In July 2015, when the highly acclaimed musical ‘Hamilton’ hit the Broadway theatre, it had already sold out over 200,000 tickets in advance bringing in close to $30 million to the box office. Within months, not only did the theatrical adaptation of the life of Alexander Hamilton become one of the biggest successes in Broadway’s history, but it also managed to bag 11 Tony awards, a Pulitzer prize, and a Grammy. While on one hand, the theatre circle was gushing over the flawless depiction of America’s founding fathers, on the other hand, the White House was simultaneously smitten, as the then first lady, Michelle Obama, described Hamilton as the “best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”
In July 2020, the show reappeared after having gone off the stage earlier this year on account of the spread of Coronavirus. This time though, in its cinematic form, on the OTT platform, Disney+. Apart from the platform, much else seems to have changed as well, since unlike the grand and hearty reception it got back in 2015, the weekend of its release over the internet saw angry social media users passionately demanding #CancelHamilton.
Many would say that Hamilton was a perfect adaptation for the Obama presidency years. The musical created by actor, composer and singer Lin-Manuel Miranda was seen as an emblem of diversity and hope, as it charted the life of the immigrant Hamilton, who soon rose to become the first Secretary of Treasury, and the right-hand man of the first US president, George Washington. Equally admired was its modern form of storytelling that drew heavily from hip hop, and made a political statement in its casting of Black, Latino, and Asian actors to depict white historical figures.
In the context of the ongoing protests against the assault and murder of George Floyd though, ‘Hamilton’ is being seen in a new light. As statues of slave traders and those of celebrated colonial figures have come to be toppled in the past few weeks, the historical legacy of Hamiton too has come to be dissected now. We do know that Hamilton had a role to play in the emancipation of slaves in America. But the degree of his involvement and complacency in the slave trade is being keenly studied in the context of the newer developments in America.
Alexander Hamilton and slavery
The opening lines of the Broadway musical, describe Hamilton in the following words: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
In the pages of American history, Hamilton would stand out for the unique trajectory of his life. He was born out of wedlock in the island of Nevis in the West Indies in the year 1757, at a time when the ratio between Black slaves and white residents was 12 is to one. He was orphaned at the age of 11, and though his mother did leave him a slave in her will, he did not acquire him on account of his status of being an illegitimate offspring.
As a teenager, Hamilton worked as a clerk for the Beekman and Cruger Company that dealt in sugar and African slaves. Even though he was involved quite a bit in the paperwork, he rarely worked directly in the process of slave transfer. “He was alarmed at the condition of these human beings, but he remained a part of the business, participating, at least indirectly, in buying and selling human beings,” wrote American historian James Oliver Horton, in his article, ‘Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and race in revolutionary generation.’ Horton explained that “Hamilton was caught in a system of slavery that he increasingly disliked, but at this early age he had neither the power nor the will to move against it.”
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In 1772, Hamilton managed to move out of the Caribbean islands through the assistance of his aunt and land in New Jersey. Soon after, he enrolled himself in King’s College (now Columbia university). From his early years in New York, Hamilton became acutely aware of American discontent against British rule. As he grew more involved in the freedom movement, his speeches were replete with comparisons being drawn with slavery. “All men have one common original: they participate in one common nature, and consequently have one common right,” he wrote in 1774. Consequently, he argued that there was no reason why “one man should exercise any power or pre-eminence over his fellow-creatures. . . unless they have voluntarily vested him with it.”
He also actively supported the cause of slaves being freed in order for them to join the American cause against the British. “By the end of the Revolution, thousands of slaves gained freedom; some left for Europe or Canada with the withdrawing British troops, some were freed as a result of service with Continental forces,” wrote Horton.
In January 1785, Hamilton along with about 30 New Yorkers formed the New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. The organisation sought to end slavery in New York state, even though a majority of its members were themselves slaveholders. However, their consistent efforts led to the passage of the first emancipation law in 1799, and gradually in the course of the next three decades, slavery ended in New York. Even though Hamilton died in 1804 and did not live to see the complete emancipation of slaves in New York, he is credited to a large degree for having made it possible.
Hamilton lent his support to the slave movements outside of America as well. For instance, when in 1792 a slave revolt led to Haiti’s independence from France, Hamilton supported it wholeheartedly, and in fact pressed for close economic ties with the newly formed state.
In the political landscape of 18th century America, Hamilton had several other significant contributions to make. He led the Annapolis convention of 1786, which eventually led to the drafting of the United States’ Constitution. He also wrote 51 of the 85 installments of the Federalist Papers which are still used as one of the most important references for interpreting the Constitution. As a trusted member of President Washington’s first cabinet, Hamilton led the department of Treasury.
Critiquing ‘Hamilton’, the musical
Even though at the time of its release in 2015, Hamilton did receive admiration from critics and audiences alike, historians and political scientists expressed their disapproval regarding the accuracy of the protagonist’s depiction. Writing in a New York Times editorial in June 2016, authors Jason Frank and Isaac Kramnick noted, “the musical avoids an equally pronounced feature of Hamilton’s beliefs: his deeply ingrained elitism, his disdain for the lower classes and his fear of democratic politics.” They go on to explain that Hamilton in fact had no faith in the capacities of the common man and insisted on deference to the elites.
“Hamilton’s opposition to slavery — reflected, for example, in his being a founder of New York’s Manumission Society — was not central to his political vision. The musical’s suggestion that had he not been killed in the duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton would have gone on to play an important role in the abolitionist struggle is fantasy,” wrote Frant and Kramnick.
The New York Times culture reporter, Jennifer Schuessler, who in August 2016, reported on the historians’ backlash that the musical was receiving, noted in her article how most historians were critical of the ‘coloured’ casting of the show to represent white historical characters, which they believed did injustice to the diverse group of people who contributed in the American revolution. “Some scholars have also noted that it’s an odd moment for the public to embrace an unabashed elitist who liked big banks, mistrusted the masses and at one point called for a monarchical presidency and a Senate that served for life,” wrote Schuessler.
In 2020 though, the critique of the musical has taken a whole new colour, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Most social media users criticising the show have pointed out at Hamilton’s background of a slave trader and the fact that he married into a slave-trading family. There are others though, who have taken to social media to urge viewers to watch ‘Hamilton’ as an artistic expression rather than a history textbook.
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