a nice story about what America might have been, but it’s no less false and no less troubling– though perhaps more subtly so– than the versions about glorious white guys in wigs. Those omissions matter. No matter the story.
2 thoughts on “historical accuracy is Good, Actually”
Thank you for this, as it tapped into a lot of things I have been thinking.
The thing I want to highlight: if the way we felt about Hamilton somehow reflects and parallels the way we felt about the world – I think I am interpreting your words right – its shortcomings are our shortcomings. This way, we take them forward with us. Leaving them behind is ignoring what we now know, that we believed we had sorted some things and we were so wrong. My love for it now incorporates that knowledge. And I think that’s good.
Hailey, It’s been a long time since this post — I hope your blog silence means you’ve had more worthwhile things to do, and not been locked down along with the theatre. Re-reading this, I wonder if you’ve seen Alan Jacobs’ recent book Breaking Bread With the Dead. I’m just now listening to the chapter, The Sins of the Past, which offers some different thought in the same vein as yours. All the best.