[Marxism] What ‘Hamilton’ Forgets About Alexander Hamilton

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jun 11 05:45:45 MDT 2016


NY Times Op-Ed, June 11 2016
What ‘Hamilton’ Forgets About Alexander Hamilton
By JASON FRANK and ISAAC KRAMNICK

ALEXANDER HAMILTON is all the rage. Sold out for months in advance, the 
musical “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remarkable hip-hop 
dramatization of this founder’s life, is arguably the most celebrated 
American cultural phenomenon of our time. Reported on from every 
conceivable angle, the show has helped keep Hamilton on the $10 bill and 
prompted a new nickname for this weekend’s Broadway awards ceremony: the 
“Hamiltonys.”

Central to the musical’s power is the way it and its extraordinarily 
talented multiracial cast use Hamilton’s immigrant hustle to explain the 
most important political episodes of his life. “I am not throwing away 
my shot,” Mr. Miranda’s Hamilton sings early on, and it is this motif 
that animates everything that follows.

In Hamilton’s tumultuous life, Mr. Miranda saw the drive and promise of 
the immigrant story of America. Already in 1782 the French immigrant 
Crèvecoeur had defined “the American, this new man” as one who moved to 
a land in which the “idle may be employed, the useless become useful, 
and the poor become rich.” Hamilton announces this entrepreneurial 
ambition early in the show: “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country/I’m 
young, scrappy and hungry.” The night’s biggest applause line, 
“Immigrants: We get the job done!,” proclaims that, contra Donald J. 
Trump, immigrants are the source of America’s greatness and renewal, not 
its decline.

Mr. Miranda’s depiction of Hamilton as resourceful immigrant and 
talented self-made man captures an important aspect of his character. 
But the musical avoids an equally pronounced feature of Hamilton’s 
beliefs: his deeply ingrained elitism, his disdain for the lower classes 
and his fear of democratic politics. The musical’s misleading portrayal 
of Hamilton as a “scrappy and hungry” man of the people obscures his 
loathing of the egalitarian tendencies of the revolutionary era in which 
he lived.

Hamilton mistrusted the political capacities of the common people and 
insisted on deference to elites. In a speech delivered at the 
Constitutional Convention, Hamilton praised the hierarchical principles 
of the British political system. He argued, for example, that the new 
American president and senators should serve for life. Many of the 
Convention participants feared the “excess of democracy,” but Hamilton 
went much further. He wanted to bring an elective monarchy and restore 
non-titled aristocracy to America. “The people are turbulent and 
changing,” he declared. “They seldom judge or determine right.” They 
must be ruled by “landholders, merchants and men of the learned 
professions,” whose experience and wisdom “travel beyond the circle” of 
their neighbors. For America to become an enduring republic, Hamilton 
argued, it had to insulate rulers and the economy as much as possible 
from the jealous multitude.

One of the musical’s most memorable scenes portrays Hamilton’s debate 
with Thomas Jefferson over the establishment of a national bank. What it 
doesn’t convey is Jefferson’s populist resistance to an economic plan 
that, in his view, supported the rule of commercial oligarchs who 
manipulated credit and currency at the expense of debtors and yeoman 
farmers. Instead, Mr. Miranda stages a confrontation between a 
hypocritical republican slave owner and an abolitionist visionary (“A 
civics lesson from a slaver,” a scoffing Hamilton says in response to 
Jefferson. “Hey, neighbor, your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for 
labor”) that conceals as much as it reveals.

Hamilton’s opposition to slavery — reflected, for example, in his being 
a founder of New York’s Manumission Society — was not central to his 
political vision. The musical’s suggestion that had he not been killed 
in the duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton would have gone on to play an 
important role in the abolitionist struggle is fantasy. Even the 
lionization of Hamilton as the exemplar of America’s immigrant ideal 
neglects his ultimate endorsement of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 
1798, which made it harder for immigrants to become citizens while 
allowing their deportation if they were suspected of disloyalty (he 
urged exceptions, though, for some foreign merchants and those “whose 
demeanor among us has been unexceptionable”). Jefferson led the 
opposition to this policy, and his victory in the presidential election 
of 1800 brought most of its provisions to an end.

Our point is not that Mr. Miranda should have offered a more balanced 
portrayal of Hamilton. But the aspect of Hamilton’s life he celebrates — 
the self-making entrepreneurialism of the American dream — cannot be 
fully understood without including, indeed without highlighting, 
Hamilton’s insistent and emphatic inegalitarianism. Hamilton and his 
contemporaries understood these seemingly contradictory positions as two 
sides of the same coin. Ignoring one side, as Mr. Miranda has done, 
obscures their connection both then and now.

Just as Jefferson’s republican championing of the people’s liberties 
depended upon his acceptance of a permanent underclass of slave 
laborers, so does Hamilton’s commitment to the success of the 
entrepreneurial self-made man depend upon his assumption that there 
would be a deferential political underclass to do the heavy work. Mr. 
Miranda’s emphasis on the contradiction inherent in Jefferson’s stance 
deflects attention away from the contradiction in Hamilton’s.

Hamilton, with his contemptuous attitude toward the lower classes, was 
perfectly comfortable with the inegalitarian and antidemocratic 
implications of his economic vision. One has to wonder if the audiences 
in the Richard Rodgers Theater would be as enthusiastic about a musical 
openly affirming such convictions. No founder of this country more 
clearly envisioned the greatness of a future empire enabled by drastic 
inequalities of wealth and power. In this sense, too, “Hamilton” is very 
much a musical for our times.

Jason Frank and Isaac Kramnick teach political theory in the department 
of government at Cornell.



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