Hamilton, Race, and American

Daniel Magalotti, 1L

On October 6th, Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and a noted scholar of Thomas Jefferson, spoke to students about her thoughts on the hit musical Hamilton and its larger context in American society.

Professor Gordon-Reed looked at the controversies surrounding the musical and its dichotomy. One on hand, it unites the likes of Barack Obama and Dick Cheney in their admiration, but on the other hand some historians consider the musical to be historically inaccurate and glosses over the more negative aspects of the Founding Fathers and the society in which they lived.

For example, while Hamilton was a member of the New York Manumission Society, he was not a committed abolitionist as the musical suggests. Although he did arrive in North America later than the predecessors of other founding fathers, the narrative of him as an immigrant in the style of Ellis Island is not true.

Professor Gordon-Reed said it may be the fact that African-American and Hispanic actors play Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, and others that make some aspects of their characters more palatable to the audience, in comparison to white actors taking those roles. She noted in particular that the actual Hamilton of early America is less attractive to modern readers than the musical’s character.

Another factor that draws people from all walks of life to Hamilton is that the conflict between Hamilton in Jefferson in the musical, the conflict between industrialism and agrarianism, is a battle that has raged since the 1790s. Even today, we as a nation still grapple the questions that Hamilton and Jefferson fought over in Washington’s administration. While show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said that Hamilton “is a story about America then, told by America now,” perhaps, in the estimation of Professor Gordon-Reed, it is also a story about American now.

Professor Gordon-Reed accepts the musical as a piece of art and hopes it will inspire others to study history. While there is some fear that some will simply accept the characters presented on stage as true history, she expects that others, especially younger audience members, will be inspired by the musical to critically look at our national narrative and chart a new path for historical scholarship.

The event was also covered by the Harvard Gazette: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/10/correcting-hamilton/

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