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‘Hamilton’ The Rage–But What Do Scholars Think?

April 12, 2016

The hardest ticket to come by in New York City is for the play Hamilton.   It is loved by fans and is the topic of news stories and talk shows.   But what about the historical fact-checking that some historians and others are doing into the man at the center of the play?

Why this struck me–other than Hamilton is my favorite Founding Father–is not that there are those who have something to say about this matter–but that it made its way to the front page of The New York Times.

In articles, blog posts and Facebook threads, scholars have debated whether “Hamilton” over-glorifies the man, inflating his opposition to slavery while glossing over less attractive aspects of his politics, which were not necessarily as in tune with contemporary progressive values as audiences leaving the theater might assume.

The show, for all its redemptive and smart aspects, is part of this ‘Founders Chic’ phenomenon,” said David Waldstreicher, a historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who last September sounded an early note of skepticism on The Junto, a group blog about early American history.

Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of “The Hemingses of Monticello,” put it more bluntly.

“One of the most interesting things about the ‘Hamilton’ phenomenon,” she wrote last week on the blog of the National Council on Public History, “is just how little serious criticism the play has received.”

Ms. Gordon-Reed was responding to a critical essay by Lyra D. Monteiro, in the journal The Public Historian, arguing that the show’s multiethnic casting obscures the almost complete lack of identifiable African-American characters, making the country’s founding seem like an all-white affair.

“It’s an amazing piece of theater, but it concerns me that people are seeing it as a piece of history,” Ms. Monteiro, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark, said in an interview.

The founders, she added, “really didn’t want to create the country we actually live in today.”

Ms. Gordon-Reed — who is credited with breaking down the resistance among historians to the claim that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings — wrote in her response that she shared some of Ms. Monteiro’s qualms, even as she loved the musical and listened to the cast album every day.

“Imagine ‘Hamilton’ with white actors,” she wrote. “Would the rosy view of the founding era grate?”

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