Sammy Sussman: historical misconceptions perpetuated by ‘Hamilton’

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 6:13pm

This past week, I watched the performance of “Hamilton” from the 2016 Tony awards in my musicology class. As we watched the video, I was struck by the outstanding popularity of this music among many of my fellow SMTD classmates. As far as I could tell, no one in my class was hearing the music for the first time. Though a few students explained that they had outgrown the “Hamilton” craze, everyone seemed to be intimately familiar with each word in the musical.

The topic of my class is contemporary American music. When discussing the role of “Hamilton” in contemporary American culture, we all had well-defined understandings of the significance of the musical. Depicting the history of the Founding Fathers with actors of color, we felt, was clearly intended to make a statement about the diverse nature of our modern nation. Various subthemes existed throughout the musical, we decided, such as the integral role of immigrants in American society and the ever-changing definition of what it means to be an American perpetuated through our historical understanding of our founding fathers.

When it came to discussing the legacy of Alexander Hamilton, however, the class was quite divided. Culturally, Hamilton has developed a historical connotation as a diverse and inclusive liberal icon. For many, he is an example of our democratic society. He was a self-made man, an immigrant whose wealth and power stemmed almost entirely from his speaking and writing abilities. He represents the successes of our meritocracy. Thanks to the musical, he has been idealized as a bastion of modern day liberal/progressive politics.

Hamilton’s historical legacy, however, may not be as clear cut as his current cultural status would lead us to believe. His role in polarizing the politics of his day, for example, is briefly depicted in the play, though it is frequently glossed over in the cultural lexicon. Even this slightly more complicated view of Hamilton may not be entirely accurate; with some further research one can learn of Hamilton’s anti-democratic, almost authoritarian tendencies. Historians have frequently alleged, for example, that he believed in an unequal distribution of wealth as a means of maintaining a class structure in American society. He advocated that the president receive a life term, an idea clearly at odds with the current political left and the various efforts underway to impeach our President. His participation in the 1783 attempt to overthrow the Continental Congress by harboring the anger of the unpaid soldiers, furthermore, is just as decidedly undemocratic as it is un-American.

I don’t mean to suggest that Hamilton represents a negative force in American politics — many of his financial policies are still in use today. His arguments in the Federalist Papers are still referenced today as the reasoning behind our system of government. It is not Hamilton’s legacy that should be questioned but the role that the musical “Hamilton” has played in shaping and defining this legacy.

As was demonstrated in my musicology class, Hamilton’s current cultural legacy is built on the success of “Hamilton” and not his role in history. This musical-based historical legacy is constantly reinforced throughout our cultural landscape. It’s a cultural feedback loop of sorts: The legacy encourages us to follow the principles of “Hamilton,” rather then the policies that the real Hamilton would have supported.  

It is not difficult to move from this cultural phenomenon to the larger world as politics become increasingly polarized. If anything, the hyperpolarization of modern politics are almost perfectly represented by the codification of this pseudo-historical legacy. Unlike any other time in history, the rapid and indiscriminate flow of information known as the internet is encouraging the formation of distinct subcultures within our greater national culture. We are not a country divided — we are a country diverging into various independent and largely dissimilar subcultures. In previous decades, these subcultures were defined by geography. Now, more than they were before, they are based on other principles; economic conditions, race, class and (arguably) population density.

Each subculture has its own set of beliefs and its own history used to justify these beliefs. To those that believe in immigration and diversity as the foundation of the American experience, plays such as “Hamilton” help reinforce and justify those beliefs. To those that believe in stronger border protection and cultural conservatism, other forms of art exist to reinforce and justify these beliefs.

While it is too early to note the effects of this phenomenon, changes will undoubtedly occur as these subcultures become more defined. The internet allows for plays such as “Hamilton” to cleave through the very fabric of American culture, bringing the very sustainability of this fabric into question.

This is not to say that performing arts have only recently become polarizing. “Hamilton” isn’t the first instance of a play developing any political connotations — the perpetual re-interpretations of Shakespeare are among the best examples of the constant political meanings to be found in the performing arts. It is important, however, to note the false or misleading cultural narratives that can become grounded in these works of art. We must be careful not to ingratiate ourselves in the common narratives of our respective subcultures. As Poincaré said, “to doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.” As we continue into an increasingly interconnected future, we must be conscious of this tendency induced by our interconnectedness. We must continue to doubt widespread cultural narratives even as we must eventually accept certain cultural truths.

We must also note the power of ground-breaking works of art to overcome the barriers between these subcultures. Though “Hamilton” seems to be a decidedly liberal play, this did not prevent Dick Cheney from publicly expressing his admiration for it. While some might argue that Cheney is not the specific type of nationalist or anti-immigrant conservative that one would expect to oppose this work, his public support for it defies almost any other explanation. He simply enjoyed the work. Though these subcultures are developing at rapid speeds, it seems their divides can still be traversed.

Regardless of the unifying or polarizing nature of these works, it is important to note the aspects of history that we gloss over as we develop these interpretations and understandings of art. What is lost, we must ask, in this interpretation of the work? What is being prioritized and what minimized? We cannot question everything, but that does not mean we should question nothing. We must instead be aware of the clemency we take in developing these interpretations and the inevitable aspects of history lost along the way.