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15.01.2021

REVIEW – Hamilton: American Exceptionalism, The Musical

By Hanne Nijtmans

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While Lin Manuel Miranda’s newest project, musical-movie In The Heights already made its way into the movie theatres, Broadway’s biggest hit musical Hamilton is still available as one of the first musicals on streaming platform Disney+. With this move, the show had not only gained renewed attention, but also its biggest audience to date. The Broadway show turned film is lauded by critics, as New York Times’ A.O. Scott finds the musical “vital and more challenging than ever,” and Arifa Akbar writes for The Guardian that Hamilton is “smart, witty, funky and leaves us reflecting on America’s past and future.” Undeniably, Hamilton as a musical is exceptionally well performed: the music is engaging, the stage looks incredible and somehow the show kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire 2 hours and 45 minutes, even though I always say that I am not a ‘musical-person’ (this is primarily because I always find music at its best when it conveys a strong and authentic sentiment or emotion, something I would argue a musical can never do as the characters are always played by actors). The premise—a rap-musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton—is indeed odd, but fascinating. The singing and rapping is pretty well done: Renée Elise Goldsberry (who I know as the rebel leader Quellcrist Falconer who takes on the super-rich in the Netflix-series Altered Carbon) is impressive as Angelica Schuyler, and to me her song ‘Satisfied’ in which she alternates fast rap verses with great singing is the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of the musical world. The congressional debates as rap battles between Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton are, while not necessarily accurate, very entertaining. With Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda vividly brings to life some of early American history and historical figures like (obviously) Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, prompting a few of my friends from American Studies to re-read some of the early American historical texts like the Federalist Papers, Washington’s farewell address and the constitutional debates. 

American Exceptionalism
However, the ideas about Americanness and American Exceptionalism that Hamilton touches upon are far from challenging. In fact, it is the opposite: the entire musical is a celebration of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream.

Americans have long considered themselves exceptional, a ‘shining city on a hill’ (Winthrop) to which other countries must look and take it as an example. Some of America’s core values, that American Exceptionalism has casted as universal, like freedom, liberty, and democracy, have been used as a justification for the U.S. to take on a leading role and establish military, cultural, and economic dominance worldwide. Historically speaking, American Exceptionalism, in the early 19th century, represented a rejection of what came before: the history, hierarchies, and aristocracy of Europe, and particularly England, must be left behind and instead America became a democracy, in which each (white, Protestant, male) American was equal. The equality sprung from the American landscape, described by Americans as a ‘virgin land,’ which allowed each American to own private property. David Noble suggests in his seminal American Studies book Death of a Nation: American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism that a single American Exceptionalism has never existed, and that from the 1960s onward scholars could no longer hold on to this long-cherished idea of one American Exceptionalism predicated on freedom and equality that presupposes and American subject who is white, male, heterosexual and protestant. The Civil Rights Movement, and the emancipation of women and Native Americans have made it increasingly difficult to maintain this one American Exceptionalism—hence Noble’s title ‘Death of a Nation’. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism is still prominent in American politics in culture. Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” articulates a desire to once more embrace American Exceptionalism.

Hamilton, similarly, celebrates American Exceptionalism and focuses on the bravery of those fighting in the American Revolution. The musical starkly contrasts the style of the European figures, like the bishop Samuel Seabury (‘Farmer Refuted’) and King George III, who sing somewhat old fashioned songs with ABBA-like choruses, with the fast and modern American rapping and singing styles of Hamilton and co. While King George (Jonathan Groff) uses excessive violence—his strongest line in ‘You’ll Be Back’ is: “I will kill your friends and family/to remind you of my love”—the American protagonists Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington excel in reason, bravery and rhetoric eloquence. Hamilton’s representation of all events that follow the American Revolution, once more focusing on how exceptionally smart, persistent and wise the men in question were—and the Constitution is presented as a unique historical feat in which Hamilton heroically went out of his way to obtain partisan support and get Jefferson on board.

The Fantasy of the American Dream
Alexander Hamilton in this musical is the embodiment of the American Dream. The first lines of the musical immediately set the tone: 

               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?

The question Hamilton sets out to answer is how did Hamilton, a poor bastard, orphan, with no money nor reputation ends up becoming a national symbol, one of the writers of the Constitution and ends up on the ten dollar bill? Supposedly because the American Dream allows smart and ambitious young men to grow to their true potential: as one of the recurring lines suggests “In New York you can be a new man.” In present-day U.S., the American Dream is no longer possible: with the rapidly increasing income inequality and the rich only becoming richer and the poor poorer, it has become incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to outgrow the class you are born into and become as successful as Hamilton was.

One aspect of American society that allows Hamilton to reach his potential is that in Hamilton’s America, arguments are won with reason and fair discussion. Hamilton’s eloquent writing and desire to compromise makes it possible to pass The Constitution and his financial system. For many liberal politicians in the U.S. this is still the dream: to use reason and compromise to work across party lines to achieve particular pieces of legislation. This political fantasy certainly appeals to former President Barack Obama: he was one of Hamilton’s biggest fans, and during his presidency, the cast performed songs from the musical at the White House twice. President-elect Joe Biden ran on the same premise: he would be able to work with conservative Republicans and Democrats alike. However, this fantasy is predicated on the idea that all who work in government are rational people, willing to listen to others, and eventually only want what is best for the people. In the current day and age, this premise is difficult to uphold: Trump’s appeal to many was that he clearly was not a part of this ruling elite, and that he would not work with Democrats and push his own agenda instead.

Political commentators from the left have criticized this mindset and desire for compromise, as they suggest that Democrats should not want to work with Republicans, problematizing for example policy positions such as abolishing abortion, racist immigration policies, and denying climate change. Moreover, the problem of this fantasy of reason and fair discussion, arguably only empowers the elite ruling class as it implies a particular background and worldview is necessary to become a successful politician. Since the 1970s onward, the political center in the U.S. (including Carter, Reagan and Clinton) has moved towards the dismantling of the welfare state, cutting social programs, keeping wages stagnant, while at the same time implementing tax cuts that disproportionately favored the rich. While the historical events that have led to these programs are complex, and it is too easy to say that liberal Democrats’ holding on to a Hamilton-like idea of reason and compromise led to their current economic consensus (neoliberal political economy), the fantasy of arguing with reason and looking for consensus certainly does nothing to problematize these ideas.

Diversity and Slavery
One final point about Hamilton is that the show was celebrated for its diverse cast and up-to-date representations of immigrants, women, and people of color. Indeed, Hamilton the musical is in many ways quite progressive. For a starters, historical figures like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington are played by Black actors. A particular scene that seems to embody the progressive nature is where Marquis de la Fayette (Daveed Diggs) and Hamilton sing together “Immigrants: We get the job done,” a symbolic moment in the musical. There are also a few feminist moments, most notably when Angelica Schuyler updates the Declaration of Independence, by singing:

               [l]isten to my declaration ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident
               That all men are created equal’ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson (unh!)
               I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel! (Work!)

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However, since Hamilton is a feel good musical, with seemingly as a main goal to make Americans feel proud about their nation and their founders (even though some certainly have flaws—Hamilton cheats on his wife for example), the biggest issue of the Constitutional convention, slavery, is conveniently obscured. Hamilton makes a reference to it by saying to Jefferson:

               A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor
               Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor
               ”We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting
               We know who’s really doing the planting (Hamilton to Jefferson, Cabinet Rap Battle #1)

However, this is one of the few references to slavery, and instead, Hamilton suggests that the main problem of the constitutional convention was state debts. During the show, the Constitution is celebrated as one of Hamilton’s biggest achievements, a great compromise, and something Americans can be proud of. However, this celebratory narrative obfuscates the question: how come that perhaps one of America’s most celebrated documents, is a pro-slavery document? In order to pass the constitution and establish the federal government, Hamilton supported the infamous “three-fifths” clause, which counted each enslaved person as three-fifths of a person to determine each state’s population for the amount of seats in Congress. Furthermore, recent research shows that Hamilton, who in the musical is portrayed as an abolitionist, in fact also held slaves (see Christopher Klein).

All in all, Hamilton never truly challenges the U.S.’ national symbols; its founding fathers, its democracy, its Constitution. For all its progressive symbolism, in the end Hamilton is nothing more than a pure celebration of American Exceptionalism, but, I have to admit, a pleasant one at that.

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