History Has Its Eyes On You: How Historically Accurate Is Hamilton?
This spring, I was meant to go and see Hamilton in Toronto. Unfortunately, theatres shut down due to the global pandemic before I had the chance to see it. Thanks to Disney+, we now have the opportunity to experience this smash-hit musical from home!
Hamilton is a global sensation, telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America through hip-hop music! Lin-Manuel Miranda’s critically acclaimed award-winning musical has been praised for marrying history with a modern feel.
Which got me thinking… How much of Hamilton is historically accurate?
A quick disclaimer: I am not a historian or an expert, I was just curious and wanted to share what I found with you!
Alexander Hamilton was born in the British West Indies, in a small town called Nevis. As a teenager, he published a letter describing a hurricane which had devastated the island. Realizing he showed great promise, the community rallied together to raise money to send him to study in New York City.
Hamilton went on to fight in the Revolutionary War, where he was offered a position alongside George Washington and helped lead the attack in The Battle of Yorktown.
Post-war, he was working in New York City as a lawyer before he was appointed Secretary of the U.S. Treasury by the newly elected President, George Washington.
When The United States Constitution was introduced to the public, Hamilton was one of it’s biggest defenders. The Federalist Papers are a series of essays in support of the new constitution which were written by Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. In the series of 85 essays, Hamilton wrote 51.
Hamilton is known for having conflict with Thomas Jefferson, mainly regarding the decision to assist France during their own revolution. This opposition led to the formation of the first two political parties in America, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
Beyond being the first Secretary of the U.S Treasury, a founding father, and publishing The Federalist Papers, Hamilton is also remembered for being a part of America’s very first sex scandal. He made his affair with Maria Reynolds public after being accused of accepting money illegitimately from Reynolds' husband. The Reynolds Pamphlet shocked everyone, and ultimately destroyed any chance Hamilton would have had at running for president himself.
Hamilton died at the hands of Aaron Burr in a duel which was instigated after Hamilton bad-mouthed Burr during the former’s run for Governor.
Most of the plot points of the musical line up directly with Hamilton’s real life. Lin-Manuel Miranda does a lovely job of combining history with musical theatre, and the places where he does divert slightly from history better serve the narrative. When you condense an entire life into a two and a half hour musical, things are going to get missed or changed so the important facts will flow with the story.
Let’s start with a few specific examples of historical inaccuracy within the show.
First off, we have the relationship between Hamilton and Angelica Schyler, the older sister of his wife, Elizabeth. In the show, Angelica is presented as being in love with Hamilton, but being unable to marry him as she is the oldest daughter and needed to marry a man of stature. In real life, Angelica was already married to John Baker Church when she first met Alexander. Phillip Schyler also was the father of fifteen children, with two sons, so the pressure within the narrative was never placed directly on Angelica.
Second, the ‘frenemy’ aspect between Hamilton and Aaron Burr is exaggerated, specifically the earlier interactions, as they did not meet until much later in their lives. However, the two are noted to have lived parallel lives in the years they studied, fought, practiced law, and entered politics. In the show, Hamilton approaches Burr to help write The Federalist Papers, but there is no historical record of him ever doing so. Additionally, it was not the election of 1800 which lead to the duel between the two revolutionaries. This occurred after Jefferson had won the election and Burr decided to run for governor of New York.
Third, John Adams did not fire Hamilton as depicted in the musical. While Adams and Hamilton did not get along in real life, Hamilton had resigned two years before John Adams was in office.
The fourth and last difference I wanted to share is more of a fun fact than a true difference. One of the songs in the show is called Ten Duel Commandments. However, at this time in history, there actually was a written code of the rules for duels and there were twenty-five rules in total.
There are many more interesting tidbits like this regarding the differences between the show and history, but they can be forgiven as they serve to condense the narrative.
For example, Hamilton did not meet Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens all at the same time; presenting them in the same number establishes their presence and allows the story to move forward without constantly introducing new players.
I was surprised to find a lot of controversy about Hamilton within the historical community.
There are enough opposing viewpoints regarding the accuracy and overall impression of this musical that a few historians put together a book of essays on the subject. The essays cover a range of topics from historical accuracy, enthusiastic public response, and its influence on how we view American history. The book is called Hamilton: How A Blockbuster Musical Is Restaging America’s Past for those of you who may be interested.
The most popular concern is regarding the presentation of Hamilton himself and that the musical falls into a phenomena known as “Founders Chic”, which is where Founding Fathers are represented heroically in character-driven biographies in which they are sensationalized. Many historians say that the Founding Fathers did not support the America of today and in idolizing these historical figures based on how they are presented within this vein of storytelling can actually be misinformative.
This genre, as well as the musical, have been referred to as ‘fanfiction’ since they present a rose-tinted view of these historical figures.
The way I see it, Hamilton is the main character in the musical. A story doesn’t work if you cannot connect and support the main character. So we must look at Hamilton through rose-coloured glasses during the show. Hamilton does represent Alexander Hamilton well, even though it focuses mainly on his wit, passion, ambition, and other positive traits. His “change the world” mentality is what makes the audience fully commit to taking this nearly three hour journey through his life.
Some of Hamilton’s less desirable traits are left out of the musical entirely. Historians view Alexander Hamilton as an elitist, “a man for the 1%”. He supported large financial institutions and didn’t trust those he considered ‘below’ him. There was also a six hour speech he made, in which he suggested a monarchist approach to the U.S government and a Senate which served for life.
One of the biggest issues historians have is that Hamilton is being portrayed as against slavery. While Hamilton had progressive views towards slavery for the time, it was not his main political priority and it is very likely that he and his family owned slaves.
In my opinion, I can forgive a few historical inaccuracies in a show that has had such a positive effect on the theatre community and audiences worldwide. Accuracy aside, this show is making history within the theatre community. This show combines a historical story with rap and hip hop music, has created many opportunities for actors of colour, and presents musical theatre in a revolutionary way.
Hamilton has a clear point of view and is a beautifully crafted piece of theatre that audiences have enjoyed worldwide, and will continue to after its July 3rd release on Disney+.
However, if you want historical specifics , I would recommend cracking open a history book and listening to the album instead.
If you’re interested in Alexander Hamilton, or what historians think of this Tony-Award Winning musical, I have included some links below: