A sugar mill belonging to Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy, from: Charles de Rochefort. Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l’Amérique. A Roterdam: chez Arnould Leers, 1665 [FCO Historical Collection, via King’s College London].
Last year, while my daughter was rapping all the lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,
from memory, in the car, at home, and on the street, my wife suggested that I teach a course about Alexander Hamilton and his world. I liked the idea, mainly because I thought it would beef up enrollment, which has been low in the Humanities and qualitative social sciences at my institution.
I was successful in raising enrollments—the course filled. But I was even more delighted with the way in which the course allowed the students and me to interrogate a lot of the received interpretations the Age of Revolution that constitute most Americans’ historical knowledge. And it provided the best opportunity I’ve experienced to ask students what cultural and political work those interpretations perform.
Let me give you a sense of the structure of course. On the first day of class, I introduced students to the function that origin stories serve in forging a common identity—a sense of “us”—and in shaping people’s views of the world. Then we read the story of the creation and of the Fall of Man in Genesis, and had an extended discussion of what messages the stories said about who “we”—in this case, human beings—are, our relationship to God and nature, the differences between men and women. Then, during the first full week of class, homework was to listen to the musical while reading the lyrics.[i] In class, we analyzed the show as a historical interpretation, as a contemporary cultural and political document, and as a story of national origins.
Most of the remainder of the course was reading of primary sources and historical works about the Revolution and the early republic during Hamilton’s lifetime. Our core reading was Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions, which was perfect—a sophisticated and very approachable narrative informed by the latest scholarship. About a third of the readings were primary sources, and another third consisted of chapters and articles by historians—an excerpt from Richard Bushman’s King and Subject in Provincial Massachusetts, Rosemary Zagarri’s “The Rights of Men and Women,” Terry Boughton on rural insurgency during the depression of the 1780s, etc. Students had to write five short papers over the course of the semester. Although they were free to choose their own topics, there was a single standing assignment: Discuss this week’s readings challenge and/or support some aspect of Miranda’s interpretation of the Revolution. Finally, everyone did a short final project, based on research in primary sources.[ii]
Philip Dawes, “A Society of Patriotic Ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina.” Mezzotint. London, March 25, 1775, 13 3/4 x 10 inches—Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
To my surprise, Hamilton proved a wonderful foil for studying the Revolutionary era—because the students love it; because it’s so good as a musical; and not least because it’s so bad as an interpretation of the Revolution. Those of you who have heard or seen the musical know just how many problems are contained in it: the belief in American exceptionalism; the assumption of a natural, already-existing American nation that pre-dated the Revolution; the faith in American national innocence (with the prominent exception of slavery and the subordination of women); the association of American-ness with upward social mobility; the notion that the Revolutionary movement was singular and united; the assumption that the story of the Revolution was the story of the “founding fathers”; the belief that the Federalists embraced what we twenty-first-century audiences would recognize as “democracy” (again, except for the disenfranchisement of women and people of color).
I was careful to be respectful of the musical. This is partly because it’s a great musical, partly because a love of it is what brought my students into the course in the first place. More importantly, this approach came from what works best for me as a teacher: taking the students exactly where they are and pushing them to move forward from there. The class became a semester-long process in which I pushed students to interrogate their received knowledge for themselves. The readings were so sophisticated and simultaneously so accessible that they made it really easy for students to do that.
It also helped that, aside from the multi-racial cast and the hip-hop style, Miranda’s interpretation of the Revolution almost perfectly replicates the commonplace assumptions about the Revolution and about American nationhood with which American students have been brought up. So by simply discussing the readings and then discussing how their understanding of those readings compared to Miranda’s interpretation, students were able to interrogate the “common sense” about national origins and national identity that we are all taught.
Woodcut of an armed female combatant from “A New Touch on the Times” circa 1779
This common sense, I would suggest, is inseparable from our current political situation: It includes some of the basic assumptions of neoliberalism, of a stable and unitary nation, of (qualified) national innocence, a view of politics as the acts of a national leadership cadre, a nationalist pride in a “democracy” that nobody can define.
To offer one example: A couplet that occurs early in the musical—“I’m just like my country/young, scrappy, and hungry”—created an opportunity to interrogate students’ ideas about the nation and about the character and identity of the American nation. After the students read Taylor’s wonderful description of the British Atlantic world in the mid-eighteenth century, I lectured a little on the Atlantic connections and peregrinations of Hamilton’s family. Then I recited the couplet to them and asked them these questions: Would the real, historical Hamilton have said this? What country, if any, would he have identified with? Can we talk about the United States as a real country in 1776, and to what extent was it a project?
The same couplet provided an opportunity to discuss what made America “America” in Miranda’s vision, which led to a broader discussion of Miranda’s depiction of American exceptionalism and its relationship to our own current economic and political situation.
On many of these points, it seemed important to ask, what cultural or political work does this depiction of the Revolution/of American nationhood perform? Not everyone got the question, but enough did that the subsequent discussion allowed the students to start thinking about the political stakes in the ways we narrate national history.
The course also wound up being the best introduction to the historian’s craft that I have every offered. The students’ love of the musical predisposed them to seeing the past as important, and to see how we interpret that past as an important thing to consider. More than in any other course I’ve taught, most students got the basic process of historical inquiry, including historiography—and most seemed to appreciate why it was important.
[i] The lyrics—along with plenty of commentary and photographs from the show—are published in Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy Carter, Hamilton: The Revolution (New York, 2016). The soundtrack is available on Youtube, as well as on other streaming music sources and CD.
[ii] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750‒1804 (New York, 2017); Rosemary Zagarri, “The Rights of Man and Woman in Post-Revolutionary America,” William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 2 (1998), 203‒230; Terry Bouton, “A Road Closed: Rural Insurgency in Post-Independence Pennsylvania,” Journal of American History 87, no. 3 (2000), 855‒87.