a political defense of Hamilton

The political theorists Jason Frank and Isaac Kramnick make the political case against Hamilton, the musical. In the debates among the founders, Alexander Hamilton was the elitist, the one with the most “contemptuous attitude toward the lower classes.” He was “perfectly comfortable with the inegalitarian and antidemocratic implications of his economic vision.” As friends have noted, this might be why Hamilton is so popular among contemporary liberal elites. It could be a sign that the left-of-center seeks a thin kind of diversity (in this case, color-blind casting) that is perfectly compatible with boosting Wall Street’s interests. In the musical, Jefferson criticizes Hamilton with these words: “Our poorest citizens, our farmers, live ration to ration / As Wall Street robs ‘em blind in search of chips to cash in.” The lyrics give Jefferson the chance to make that kind of point, but why is Hamilton the hero?

I think this is an important line of argument (I’ve been waiting for prominent writers to make it in public), but I’d defend the musical on two main grounds.

First, I am no expert on Hamilton (the man), but Hamiltonian economics has an important truth to it. In a market economy where corporations, not landowners, are the most important actors, self-rule is impossible unless the people have a powerful instrument, the state, that they can use to regulate the market. Hamilton built the federal state in the face of Jefferson’s opposition. Jefferson’s sociology (envisioning a nation of independent farmers) was false to his own time and became irrelevant in the following centuries. In 1909, Herbert Croly recommended “Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends”: giving the central government enough clout to make local self-rule possible. It’s that aspect of Hamilton that aligns with the center-left today.

By the way, in the musical, the character Hamilton doesn’t espouse elitist views. So if there’s a political problem with the musical, it’s not that it defends elitism but that it misrepresents a historical figure. There are not many references to economics at all. At one point, Burr asks, “Or did you know, even then, it doesn’t matter / Where you put the U.S. Capital?” Hamilton replies, “Cuz we’ll have the banks.” That could imply that banks are good, or it could just mean that banks are important, and New York will “have” them as instruments.

Second, the musical has a powerful political message that’s not about economics. It’s about the positive joy of political participation, the “public happiness” of which Hannah Arendt wrote. The musical shows why you should want to be “in the room where it happens.” It’s also a frank celebration of the kind of political ambition that is about trying to make something great and be known for it. I think that kind of ambition is not only a useful motivation for service but an intrinsic good. I’m with Arendt that zeal for public repute is honorable.

Finally, the musical embodies a kind of cultural appropriation that I admire and recommend. I’m not against cultural appropriation in general, and especially not when a marginalized group appropriates the most prized possessions of the dominant culture (Shakespeare, for instance, or the King James Version). In this case, we have a musical about the founders of the Republic in which the dominant genre is hip hop, the genius writer is a Puerto Rican, and the cast is multiracial. They are claiming the legacy of the founding for themselves, which is their birthright.

See also: notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (on public happiness in the Founders’ generation); the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitutionwhen is cultural appropriation good or bad? and cultural mixing and power; and (for an argument in favor of cultural appropriations like Hamilton“a different Shakespeare from the one I love”.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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