Reshaping Historical Narrative in ‘Hamilton’

Hamilton has proven to be a pivotal element in the American historical narrative. Both the musical’s content and artistic license speaks to the power of collective memory and our perceptions of the past. The alterations to historical narrative made in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway Musical Hamilton bridges the era of the American Revolution to current issues in American society.

Hamilton attempts to interweave the narrative of underrepresented individuals with that of America’s Founding Fathers. Historians grapple to determine the best perspective from which to present history. Should future generations be presented with stories of the trailblazing leaders who produced significant change, or should attention be focused on the common people? Should we focus on those who perhaps did not have a voice or were not recognized in the ‘official history’? Miranda’s creative choices are met with both critical acclaim for their boldness and backlash because of the historical inaccuracies rendered by artistic license in response to such questions. He utilizes a highly diverse cast to illustrate Hamilton’s story. In an interview, Miranda states “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional . . . It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” His adaptation of history invites every American, regardless of race, to see himself or herself reflected in the story of the Founding Fathers.

While Miranda’s artistic choices have led to more conversation — both around current day issues and American history — some historians have expressed opposition. Joanne Freeman, professor of history at Yale University, commented on the historical inaccuracies in the musical: “Aside from the condensation of time, certain dates are changed to allow the music to flow more easily; well-known characters such as Burr, Jefferson, and Madison take on the actions of less important characters of history; and Adams decision to fire Hamilton from Treasury Secretary was simply invented.” Additionally, she criticized the musical for depicting Hamilton in a linear, simplistic manner stating, “the real Hamilton was a mass of contradictions: an immigrant who sometimes distrusted immigrants . . . a man who distrusted the rumblings of the masses yet preached his politics to them more frequently and passionately than many of his more democracy friendly-fellows.” Historian Shane White criticized Miranda for “infus[ing] new life into an older view of American history [rather than] attempting to get away from the Great Men Story [by including] ordinary people, African-Americans, Native Americans and women [into a] historical narrative in which Hamilton has a cameo rather than a leading role.” While chastised by some for its inaccuracies, it is the existence of these inaccuracies, and the widespread debate about them that makes Hamilton a powerful work of art that has helped to focus attention and center conversation on race relations in America. By inserting both the values and challenges present in the 21st century into his musical, Miranda illustrates how historical narrative is shaped by the values of the generation responsible for passing the knowledge forward.

In addition to the musical’s creative choices, the content of the story outlines the underlying theme that historical narrative is fluid. Although the story focuses on telling Hamilton’s story, it is clear that many of the characters are intimately aware of how historical narrative is manipulated. In History Has Its Eyes On You (Song 19, Act I), Washington confides in Hamilton about the time he led his men into a massacre. He is aware that as a Revolutionary hero and first President of the United States his actions will be scrutinized and studied for centuries to come, and he knows his failures are not exempt from this process. Washington warns Hamilton that “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” This line is not only repeated in later songs but echoes the internal struggles many of the characters bear. After Hamilton’s political opponents learn of his affair, he is confronted by the shame Washington had prophesied.

Morally trapped between political blackmail and a deplorable truth, Hamilton attempts to control the narrative by writing about the scandal himself. Despite the fact that his honesty does not do much to comfort his wife, it pushes Eliza to consider her own narrative. How must a wife in this circumstance react? With vengeance or support? Eliza ultimately decides to “erase [herself] from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when [Hamilton] broke her heart.” However, after Hamilton’s death, she chooses to preserve his letters and allow his genius to be discovered for future tellings. She concludes in Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story (Song 23, Act II) to “stop wasting time on tears . . . and put [herself] back in the narrative.” Eliza goes on to “interview every soldier who fought by [Hamilton’s] side” and “make sense of [Hamilton’s] thousands of pages of writings” taking on the persona of a historian herself. In many ways, Eliza’s character acts as the original lense through which Hamilton’s story is told. It also speaks to the fact that Eliza, who as a woman in the 18th century without much external power, uses her own voice to influence the narrative of future generations. Regardless of who tells the story, history is in the hands of everyone, including those who may not have the strongest voice.

Miranda has succeeded in layering the theme of historical narrative into the character conflicts within the musical. At the same time, he created a production controversial enough to garner a significant change in the present-day narrative of the founding of America. Aside from giving minority voices an opportunity to speak both on the stage and in the media, he reminds us through both the portrayal of the characters’ concern for how their story will be told and through our reaction to his unexpected portrayals, that historical narrative is controlled by the individual presenting the story.

Women’s roles in “Hamilton”

Throughout the play, Hamilton, women hold a very strong role in the musical. The most powerful roles from the women in Hamilton are played by the Schuyler sisters who are introduced in Act I of the play during the song, “The Schuyler Sisters.” During this song, Alexander Hamilton meets the sisters; Angelica, Elizabeth, and Peggy. Angelica is the oldest sister who when first see Hamilton falls in love with him but knows she will be forced to marry someone rich. Next, is Elizabeth, she is introduced to Hamilton during a ball where the song “Helpless” is then sung by Eliza and Hamilton. Then, in the second act during the song, “Say No To This,” a new woman is introduced into the play. Maria Reynolds who has been mistreated by her husband and is encouraged to have an affair with Hamilton. These songs represent the role of the women in Hamilton and have strong refrains, motifs, and rhythm.

First, in “The Schuyler Sisters,” when Burr is introducing the Schuyler sisters there is a specific meter that goes along with the words he is saying. For example, at the opening of the song, there is an intense bass sound, which happens at the beginning of every line Burr says except for the beginning of the third line. Instead of the bass sound is at the start of the line it’s at the end of the line after Burr says, “The man is loaded”. This change of meter is to signify and intensify that line to make it known the Schuyler sister’s family has money. Next, after being introduced to Angelica one of her main lines in “The Schuyler sisters” helps define her role as an intelligent free-thinking woman of the new world. “You want a revolution? I want a revelation. So listen to my declaration. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m going to compel him to put women in the sequel.” This is a very strong and powerful message that Angelica was speaking to Burr to prove to him women are not going to stand to be pushed around by men any longer. The rhythm of the song is also a very fast pace which shows the intensity and power the women’s roles will play.

Next, in the song, “Helpless” Eliza and Hamilton get formally introduced by Angelica and eventually get married. The feelings and emotions of This song is very opposite than the previous song Eliza was in, “The Skylar Sisters”. In that song, the girls are represented as powerful and in charge, whereas in this song, Eliza has been taken over by Hamilton and is “helpless”. Listeners can hear the influence Hamilton has on Eliza, since in the first song she sang with much power, whereas in this song she is singing much softer along with the rhythm of the song. The refrain in this song includes the repeating line by Eliza “I do” since these are the beginning lyrics it’s already foreshadowed the marriage of Elizabeth and Hamilton which happens at the end of the song.

Lastly, another woman is introduced into the play in the second act, Maria Reynolds. Maria Reynolds came into Hamilton’s life saying her husband had abused her and abandoned her and she was lost on what to do. Hamilton had an affair with Maria for a month before Maria’s husband writes Hamilton a letter making him pay for Maria’s services or he’d tell Eliza about the affair. This is another example of how poorly women were treated at that time. Women were being abused and abounded just to have their husband come back into their lives to make a profit off them. In the song “Say No To This”, Maria refers to being “helpless” since her husband has abandoned her. This also can relate back to how Eliza felt “helpless” with Hamilton, however, Eliza is helplessly in love whereas Maria is just helpless from abonnement. Hamilton having an affair with Maria was one of the first known political scandals in America. “Over the course of that year, while the affair took place, James Reynolds was well aware of his wife’s unfaithfulness. He continually supported their relationship to regularly gain blackmail money from Hamilton” (Alexander Hamilton). James Reynolds was using Maria and Hamilton for profit.

In conclusion, in the musical production play, Hamilton the female characters play a large role in the plot. In the song “The Schuyler Sisters” Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy all showed what it meant to be empowered women of the new world with their lyrics. Next, the romance of Eliza and Alexander Hamilton happens during “Helpless” this shows how other people can influence one’s feelings. Finally, in the song “Say No To This” Maria Reynolds is introduced into an affair with Hamilton. Maria represents the bad things, like abuse and neglect, that very often did happen to women during that time period.