Let’s Not Pretend That ‘Hamilton’ Is History

America's Founders Have Never Enjoyed More Sex Appeal, but the Hit Musical Cheats Audiences by Making Democracy Look Easy

What It Means to Be AmericanHamilton is the hottest show on Broadway, filled with hip-hop songs, R&B rhythms, and tri-cornered hats. Its multi-racial cast portrays the pantheon of Revolutionary greats, and for many a starry-eyed critic this sing-along with the founders offers “a factually rigorous historical drama.” Those are the words of Jody Rosen in The New York Times, and he is not alone. As an academic who spent years studying Aaron Burr before producing a scholarly biography, I can say emphatically that rules of historical rigor do not apply to Hamilton.

The musical follows an old playbook that divides the founders into heroes and villains. This started after the Revolution when Charles Willson Peale began compiling portraits of “Revolutionary Patriots” and displayed them in his renowned Philadelphia Museum. In 1818, a Russian diplomat and artist, Pavel Petrovich Svinin, observed that “every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home, just as we have images of God’s saints.” In death, Washington figuratively became a god, when an artist attached his iconic face and head to a classic pose of Jesus sitting on a cloud and ascending into heaven. The impulse to glorify the founders is still with us. They were romanticized in the silent film era, and in innumerable, hokey Hollywood movies since. The Patriots awed New York theater critics during World War II, and 1776 rocked Broadway in 1969, with Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin singing and dancing their way to independence. Have we already forgotten HBO’s gushing tribute, John Adams?

"The Apotheosis of Washington," an 1800 engraving of the first U.S. President by David Edwin.

“The Apotheosis of Washington,” an 1800 engraving of the first U.S. President by David Edwin.

The drama of the founders has overtaken the reality. In the undergraduate seminar I teach, “America’s Founding Myths,” I ask my students to identify the life masks of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, produced in 1825, which is as close as we can come to capturing their likenesses. None of my students recognized them. Why? They are old. Adams is jowly and bald. There isn’t an ounce of glamor in these unflattering busts. The reason that Hamilton is so popular is that the theatergoer is treated to vigorous youth, brazen sex appeal, macho brashness, capped by so-called genius—all wrapped up in a loving and whimsical portrait of a Hamilton who “tells it like it is” in the pounding, nonstop rhythms of hip hop. Which guy do you want to be? A shrunken Jefferson, or the dashing and daring Hamilton who, like Peter Pan, never appears to grow up?

No one watching Hamilton will want to be Burr, one of the most interesting figures of early American history. Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Burr, has a lovely voice, but his portrayal echoes a familiar slur: the opportunist. Or to use Hamilton’s favorite insult of Burr (and others): a “cunning” man, who carries himself with aristocratic airs. In Hamilton, Burr is a mere prop, a villainous foil, his personality an overblown caricature. He is portrayed as a man who lacks principles, unwilling to believe in, or fight for, anything that matters.

The historical Burr was no less passionate about the Revolution than Hamilton, eagerly joining the arduous 350-mile march through Maine wilderness to Canada in 1775. He was appointed aide-de-camp to General Richard Montgomery, who died during the invasion and lived on as a Revolutionary martyr. For courage under fire, Burr received a commendation from Congress. Contrary to the song lyrics, he wasn’t “waiting” for anything.

The men he later commanded admired him, and he believed in expanding democratic rights to uplift and empower poorer men. He was not pompous or aloof, nor a man of mere surfaces, nor a Chesterfieldian dandy, as his slanderous enemies pretended. His New York wing of the Jeffersonian party, the “Burrites,” were men of mixed class backgrounds, whereas the Schuyler-Hamilton Federalist faction was a top-down organization favoring elite interests. Falsely casting Burr as an aristocrat is a rhetorical ploy: It incorrectly shifts the blame for class prejudice onto him.

By taking sides in a mudslinging fight for power that goes back more than 200 years, Hamilton misses Burr’s actual contributions. He was a skilled innovator of democracy, working to make elections, financial services, and even the U.S. Senate more fair and transparent. In New York, he was charged with “revolutionizing the state,” because he backed progressive policies for funding internal improvements, debtor relief, and establishing a more democratic method of electing state senators. He founded the Manhattan Company, the first bank to extend financial services to ordinary merchants and mechanics outside the ruling elite. As vice president, he presided over the Senate’s impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1805. His judicious behavior, which helped to maintain the impartiality of the judiciary, won him grudging praise from many Federalists; one called him “one of the best presiding officers I ever saw.” A man with sophisticated ideas, respected for his impartiality and scrupulous conduct—this Burr never appears in Hamilton.

An 1802 portrait of Aaron Burr by the painter John Vanderlyn.

An 1802 portrait of Aaron Burr by the painter John Vanderlyn.

Reducing Burr to a villain turns the musical into a lopsided morality tale, glossing over the complexity of early America in favor of characters we can cheer for. Thus hip-hop Hamilton unabashedly celebrates the American Dream; the conceit that the country has always been the land of opportunity. Hamilton represents the immigrant made good, because he was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Left out of the upbeat story is that Hamilton—and the Federalist Party he headed—were hostile to the idea that the United States should ever be led by newcomers. It was the Federalists who pressed for a constitutional amendment barring naturalized foreigners from elected offices, and it was that villain Burr, in the New York Assembly at the time, who gave an eloquent speech defending the liberal promise of the young republic. “America stood with open arms and presented an asylum to the oppressed of every nation,” he said. “Shall we deprive these persons of an important right derived from so sacred a source as our Constitution?”

The musical puts feminist words in the mouth of Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law, presuming she wanted to tell Jefferson to rewrite the Declaration to include women. This is absurd. In truth, Aaron Burr was far ahead of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams in advancing the ideas of English writer Mary Wollstonecraft, the leading Enlightenment advocate of women’s rights. Burr and his wife Theodosia educated their daughter as they might have a son: She could read and write at the age of 3, then mastered French, Italian, Latin, Greek, mathematics, history, and geography. The idea that women were the intellectual equals of men was a radical one, and Hamilton attacked Burr for it, calling him a proponent of “Godwinism.” (William Godwin was Wollstonecraft’s husband.)

Finally, Hamilton wrongly claims that the duel with Burr was over the election of 1800, and that Burr knowingly shot Hamilton after he saw him fire a bullet in the air. Wrong again. The real cause of the duel was that Hamilton attacked Burr’s character (and refused to apologize) when Burr ran for the New York governorship in 1804. Conveniently missing is the fact that Hamilton supplied the pistols, and the one he used had a secret hair trigger. This gave him an unfair advantage and violated the gentlemanly code of conduct.

Can we expect a more accurate musical someday? Probably not. Interestingly, in times of political turmoil, the pop-culture pendulum often swings in a critical direction. In the 1930s, the iconoclastic painter Grant Wood (best known for his American Gothic) mockingly reworked the Parson Weems tale of George Washington, as the cherry tree slayer who would not lie. The same artist turned Paul Revere’s ride into a surreal jaunt through a fairytale town, with Revere astride a miniature rocking horse. Wood’s point was simple: In the midst of the Great Depression, bedtime stories about the founders were suitable for children but not adults. It was time for Americans to grow up and embrace their real history, a darker one. Gore Vidal did the same in 1973, when the breakdown of Nixon’s Watergate was in full sway, publishing Burr, a fictional history, in which Jefferson is savagely shown as a Janus-faced, dilettantish, ruthlessly power-hungry politician. In times of trouble, a little skepticism (and sarcasm) goes a long way.

Hamilton may be delight to watch, but let’s not convince ourselves that it honors the discipline of history. When he interviewed Lin-Manuel Miranda, Late Show host Stephen Colbert joked: “I didn’t have to read the Bible, because I saw Jesus Christ Superstar.” That pretty much says it all. The musical Hamilton is to the historical Hamilton what Charlton Heston’s Moses is to … well, you get the picture.

*An earlier version incorrectly stated that Elizabeth Hamilton wanted to tell Jefferson to include women in the Declaration of Independence in the musical Hamilton. It was Angelica Schuyler, her sister.

  • Danielle Fouquette

    To see Burr in “Hamilton” as a mere prop or villainous foil reveals more about the viewer than the production, and to state that the musical “claims” anything about a historical event makes the mistake of conflating drama with an academic journal.

    Perhaps the multiethnic cast should have been the first clue, but “Hamilton” isn’t simply about history, it’s about hip hop and immigration and aspiration. Like the very best of dramatic literature, and in the tradition of Shakespeare’s history plays, Hamilton is allegorical, not biographical.

    When I sat in the theater and watched the show, not once did I think I was seeing claims about what happened several hundred years ago. When Hamilton and Lafayette lean together for the mic drop line about immigrants getting the job done, only the most determinedly rigid viewer would think this play was about the past.

    • nuwandathegreat

      Again, the author isn’t stating the play itself purports to be historically accurate, it’s the people who claim it is historically accurate that are the problem. Much like the people who use the film “JFK” as their sole source for their beliefs.

      • Danielle Fouquette

        She only has a snippet of one quote about hisotocial accuracy by a theater critic, so I’d say her criticism is squarely aimed at the play and not audiences. If she wanted to take to task people who are making this claim, surely she could come up with more than one example.

  • Danielle Fouquette

    And not to pile it on, but consider this bit about the play’s origins, excerpted here from the New Yorker:
    “It does not seem accidental that “Hamilton” was created during the tenure of the first African-American President. The musical presents the birth of the nation in an unfamiliar but necessary light: not solely as the work of élite white men but as the foundational story of all Americans. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington are all played by African-Americans. Miranda also gives prominent roles to women, including Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), and sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry). When they are joined by a third sister, their zigzagging harmonies sound rather like those of Destiny’s Child. Miranda portrays the Founding Fathers not as exalted statesmen but as orphaned sons, reckless revolutionaries, and sometimes petty rivals, living at a moment of extreme volatility, opportunity, and risk. The achievements and the dangers of America’s current moment—under the Presidency of a fatherless son of an immigrant, born in the country’s island margins—are never far from view.”

  • Terry Ruddy

    And looking at you last line we see a small problem with your critique “he joked”, which you suggest is anything but a joke. It’s a Broadway musical, unless you want to sit through 40 or 50 hours of what could possible be the worst songs and most boring dialogue ever, how could it possible convoy the complexity of this story well? And at the end of the day it would still be trashed by historians who disagreed with its accuracy, for reasons to be seen in your own well researched story. So you have two relatively simple choices, write a huge book trying to be honest and still get hammered by a few historians regardless or secondly, be imaginative, entertaining and compelling enough so that people will want to watch your musical and then also maybe read through historians who wish to correct the mistakes, at least the ones they see as mistakes. PS. Yes, Hamilton was an elitist (considering the education level back then you blame him?) but he drove for a the federal system with a passion rarely matched, and Burr regardless of his good deeds seem to be ambitious enough to sell out every last principle at the end of the day…. and we wont even talk about the duel.

  • Tricia Nelson

    Did the author actually see Hamilton?? I did. Here are three fundamental truths:

    – Burr is anything but the villain in Hamilton. He is the narrator and the heart of the piece. He is played by Leslie Odom Jr., who is not only dashing, has arguably the best voice and the showstopping number, but he encourages compassion and empathy for someone who history has vilified. And, it’s quite clear in the show that years of animosity are responsible for that fateful duel.

    -It is no secret that *Angelica* Schuyler (the one who sings about Thomas Jefferson including “women in the sequel”) was fictionalized for the show. She sings that her father “has no sons so she has to social-climb for one” — when she actually has brothers; her marriage timeline is also skewed.

    – Christopher Jackson’s George Washington says/sings/raps on more than one occasion about how hard governing is in their brand-new democracy. Give another listen to Cabinet Battles 1&2 in the original cast album and rethink your subhead.

    The great thing that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has done is to get people outside of academia to actually care about forgotten founding fathers. And it doesn’t operate in a vacuum — students who see the show (and no doubt those who will perform the show when it makes its way to community theatre) are treated to a complementary curriculum where they can learn those facts you lament are lost. Ron Chernow’s 11-year old 800+-page book is back on top of best-sellers lists, so rest assured a good many Americans are also getting the full story.

  • Sammy

    Okay….no clue if the author of this article actually read Ron Chernow’s book on which the musical is based. If so, she would see that LMM hews closely to Chernow’s characterizations of Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson. LMM does not claim that this is all historical accuracy, and his show is likely to show some of the same biases that Chernow’s book does. Chernow was not always kind to Burr, but he was not always unfair, either. Sometimes I did feel that Chernow was overly forgiving of Hamilton.

    It is important to remember that biographers are as subject to bias as anyone. Isenberg, who wrote the above article, comes at history from a perspective different than Chernow’s, as she wrote biographies of Burr, Jefferson and Madison (the latter two together). In the end, neither biographer was there; all either can do is interpret primary and secondary materials from the day….and, as I said above, biographers, as much as anyone else, and their intepretation of history, are subject to bias….hence Isenberg and Chernow/Miranda’s differing views. All viewers and readers need to come to biographies with a critical eye. Chernow, for example, couldn’t stand Jefferson, because Chernow came at his story, in part, from a Hamiltonian persepctive…and when I finished reading the bio, I realized that I would have to try to find a good (not simply fawning) biography of Jefferson in order to weigh more of the evidence myself.

    I will say that Chernow’s biography and the broadway show bring to vivid life (in a way we never learned in school) an era of politics at a level of detail that is fascinating and very much reminds me of continuing debates about the role of government and many other issues still facing us. And Chernow and Miranda show that the politicians at the time were just as fallible and human as those today. Finally….there is no way LMM could fit every detail in the biography into his show. Simply not doable. Anyone who is seeing a historical musical (1776, for instance, for all those musical afficiandos out there) or play should know that details will be left out and license taken to fit the narrative needs of the show. LMM has been very clear that this is the case with Hamilton. What Hamilton should be applauded for is not necessarily its complete historical accuracy, but for encouraging anew people’s interest in U.S. history. Especially important is creating a way into viewing history for young people…a way that is not simply dry dates, names and places….but that brings alive the fact that these were real people, doing real things in an extraordinary time, and that what was happening then has relevance today.

    Finally, nothing about the show or the biography makes democracy look easy. Quite the opposite.

    Oh, and I have to wonder if Isenberg has even seen Hamilton, because it was Angelica, not Eliza, who in the show says she’s going to tell Jefferson to include women in the sequel to the Declaration of Independence. Work!

  • Deeleybopper

    “No one watching Hamilton will want to be Burr…”

    I don’t think you and I are experiencing the same show.

    No one would want to be Hamilton either. Sure, he left his legacy and did some incredible things. But he was also callous, hurtful, and self centered.

    Burr and Hamilton are meant to be two sides of the same coin. The point of the musical isn’t to provide an accurate School House Rock Historical Showdown. The show is a discussion of how people change, how they obtain their goals, the things that hold them back, the marks they leave behind for those of us who need to tell their story. (In fact, I’d argue that one of the points of the repetitive and recurring refrain “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” is to point out that this is only one half of the story, and that everything is relative, and we ultimately have no control over how history views us, that things cannot and should not be reduced to “good guys” and “bad guys”.)

    And then, there’s Burr’s sweeping soliloquy “Wait For It” that explores and explains and humanizes his opportunism. That song says to the audience, “You probably aren’t Hamilton. You’re probably a Burr. And that is okay. That is still a good, noble thing to be. You have things to protect. This is a good thing.”

    Hamilton even refers to Burr as his first friend, just as Burr shoots him. Even after everything, in his final moments, Hamilton didn’t consider Burr to be an evil person (at least from the perspective of this show).

    Not to mention, (if you’re going to actually assign villany/heroics to any character), the only character that IS actually a blameless beautiful hallmark of justice is Eliza Hamilton, who put up with her husband’s garbage self centered ways AND THEN was enough of a grownup to recognize the complexity of the situation and to ensure that his ridiculous legacy lived on. (#ElizaDeservedBetter)

    While I applaud you wanting to stick up for your boy, Aaron Burr (ya, I caught that note at the end where you wrote a whole dang book about him), if all you took away from Hamilton was the fact that it was (obviously) historically inaccurate, and that you wanted it to be some kind of Burr Smear Campaign, then you totally missed the point.

    (Also – You switch the sisters in your discussion of them. In the show, Angelica asserts she helped Jefferson realize women should be afforded the same rights and freedoms, which is a fact that is 100% backed up by her letters. But hey! With all this discussion of the importance of historical accuracy in the ways we analyze history, who cares about accurately citing the artistic source material in question? Amiright???)

    • nuwandathegreat

      I think this was written because so many people WERE/ARE using this as an historical absolute. She isn’t saying this is a Burr smear campaign, but just that it aligns with the way historians have decided to characterize the man. Maybe you should actually read her book, then you might have a clue.

      • Deeleybopper

        My poiny though is that this show ISNT a Burr smear campaign. This show doesn’t set Burr up as a villain. It gives the audience room to empathize with him, to view him as something more than the “bad guy,” which YOU would know if you’d bothered to analyze the text of the show.

        • nuwandathegreat

          Did you actually read what I said? I said she ISN’T saying it’s a Burr smear campaign! How much clearer can that be? The show does fall in line with much of what popular historians like to espouse, which is the greatness of Hamilton and the minimization of Burr. Burr shouldn’t just be “more than the “bad guy,”” he should be recognized for the trailblazer he was.

      • icowrich

        Agreed that it’s not an historical absolute (what is?), but I would argue that it IS history. As a teacher (admittedly, English, not history), I recognize Hamilton as providing a sort of scaffolding that provides a way of contextualizing historical information. Yes, it’s important to read those sources that will point out the inaccuracies and lack of nuance inherent in the musical. But students will understand all of that material better because they are so familiar with the key historical references in this play.

        From my point of view, this show is some kind of pedagogical miracle. My kids know how many troops were in New York Harbor in the battle of Long Island. They know about the dispute over financing state debts (a battle we still have, in a fashion, today). They know about the debt we owe to France and the basic disagreement between King George and the former colonies. No, they don’t know much about these things, but they can place them in time and space, which is a prerequisite to learning all of the in-between detail. This is real history. It’s just not, as you say, absolute. It’s an entry point. But it’s an excellent one.

    • CrazyCoolCook

      Please don’t compare this travesty to School House Rock. After watching Schoolhouse Rock one’s IQ was most likely higher than when you started. Hamilton had the opposite effect.

  • nuwandathegreat

    Everyone has a right to be excited and engage with history, but not to rewrite it to their satisfaction.

  • I’m wondering: Just what exactly is the musical’s “new interpretation of history?” It’s that kind of overblown rhetoric in the reaction to the musical that Eisenberg seems to be challenging.

    • Emma

      By interpretation, I mean the way in which historical facts are presented, the communication process used (a la Freeman Tilden). Hamilton forges both emotional and intellectual connections between the things that interest the audience and the history. It may not be a new technique, but it is at least very unique to have a historical story presented like this become a hugely popular phenomenon while still heightening people’s awareness and understanding of the past.

  • Galen Giampetro

    “Hamilton” did what it was suppose to do. YOU put yourself in the narrative.

  • This Is My Display Name

    “Celebrating one historical figure does not mean we automatically discredit or undermine the contributions of another.”

    I have to disagree. In many cases, such a thing is automatic.

    Some viewpoints, including who’s the hero of a specific story, simply can’t co-exist, due to the inability to clarify the nuances and complexities in the time frame required by a show, movie, or even TV series.

    People spend years and years of their lives studying this stuff just to understand it. When you condense it down into a couple of hours (or less), things will get lost–that’s just how it is. Shows require a conflict, and, for the audience to feel for that conflict, somebody needs to be the bad guy. Someone needs to be thrown under the bus.

    You can make the bad guy sympathetic, but, at the end of the day, he still needs to be the bad guy. There’s no real room for conflicting points of view in this medium, because there’s no time to delve into them.

    In fact, people have made a living by going back & taking plays that are in the public domain, like Shakespeare, and rewriting them to show those alternative points of view. That’s really the only way it can be done: as a completely separate piece, roughly as long as the original.

  • This Is My Display Name

    The difference is that people actually come out of this show believing it to be a true story. That’s why this article exists.

    With Hollywood portrayals, people don’t think that because people aren’t that stupid.

    If American Indians feel as you say, they should read the above sentence over and over until it sinks in that people don’t think Pocahontas is a documentary & they’re getting upset over nothing.

  • Reg Compton

    Can you imagine how popular a play full of “historical rigor” would be? Wouldn’t even find a backer. Facts shmacks. Entertainment is king.

    • Alex de Bellencombre

      Shakespeare’s plays are very entertaining by they require a far higher IQ to appreciate than the average broadway ticket buyer.

      • Reg Compton

        Today yes, because of the arcane language. But in their day they were no different to a broadway show, mere entertainment for the masses.

        • Alex de Bellencombre

          I’ll have to differ with you on that. As literature the plays are regarded as world class literary masterpieces. I doubt many broadway plays will hold a similar status over 400 years from now.

          • CrazyCoolCook

            People who do paint by numbers are always convinced that they’re just as talented as Rembrandt and will go to extreme measures to try to convince everyone else of the same thing and violently oppose and denigrate those who disagree.

  • ollygollymolly

    I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for a few months (can’t get enough of it) and honestly don’t see Burr as just “the villain” in it. It references his trek to Canada and quite a few of his other accomplishments (military and political).
    Honestly, the more I listen to it, the more annoying the character of Hamilton becomes. I agree with Burr that Hamilton is an “obnoxious, arrogant, loudmouth bother”.
    I have yet to see the show, but I don’t think we’re listening to the musical in the same way.

  • HW developer

    The recent trend of underwriting the fawning over and lionizing Hamilton is pretty obvious propaganda, and it’s pretty obvious why. He was a loyal servant of the london bank, and privately run central banks in general.

  • mriggle

    One of the negative effects of Hamilton, as Isenberg demonstrates, is that Hamilton will now be used by many on the left as an accurate account of history.

    For example, the line from “Yorktown” which emphatically states, “Immigrants, we get the job done,” has been cited by progressives as a proof that Hamilton was pro-immigration. However, when one takes a deeper look at Hamilton’s views of immigration, he was very nationalistic and believed that immigration would only serve as a detriment to the growth of the nascent United States. Yet, progressives continue to uphold Alexander Hamilton as one of their champions.

    Truth is often ugly, especially when it conflicts with our dearest, deepest-held beliefs. Progressives would be well-advised to crack open a history book once in a while.