Hip Hop Historiography

June 27, 2016

Probably the most significant achievement of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography, likely something no previous generation of historians and biographers could have achieved (certainly not Forrest McDonald) was the unpacking of the interior worlds inhabited by Hamilton and others who moved within his orbit.

Peripheries of the American Mind

In The Dream of the Great American Novel, Lawrence Buell emphasizes the post-World War II liberation of the individual protagonist from realist perspectives characterizing novels of the first half of the 20th century, a kind of emancipation from history that carries over into the biographical style and methods used by Chernow in his biographies of Morgan, Rockefeller, Hamilton, and Washington. Chernow, with his post-World War II, Brooklyn, Jewish, Yale, and Cambridge (England) origins, is by no means a man of the periphery. But by fully releasing Hamilton as a creature/creation of New York City, he reimagined New York, of all places, in almost magically realistic terms, as a periphery at the center of the new American nation. It is this approach to Alexander Hamilton that captivated Lin-Manuel Miranda and that created the hip hop history opening for Hamilton the Musical.

Revolutions require peripheries of both mind and space, of interior and exterior. While we have conventionally thought about the American Revolution as a colonial revolution, in reality the political establishment in the colonies was closely tied to and dependent upon British finance, British culture and customs, British laws, British patronage, and British indulgence and forbearance. What Miranda opens our eyes to is the possibility that the old, sodden story of the national founding inscribed in our monuments and in our court cases and in our text books may altogether miss the animating spirit of the American Revolution (and perhaps by definition of all revolutions), which was that marginal peripherals were the ones who (bringing to its challenges no stake in the status quo and a fresh, unencumbered sensibility) fully understood its promise and who fully fanned its flames. That Miranda would locate this peripheral sensibility in New York City, in what we might now call, in the 21stcentury, the Empire State of Mind, is one of the most terrific ironies to emerge from the Hamilton musical.

Empire State of Mind

Here are some ways to capture the meaning of Miranda’s musical reimagination of Alexander Hamilton. First, let’s consider New York as the revolutionary epicenter and what that means from the perspective of the city’s residents nearly 250 years after the Revolution. Let’s also consider the themes emerging from Hamilton’s story line and musical lyrics: *New York City, orphan, immigrant, bastard, slavery, West Indies.*These are personal origins themes. Which also matter enormously for meanings we assign to our national origins.

In most canonical narratives of the Revolution and of the nation-building period that follows (certainly in those that inform the collective mythic imagination), New York City is missing in action. While even in 1776 arguably the pivot of the colonies commercially and financially and ethnically, New York slips between historiography’s binaries and eludes capture, with the result that the emerging national identity is largely viewed from the perspective of New England merchant and Southern planter interests.

History is happening … in the greatest city in the world. (I.5)

Following Chernow’s lead, Miranda places New York City at the center of the drama and requires the remaining colonies/states to dance around the pole it sets in the ground. The American colonies had not yet achieved any significant population density and most of its citizens lived on farms. Only the small minority of citizens packed into a handful of cities really possessed the means and the vision to step into history as active participants. In New York City, in particular, the immigrant drift represented tinder waiting for its match.

In New York, you can be a new man. (I.1)

In Miranda’s skilled hands, reading a hip hop sensibility backwards from the 21stcentury to the 18th century, Hamilton captures and contains within himself the original Empire State of Mind. Orphan, bastard, West Indies immigrant, with a limitless capacity for reinvention, Hamilton’s identity and fate, and that of the nation, are intertwined.

Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom. (I.1)

And this is the point. Hamilton’s illegitimate, marginal status does not have to be, and is not always, a liability. What does this marginal status give Hamilton? Peripheral vision. He brings an outsider’s perspective, an immigrant’s perspective, to the center of the revolutionary struggle.

Immigrants: We get the job done. (I.20)

Clearly this is Miranda’s interpretation, and who can doubt the inspiration pride and interest in his own Caribbean origins and his awareness of the bubbling-up impact of immigrant cultures in New York City, and elsewhere in the nation? But once Miranda introduces these themes, the audience itself experiences a riveting moment of self-recognition Because of course the orphan/bastard/immigrant narrative also makes sense for understanding the nation’s origins! And once we accept that premise, it is difficult not to see New York City, which even as the Revolution broke, already was the immigrant center of the new world, as the pulsing, rhythmic heartbeat of the Revolution.

Band of Brothers

What does this marginal sensibility produce? In the Hamilton musical, friendship, the band of brothers, drives the insurgency. Commitments of love and loyalty unavailable to conscripted or mercenary British troops makes possible the informal, shifting, liquid style of warfare used by the revolutionary insurgents – the inception of guerrilla warfare as we now know it, in which the British Army can never hope to outrun, outmaneuver, or outlast American fighters.

Hamilton’s posse (Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, and Hercules Mulligan) serve subversive, comic goals. They are the lovable scoundrels who capture the antic, democratic spirit of the new nation. In real life, of course, Lafayette and Laurens were wealthy, well-born, well-educated soldier-statesmen. Hercules Mulligan, graduate of King College and a tailor, was an important spy for the Revolutionary cause. But even in their comic musical personas, all three remain true to their historical roles and cement in our minds new ways of thinking about important elements of the revolutionary narrative.

Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction,when you knock me down I get the fuck back up again! (I.20)

Hercules Mulligan offers Miranda the opportunity to introduce themes of womanizing and sexual license into the narrative that foreshadow later scenes of sordid sexual politics (the Maria Reynolds affair) that complicate Hamilton’s founder-hero status, but that also more fully humanize him and make him emotionally and psychologically accessible to Americans in the 21st century.

Je m’appelle Lafayette, the Lancelot of the Revolutionary set! (I.2)

Lafayette condenses the complexity of the French-American relationship, along with the divergent meaning of the two nation’s revolutionary moments. Lafayette’s character also brings an insouciant spirit of play to the founding narrative, introducing a lightness of being that the more earnest Hamilton, occasionally, can share, but that also strengthens a claim about the Revolution and the founding that 21st century Americans can appreciate, which is the subversive energy of irreverent humor that won’t concede any special status to convention or authority.

But we’ll never be truly free, until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me. (I.3)

John Laurens’ duel with Charles Lee choreographs the intricate dueling/honor rituals that are so pivotal in the second act of the musical. Laurens’ bold soldier-slave emancipation scheme of course also lets Miranda spotlight the ironic foundations of freedom in a slaveholding society, as well as dissimulations required to whitewash or elide fractures in the Constitutional foundations produced by the failure to confront slavery.

The posse also undermines familiar historiographical biases emphasizing that the insurgency was largely a rebellion against abuses of parliamentary and (ultimately) royal authority (but in no way a social revolution) and that freedom was simply about redressing these abuses, and so in reality a restoration to political practice of principles already contained within the traditional constitutions and charters of government.

Freedom and Inclusion

Problems with this historical perspective on the meaning of freedom in the American Revolution unfurl, especially as the 18th century begins to seem to us like a very long time ago. Reducing the meaning of freedom to political restoration is thin gruel indeed for a hungry nation. a “scarcity” view of freedom as a precious commodity that entirely undermines itself by justifying a narrow and exclusive apportionment. Freedom as political restoration must ultimately be about preserving existing status, privilege, and opportunity, not fully extending it on the basis of natural rights commitments to the equality of all humans the founders themselves emphasized.

Miranda cleverly imagines Hamilton’s posse as revolutionary agents of inclusion, not of exclusion, which allows him to shift the focus of the Revolution to its aspirational and implicit goals, alongside its practical aims. And so, King George III and his minions (including fat Charles Seabury!) do shape the narrative, but only to a limited and non-exclusive degree, which creates room for the relationship between actual slavery and actual freedom to assume a far more commanding role in the conflicts that push forward the story.

Finally, Miranda brilliantly disarms the politics of a focus on slavery and race, which are simply hot buttons that in less sensitive hands would sink the musical before it left the harbor. How does he do this? By selecting African-American and Hispanic-American actors to cast virtually every role in the drama! By casting in a manner that shifts attention away from the race of founders, the experience of watching the musical itself allows us almost without effort to imagine the meaning of the national founding in more universally inclusive human terms!