Alexander Hamilton, Superstar

June 27, 2016

I’ll just say it. Four years out, Hamilton the Musical remains the most important American cultural moment of the 21st century. The genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation is that his imaginative, hip hop, racial caste/casting adaptation of the massive Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton almost instantly, and effortlessly, has changed the way we think about American history.

Music and the Historical Imagination

Any human community dies, quickly, when it can no longer, inclusively, sing about itself, laugh about itself, and know and claim its origins in terms that can refresh and surprise its youngest generations. In the past few decades, founding father and presidential biography has become a lucrative, and quite annoying, cottage industry. Annoying because, with the exception of philosophically minded thinkers such as the incomparable Garry Wills, the majority of these biographers have employed conservative story-telling methods that have presumed a quite frozen continuity in our history as a nation that frankly no longer speaks to anyone in the digital age who is not white and older than 40. More on this shortly, but the point is essential for understanding Miranda’s genius, which incorporates a popular culture sensibility that fully eludes older and more ponderous biographers such as David McCullough, with their preponderance of affluent, older, white male readers.

Chernow’s Hamilton biography is fantastic – lucid, human, persuasive. And more on this shortly, as well. But Hamilton the biography, first published in 2005, is significant beyond its own terms because it provided Lin-Manuel Miranda with the raw material for his antic, inspired reimagination of the founding of the American nation.

Hamilton echoes Jesus Christ Superstar in its use of musical storytelling and a contemporary cultural lens to radically rearrange how we imagine the world. Jesus Christ Superstar, which composer Andrew Lloyd Weber (at the age of 23) and lyricist Tim Rice debuted on Broadway in 1971 actively (and quite subversively) interpreted the gospels through the lens of the rock counterculture and Aquarian sensibilities of that era. As with Hamilton, the energy in Jesus Christ Superstar, its powerful capacity to connect with its audience, was enormously enhanced through storytelling and musical reliance upon contemporary attitudes, sensibilities, and linguistic stylings, along with ironic allusions to modern life contained within depictions of storied political events.

In JCS, rock music energizes and refreshes our understanding of Jesus and Judas – the musical medium both enabling and requiring the radical reshaping of the frozen, canonical, and mostly reactionary perspective on the life and meaning of Jesus. Similarly, hip hop as a creative medium propels Hamilton in directions that literally mandate a kind of super-heated melting of history that can’t help but forever disrupt and recast how we relate and connect to our nation’s birth.

History’s Orphan

Lin-Manuel Miranda places Hamilton’s orphan status at the center of the story in his musical. One of the ironies of American historiography is the extent to which historians and the nation’s historical imagination have also, until fairly recently, orphaned Hamilton. Hamilton’s uncertain status in our national storybooks almost certainly is the result of his death at the age of 47 (or 49) in 1804, never having been able to add POTUS to his resume of accomplishments and achievements. But this uncertain status is also almost certainly related to his complex origins and identity – which place him both in the West Indies and in New York City, but which by the same emotional logic have denied him a fully national identity. This is also, of course, an important theme for Miranda’s Hamilton musical. Additionally, Hamilton’s association with abstruse matters of high finance and with wealthy banking elites has routinely located him on the dark side of political forces in the American morality play, which has consistently favored the simple agrarian virtues and decentralized democratic values associated with New England town meetings, Antifederalism, the Bill of Rights, and Jeffersonian-Jacksonian populism. Hamilton. Slippery, scaly sea creature creeping to shore under cover of darkness. Hamilton. Necropolitical agent of dispossession and despair.

And so, Hamilton really never had a chance. At least not until the last third of the 20thcentury, when Forrest McDonald, brilliant and bilious southern conservative historian (who died in 2016 at the age of 89) reclaimed him for the entire nation, largely by accepting the common tropes more conventionally used to deny Hamilton purchase in the national pantheon. McDonald simply flipped these tropes – formerly dark marks of anti-democratic perfidy and counterrevolution – into emblems of honor and heroism. His Hamilton shaped the Constitution, saved the Union, and established it upon the soundest of political and financial foundations, even as these actions consistently cut against the prevailing popular and democratic passions of the day.

Ironies of Historical Reclamation

Forrest McDonald was a (self-proclaimed) “unreconstructed” admirer of Hamilton and Federalism who grew up and received his degrees in Texas and taught American history for more than 40 years, for most of that time at the University of Alabama (from where he would, at his nearby home, quite charmingly write using a yellow legal pad and without wearing any clothes). McDonald’s unvarnished passion for Hamilton encompassed the full breadth of virtues one might associate with classical founder-heroes: native genius, intellectual strength, literary profluence, personal magnetism, military derring-do, political savvy, and administrative and financial legerdemain.

For McDonald, however, Hamilton’s primary virtue – the one that to some degree enabled all of the others – was his “detestation of dependency and servility.” Which when one thinks about it, is really a remarkable statement, because the negative turn of phrase (emphasizing not Hamilton’s own undeniable independence, self-reliance, and mastery, but merely his detestation for the absence of those qualities in others) mostly served to draw attention to McDonald’s own dripping and enduring contempt for the United States government and the American people, both of which in his historian’s mind disclosed an unremitting and pitiless descent from the glory days of the nation’s founding.

McDonald did reclaim Hamilton for the nation then, yes, but imperfectly, for he did so on terms that only served to also distance the man and his greatness from the nation, testament not to the nobility of the nation he founded, and of its citizens, but to their decadence and decrepitude in comparison to the grandeur of the world of their fathers. To put it bluntly,” McDonald said when he delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture in 1987 on the bicentennial of the US Constitutional Convention, “it would be impossible in America today to assemble a group of people with anything near the combined experience, learning and wisdom that the 55 authors of the Constitution took with them to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.”

McDonald always remained an outlier politically by virtue of his Deep South eccentricities He participated with secessionist and generally irascible historian Grady McWhiney in propounding the “Celtic Thesis” of Southern cultural identity. He also raised hackles when in response to challenges (from Thurgood Marshall, among others) to the perfectionist view of the Constitution, because it sheltered slavery, he said “the condition of the French peasants was far worse than that of the American slaves, and that was heaven compared to the Russian serf.”

Hamilton and Conservative America

Regional eccentricities aside, McDonald’s scorn and vitriol for the American nation post-founding was fully consonant with the Reagan-era appropriation (championed by Edwin Meese and Antonin Scalia) of Alexander Hamilton as the standard-bearer for the Federalist Society and the entire legal conservative movement, where he became the avatar of neoconservative justifications for a “vigorous” executive, particularly in matters of national security and foreign policy (and, far less persuasively, for a libertarian vision of decentralized authority).

More poignantly, McDonald, legal conservatives, and academic political philosophers of the Straussian bent hand-delivered Hamilton to the American people, but with the stipulation that his historical meaning for the nation was largely aspersive. Not the best formula for bringing history to life for 21st century Americans. It would take Brooklyn native and financial journalist and biographer Ron Chernow to make Hamilton specifically relevant and meaningful for contemporary Americans.