- IntroductionLin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton: An American Musical and the Early American Republic
By now, we all know the story: In 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a twenty-eight-year-old composer, lyricist, and performer, fresh from his Broadway hit In the Heights, took Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton on vacation to Mexico. The 800-page biography of the first Secretary of the Treasury might have seemed like strange candidate for a beach read. But the sympathetic study, which recounted the personal and political ascent of a West Indian émigré from a nondescript childhood to his death in a duel, resonated. Miranda, himself the child of Puerto Rican immigrants who had achieved professional success in the United States, saw in Chernow's book a distinctly American story, an immigrant striver's story. The following spring at a White House event celebrating poetry and the arts, Miranda performed "My Shot," a song that serves as Hamilton's declaration of intent. By 2015, when Hamilton: An American Musical opened at New York City's Public Theater, "My Shot" had become the opening salvo to a projection of the nation's origins and its identity, set to the cadences of hip-hop and R&B, and performed by actors of African American and Hispanic descent. Nearly three years and countless performances, awards, and YouTube video views later, Miranda's masterpiece has secured a place in contemporary culture. Following the cast's post-performance message to Vice President Mike Pence in the tumultuous aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, it also secured a place in our culture wars.
Just as Hamilton: An American Musical made its way to the center of popular culture, it pushed its way into conversations among U.S. historians, who took to print and social media to debate the production's accuracy and its politics. The 2016 meeting of the Society for Historians of [End Page 251] the Early American Republic devoted two sessions (including the presidential plenary and a videotaped interview with Miranda) to the phenomenon. At their most fruitful, the conversations at SHEAR focused on how we might connect Miranda's show to our scholarly practice. How can historians work with Hamilton? How can they teach it? Five of the following essays represent revised and expanded versions of those contributions; Marvin McAllister's essay was solicited separately. Our aim in publishing them here is to provide a view of the musical that is both longer and deeper than even the best punditry affords.
Joanne Freeman and Andrew Schocket situate the musical in different historiographical contexts. Freeman acknowledges that Miranda's Hamilton ("a flawed but charming master rap-battler with an almost superhuman work ethic") emerges partly from the historical record and partly from Miranda's imaginative engagement with the present moment. But as she reminds us, American scholars have been figuring and refiguring Hamilton for well over a century. Rather than looking back at previous generations' depictions of Hamilton, Schocket looks at the culture industry's fascination with the founding. He explores this emerging entertainment industry genre (the "American Revolution Rebooted") to consider what its formulaic conventions tell us about the current moment.
Readers of this journal might be especially interested to think about Hamilton from the perspective of theater history. As Heather Nathans observes, Miranda is hardly the first actor to play Alexander Hamilton. Recovering a mostly forgotten collection of plays dating back to the turn of the nineteenth century, she demonstrates how artists used Hamilton to consider "critical moments in the nation's passionate and often painful debates about race, citizenship, and belonging." If Hamilton the character has a long history, so too does Miranda's color-conscious casting. Marvin McAllister situates one of the musical's most controversial elements in a far longer tradition of "whiting up." Starting at least with William Brown, African American performers have whited up for multiple and contradictory reasons ranging from social satire and career advancement to the exposure of the "unrelenting terror wrecked on black bodies."
The forum comes full circle by assessing Hamilton: An American [End Page 252] Musical as history in general and as a distinct form of popular, if not precisely public...