By Nancy Spannaus
September 28, 2018—Five of the historians who contributed to the recent book Historians on Hamilton took the stage at the National Archives last night, to address the question of “How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past.” While almost all of them had praise or appreciation for the musical, the same could not be said about what they thought about its subject, Alexander Hamilton. Fortunately, I was on the scene to disrupt the apparent consensus, and defend Hamilton’s crucial role.
To be fair, only one of the panelists, Professor Michael O’Malley of George Mason University, explicitly attacked Hamilton. He twice exclaimed about how outrageous it was for Miranda to make Hamilton out as a hero of the common man. But no one on the panel objected. Co-editor Renee Romano directed her criticism to Miranda’s portrayal of Hamilton as “more anti-slavery than he was.” Also no rebuttal. Early American historian Joseph Adelman mounted a mild defense of Miranda for not dealing with slavery more broadly, but didn’t explicitly contest Romano. And theater critic Brian Herrera confined himself to matters of Miranda’s artistry in this genre.
Co-editor Claire Potter’s contributions were directed largely to the reception the show has received, providing confirmation that the Hamilton musical’s popularity has led to the huge surge of interest in actually reading Hamilton’s writings; when she went to get a copy of the Federalist papers on Amazon, the book was sold out! She was optimistic about the fact that the play has stirred Americans to think about the earliest principles, contradictions, and flaws in our country, including Hamilton’s flaws. The American people love history, she said, and the response to the musical shows it.
Nowhere was there a real appreciation of who Hamilton actually was, until I got to the microphone to speak. While I’ll reproduce some of that here, you can listen to the full several-minute intervention on the Archives’ youtube channel, at the 1:06 point in the recording:
I am a member of the AHA Society and the author of a book on the political economy of the American Revolution, which features Hamilton’s writings. And I believe in the “great man” theory of history. Hamilton creates the currency as part of pulling together the nation; in fact, the first time his picture appeared on the currency was in 1861, during the Lincoln administration. There are in fact many parallels in the thinking of Hamilton and Lincoln, and lawfully so—there is a genealogy to that.
I totally disagree that Hamilton is not a hero for the common man. There would be no United States if Hamilton had not fought to create the Constitution, and then set up his financial system. The Constitution was critical to defending the gains of the Revolution. He built this country, based on a vision of an industrial economy, which would improve the living standards of all the people. To get more, I invite you to read my blog.