What a rap musical can teach us about America

Young, scrappy and hungry: London’s Hamilton officially opens on December 21st. © Hamilton

Is Hamilton good history? The musical is now open in London, where it is receiving rave reviews. It uses hip hop to tell the founding story of America. Here are five things we can learn…

1/ America’s founding fathers were human too. The show’s main characters — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and of course the first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton — have become legends of history. But Hamilton reminds audiences that they were people who made mistakes, fell in love, and held grudges just like anyone else.

2/ Democracy was not inevitable. In Act One, Hamilton shows us the years before and during the revolution, as America struggled for independence — a war it nearly lost. In Act Two it shows what followed, as the new country tried to forge a democracy. “The constitution’s a mess,” points out Hamilton’s rival, Aaron Burr, early on in this struggle. “So it needs amendments,” replies Hamilton. “It’s full of contradictions,” says Burr. “So is independence!” cries Hamilton.

3/ The “immigrant story” is one of America’s most powerful. In the show’s opening lines, Hamilton is described as an orphan “dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean”. His hard work and intellect help him to make his way to New York City. Hamilton shows its audience that immigrants have always played a major role in American life, and reinforces the American Dream: if you work hard enough, you might reach the top.

4/ Disagreements can last for 200 years or more. Hamilton and Jefferson take part in two cabinet debates, in the form of rap battles. They argue about the national debt, big government, states’ rights, taxes, and whether to get involved in foreign wars.

“Any fight we’re having right now, politically, we already had it 200-some odd years ago,” explained the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

5/ History depends on who is talking. The musical shows Hamilton meeting his wife twice: first from her perspective, and then from her sister’s. Their accounts are very different. For Miranda, this demonstrates the way that history can shift and change, depending on your source.

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

Hamilton is an amazing musical, say its fans. It has won multiple awards, and now has shows in several cities (including London). But its greatest achievement is the way that it makes history feel alive and accessible, just as Shakespeare once did with history plays like Richard III. Only a genius could make things like the Federalist papers so exciting.

The show is a terrible way to learn history, argue others. Just like Shakespeare, it offers a skewed version of events which have been adapted for dramatic effect. The show is popular with liberals, yet Hamilton was not a progressive hero; he often argued against democracy in favour of big finance, even authoritarianism. Be sure to take it with a pinch of salt.

You Decide

  1. Have you listened to Hamilton before now, and if so did you like it? If not — do you want to? Explain your reasons.
  2. Is musical theatre a good way to learn about history?

Activities

  1. Listen to the cast of Hamilton perform the song One Last Time at the White House (the first link under Become An Expert). It is a conversation between Hamilton and President Washington, and includes a segment from Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796. Afterwards, write down everything you learned from that song.
  2. Choose and research a moment or character in history that interests you. Then write your own piece of art about it. This could be a song, a poem, a short story or a scene from a play.

Some People Say...

“Give all the power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all the power to the few, they will oppress the many.”

Alexander Hamilton

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Hamilton’s music and lyrics were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also starred in the title role in the original Broadway production. He based the musical on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, and consulted Chernow on the historical accuracies throughout the writing process. However, he admits that he changed parts of the story to simplify it or make it more dramatic.
What do we not know?
Whether Hamilton’s influence on America was ultimately good or bad. Some praise him for creating a strong economy; others blame him for making Wall Street too powerful, and taking rights away from ordinary farmers. Although he did not own slaves like Washington and Jefferson, he did trade in them. He was also a staunch defender of the right of citizens to own guns.

Word Watch

George Washington
The commander-in-chief of the revolutionary army during the US war of independence, who went on to become America’s first president from 1789 to 1797.
Thomas Jefferson
The principal author of America’s Declaration of Independence, which was ratified by congress in 1776. After the war, he became America’s first secretary of state, and then its third president.
Alexander Hamilton
One of Washington’s senior aides during the war, later the first treasury secretary. He helped to create the US financial system by establishing a national bank, taking on state debts at a federal level, and encouraging business. He was killed by Aaron Burr in a duel in 1804.
War
The US war of independence, or revolutionary war, 1775-1783. Thousands of soldiers died on both sides, and both sides made several big mistakes. Washington himself described the eventual victory as “almost a miracle”.
Federalist papers
A series of essays defending the US constitution.
Against democracy
For example, Hamilton once argued that American presidents should be in office for the rest of their lives.