some notes upon watching Hamilton

I’m one of those who already knew the music and lyrics of Hamilton extremely well but watched a performance of it for the first time this weekend on video.

I hadn’t realized how consistently Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) appears on stage or even dominates it. I understood the plot but didn’t appreciate the strength of Burr’s presence. Specifically, I had missed scenes that emphasize his parallels with Hamilton, such as when the two men split the stage to sing love songs to their infants.

The musical as a whole is about who gets to tell the story. At the end, George Washington and the company sing, “Who lives / Who dies / Who tells your story?” Burr asks, “But when you’re gone, who remembers your name? / Who keeps your flame?” Angelica and the women of the company echo his question: “Who tells your story?” The women say, “Eliza,” and she begins, “I put myself back in the narrative.”

Washington has skillfully controlled his own story by exiting voluntarily and leaving a farewell address (written by Hamilton). Burr is the one who narrates Hamilton’s story for us, but he plays his cards so badly that he makes himself into the villain. Hamilton is obsessed with his own reputation; his efforts to safeguard it are one source of his own destruction. Eliza takes herself out of the narrative and then puts herself back in, using her 50 remaining years after Hamilton’s death to become a public historian. And Lin-Manuel Miranda turns Hamilton’s life into the material for his own art, thus becoming the one who really tells the story.

One general implication is that politics generates the noblest stories. We should want to be in the Room Where it Happens because then we can engage with other people, not as friends but as equals, and make something public and lasting together. This is high drama. It is possible only in a republic or in a revolutionary struggle to make a republic. Of course, Burr’s tragedy is that he can’t get in.

I think that Hamilton is the best fictional evocation of the intrinsic value of politics–politics not as a necessary means to some end but as a venue for drama and excellence. It also rescues the American story by treating our republic as an ongoing project to which anyone can contribute.


Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference

Another general point is that Miranda has appropriated the founding history. He has taken it as his material and turned it into something original that exemplifies his own culture. To be sure, any culture is layered, internally diverse, and vaguely bounded. Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original Alexander Hamilton actually share some aspects of culture as their common birthright. But the musical (lyrics, plot, music and cast) surely reflect a racially diverse 21st century New York City and a base in hip hop that are distant from Hamilton.

In this case, cultural appropriation is great. It is an impressive power move and a creative act. That reinforces my view that cultural appropriation is not an intrinsic problem at all. It simply depends on who appropriates whom for what. Appropriation is a political act, and politics can be noble.

See also Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda; ambition: pro or con?; Arendt, freedom, Trump; taking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice; a welcome talk for college interns newly arrived in Washington; what is cultural appropriation?; and diversity, humility, curiosity

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

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.