Photo by Adobe Stock/johan10.
In November 2016, cast members of Hamilton earned the censure of President-elect Donald Trump when they directly addressed his running mate, Mike Pence, at a performance. “We welcome you here,” the actor playing Aaron Burr told Pence, but he asked that he listen to those “diverse Americans” who feared that the new administration would not protect them. They hoped that Pence would be inspired to “uphold American values” by a “wonderful, American story, told by a diverse group of men and women, of different colors, creeds, and orientations.” Trump immediately responded with a tweet describing the cast’s action as “harassment” and calling on them to apologize. After an election where Trump had attacked immigration, called Mexicans “rapists,” pushed for a national registry of Muslims, and gave power and access to white nationalists, it’s no surprise that he also attacked a musical that offers a radically different vision of America from the one he has both tacitly and openly promoted. Far more surprising is how few other Republicans have been critical of the show or its politics. Even Mike Pence insisted that the show was “incredible” and a “real joy.” Hamilton has, in fact, actually bridged traditional political divides between Americans.
Former President Barack Obama calls Hamilton “the only thing” on which he and former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney agree. Conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch tweeted that Hamilton was a “Fabulous show!” after seeing it in March 2015, while former First Lady Michelle Obama called it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” Democrat Hillary Clinton, among the lucky few to have seen the show more than once, calls Hamilton a “great, great musical” that makes her cry every time she sees it. The show has also earned the praise of Clinton critic Bill O’Reilly, a conservative talk show host at Fox, who said on his program that he had heard Hamilton was “unbelievably good” and was happy that this historically minded musical was “so big a hit.” The show has earned rave reviews not only from David Brooks, one of the New York Times’s conservative columnists, who called it “a jewel” that “asks you to think afresh about your country and your life,” but also from liberal MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who urged anyone who is “a hip-hop head, a history buff…or just loves things that are awesome” to see it. Hamilton has been praised on the pages of both The Nation and the National Review, two magazines that are at polar ends of the political spectrum.
What exactly is going on? Hamilton has brought Americans together across party lines, and even more remarkably, has done so with a story about America’s history, a subject that in recent years has inspired heated conflict over museum exhibits, textbooks, and school curricula. Since at least the mid-1990s, debates about how American history should be represented and taught have become so contested that battlefield metaphors seem the most appropriate way to describe them. On one side of the so-called “history wars” stand political conservatives who insist that historical narratives should cultivate pride in America’s past and highlight the nation’s exceptionalism and continual progress towards greatness. On the other side stand people on the left who believe that celebratory, patriotic versions of United States history ignore the reality of racism and oppression in America’s past and fail to encourage critical thinking and active citizenship.
The genius — and much of the appeal — of Hamilton lies in its ability to transcend what have long seemed to be these irreconcilable political positions. In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has crafted a hopeful and inclusive origin story for the nation — a civic myth — that not only stands in direct opposition to the claims put forth by Trump and his white nationalist supporters, but also resonates with many people on both the left and the right.
Civic myths play a vital role for a nation. They represent the shared narrative that serves as the basis for a sense of national identity. They both reflect and aim to impart cultural and political values. And they help define who belongs to, and who is excluded from, the nation.
All nations have their own civic myths, but these foundational stories have been particularly important to the United States, whose diverse population includes people from many different ethnic, national, and racial backgrounds. Traditional American civic myths promote patriotism and conceal the violence of continental and global expansion by portraying the United States as an exceptional nation built on ideals of liberty and equality. They teach that all Americans have an equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and happiness and that success depends only on hard work and individual merit. These traditional narratives by necessity downplay elements of America’s history that do not fit neatly within a story of freedom, liberty, and individual opportunity. They minimize and even ignore the significance of slavery, racial violence, the dispossession of Native American land, gendered exclusions, and class conflict in America’s past.
American history becomes a political minefield whenever representations of the past that undermine this celebratory account move beyond the limited sphere of academia. When the work of Progressive era historians who saw class conflict as the driving force in American history filtered into America’s schools, proponents of patriotic history organized in opposition. The Wisconsin legislature responded to Charles Beard’s argument that the founding fathers had crafted the Constitution to protect their personal financial interests by passing a 1923 law that forbade public schools from using any textbooks that defamed the founders “or misrepresent[ed] the ideals and causes for which they struggled and sacrificed.” In the late 1930s and 1940s, members of the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Legion teamed up to get popular textbooks by educator Harold Rugg out of the New York public schools. His books — which focused on class conflict in American politics, analyzed poverty as a structural flaw of the American economy and endorsed the welfare state created by Franklin Roosevelt — did not sufficiently portray America as a golden land of opportunity.
These battles became even more heated in the 1960s and 1970s as protest movements highlighted the inequalities in American society and professional historians began recovering and centering the histories of those ignored in America’s historical origin stories, including formerly enslaved people, Latinos, American Indians, and women. Conservatives accused this new social history of unfairly harping on the nation’s failings and charged that focusing on the experience of marginalized groups would fracture the nation and undermine the foundational myths that tied Americans together. As new historical narratives that explored the distance between America’s vaunted ideals and its reality began to reach schools and textbooks, traditionalists bristled. Reflecting this backlash against civil rights, feminism, and gay rights in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education William Bennett insisted that American history school curricula needed to impart “social and political values” that would encourage patriotism and devotion to country. Republican Senator Robert Dole agreed, insisting that the purpose of historical education should be to teach “American greatness.”
The stakes here are high. Those fighting for the traditional civic myth insist that nations need histories that promote pride, not shame. They see historical narratives that emphasize American exceptionalism, portray the United States as committed to ideals of liberty and equality, and valorize the founders and the Constitution as vital to cultivating a proud civic identity and patriotic respect among America’s heterogeneous population. Without these civic myths offering a coherent national narrative, they charge, Americans will fragment into competing interest groups and the nation will fracture. Critics of such celebratory narratives, on the other hand, fear not only that they fail to represent the complexity of America’s actual past, but also that they impoverish the capacity of Americans to be engaged, critical citizens.
Yet even amidst these very politicized debates over historical education, Hamilton is quickly becoming an uncontroversial staple in classrooms across the country. Teachers at every level, from fifth grade to AP U.S. history and even college, have seized on the musical’s incredible popularity with young people to draw their students into the history of the nation’s founding. Major institutions are on the bandwagon, too. The Rockefeller Foundation is spending $1.46 million to enable 20,000 New York City 11th graders who attend schools with high concentrations of impoverished students to go to the show, and in June 2016 it pledged an additional $6 million to expand the #EduHam Project to help 100,000 public school students in cities across the country see the touring version. Both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that the musical should be used as a teaching tool. A bipartisan Utah state resolution honoring Hamilton urged the state’s teachers, “when possible and age-appropriate, to utilize the Hamilton soundtrack to inspire a love of American history in today’s students.” “This musical has to be in schools,” says Greg Hughes, Utah’s far right speaker of the house, a position his ideological opposite, former President Obama, endorses.
So how exactly has this representation of the nation’s founding — the topic that is perhaps the hottest of the potatoes in the history wars — managed to appeal to Americans across the political divide? The support among conservatives is particularly surprising given that Lin-Manuel Miranda has made no secret of his own progressive political orientation. But the story that Miranda has created in Hamilton—and importantly, the way he tells that story in the musical — serves in many respects to fuse progressive and conservative visions of history. Hamilton offers a story of the nation’s founding that can appeal to those who are invested in a narrative of American exceptionalism that emphasizes the nation’s positive virtues and “great man” versions of history. But in focusing on a founding father who opposed slavery (or at least favored gradual emancipation), by telling his and the nations’ story through contemporary Afro-Latin musical forms, and by casting blacks and Latino actors in the roles of the founders, Hamilton simultaneously broadens the traditional American narrative to welcome and even center people of color who have been marginalized in America’s civic myths. The genius of Hamilton lies in its ability to offer both those who have long owned the narrative and those who have been excluded from it a place in America’s foundational story.
Renee Romano is Professor of History, Comparative American Studies, and Africana Studies at Oberlin College. She specializes in modern American history, with research interests in the racial politics of the post-WWII United States, African American history, Civil Rights, and historical memory. Reprinted from Oberlin Alumni Magazine (Fall 2018), a quarterly magazine published by Oberlin’s Office of Communications and distributed to alumni, parents, and friends of Oberlin College.