Nothing captures the derangement of the liberal class so well as its giddy gushing over Hamilton.
Since it premiered Off-Broadway in February 2015, the ‘hip-hop musical’ has hoovered up a slew of arts awards, including a Grammy, 11 Tonys and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It has smashed several records, including for the highest one-week gross by any show in the history of Broadway. And perhaps most strikingly, it has been acclaimed by worthies as diverse as Mike Pence, who declared it an ‘incredible production’, and Michelle Obama, who stated that it was ‘the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life’.
Of course, any cultural product that elicits such lashings of praise as Hamilton has received should be looked at askance, with no little degree of suspicion. And indeed, it doesn’t take more than the most perfunctory of glances to see that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show is deeply problematic for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it glorifies in Alexander Hamilton a man who scorned democracy and whose relationship to the institution of slavery was ambiguous at best. Secondly, and sickeningly, it uses people of colour to celebrate and sanitise the birth of a white-supremacist nation-state that acquired its wealth and its living space through the genocide of indigenous and Afrikan peoples. Thirdly, it does all this by means of hip-hop, which once promised to function as ‘a revolutionary tool in changing the structure of racist America’ but which in Hamilton has been debased and co-opted by the dominant ideology, or at least the subset thereof known as American exceptionalism.
Hamilton‘s centre of consciousness is the eponymous Founding Father, a low-born Nevisian who rose to become the new nation’s first-ever treasury secretary and whose death by duelling pistol was for centuries his strongest claim to fame.
The show portrays Hamilton as just another plucky immigrant, who by sheer force of intellect and personality is able to take his rightful place among the ruling class. It is a hagiographic depiction, and as such neglects to address the most repugnant aspects of Hamilton’s life: namely that he was known to have traded slaves; that he married into a prominent slave-owning family; and that he may, according to scholars, have owned household slaves himself.
Before he left St. Croix for Boston, the young Hamilton worked as a clerk for merchant capitalists Beekman & Cruger. In the course of his employment he was required, among other things, to sell into bondage the traumatised cargo of inbound slave ships. When 250 Africans, torn from their homes on the Gold Coast, arrived at Christiansted aboard an East Indiaman in 1772, Hamilton is said to have executed the trade thereof with his ‘usual efficiency’.1
Shortly afterwards, he set sail for the Thirteen Colonies, where he was to finish his education and, later, fight against the British in the War of Independence. In 1780, with his star very much in the ascendant, Lt. Col. Hamilton, as he had by then become, married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of Philip, a general and Continental Congressman. The Schuylers’ political influence was derived in large part from their concentrated wealth, which during Eliza’s father’s lifetime was augmented by the ‘very, very hard labour’ of slaves. Thus Hamilton — desperate as he was to slither his way into the top drawer — had slavery to thank for the considerable social and other capital he acquired upon marrying into the Schuyler family. It goes without saying, of course, that no abolitionist worth their salt would have chosen such in-laws.
The question of whether the Hamiltons themselves owned slaves remains a contentious one, but even Ron Chernow, in the biography that served as Miranda’s inspiration, acknowledged the existence of ‘three oblique hints in Hamilton’s papers’ that suggest ‘he and Eliza may have owned one or two household slaves’. Rather less tentative on this point was Hamilton’s own grandson, who, in his account of the older man’s life, wrote that ‘[i]t has been stated that [Alexander] Hamilton never owned a negro slave, but this is untrue. We find that in his books there are entries showing that he purchased them for himself and for others.’ A letter from May 1781, addressed to future vice president George Clinton, would seem to bear out the first part of Hamilton the younger’s claim. In it Alexander states that ‘I expect by [Udny Hay’s] return to receive a sufficient sum to pay the value of the woman [Eliza Hamilton] had of Mrs. Clinton.’ No one could plausibly deny that this sentence amounts to more than a mere ‘hint’. The same goes for certain items in Hamilton’s ledgers, for example the following from 1796: ‘[c]ash to N. Low 2 negro servants purchased by him for me, $250.’ What is beyond dispute at any rate — as Michelle DuRoss and others have shown — is that Hamilton readily procured slaves for friends and relatives, and in a few cases attempted to retrieve departed slaves on their behalf.
None of these actions — however construed — can be said to betray the hatred Hamilton is supposed to have felt towards the institution of slavery. None of them reveal him to have been the ‘revolutionary manumission abolitionist’ that the musical risibly claims he was. Instead the most we can say about Hamilton’s ‘abolitionism’ is that he never let it get in the way of his social and political ambitions or his commitment to the growth of empire. Hence he served for years without compunction as aide-de-camp to George Washington, who of course owned hundreds of slaves. He voted for, and spoke out in favour of, the Three-Fifths Compromise, which rested on the dehumanisation of black people and ensured the over-representation of slave states in Congress. He stressed the necessity of using tobacco, indigo and rice as ‘capital objects in treaties of commerce with foreign nations’, knowing that the wealth which flowed from the cultivation of each of these three crops was produced largely by plantation slavery.
Put simply, the fact of the matter is this: from the moment he left the Caribbean, with a ‘collection’ enlarged by proceeds from various slave transactions, to study at King’s College, whose trustees were slave merchants, Hamilton’s life was inextricably intertwined with the enterprise of chattel slavery.2 He materially profited from this relationship time and time again. That so many critics and fans of Hamilton have refused to see as much is discomfiting to say the least.
By the by, Hamilton’s profound contempt for democracy — which is absolutely incontestable — has also gone unnoticed by the musical’s admirers. Howard Zinn, in his People’s History of the United States, reports Hamilton as saying once that ‘[n]othing but a permanent body [of the rich and well-born] can check the imprudence of democracy’. In Federalist No. 35, Hamilton expanded upon the composition of that body; it would, ideally, be made up of ‘landholders, merchants, and men of the learned professions’. These moneyed groups would guard against the ‘turbulence’ of the ‘mass of the people’, who in Hamilton’s view ‘seldom judge or determine right’. And so on and so forth.
Such elitism was perhaps the driving force of Hamilton’s political philosophy and found its highest expression at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when, according to the musical, Hamilton ‘proposed his own plan for a new form of government’. That plan, as Zinn noted, and as the musical fails to mention, was underpinned by the suggestion of a ‘President and Senate chosen for life’. And yet in spite of this pronounced authoritarian streak we are asked by Miranda to believe that ‘Alex’ — the consummate servant of ‘urban and commercial financial interests’3 — was some sort of tribunus plebis or champion of the poor and downtrodden.4
The fundamental problem, then, with Miranda’s depiction of Hamilton is that it is utterly ahistorical and therefore utterly dishonest. It is, moreover, coloured and compromised by sentimentality of the very worst kind. In the final analysis, celebrating Hamilton’s life on account of his having been ‘a poor kid from the Caribbean’ is as myopic and misguided as honouring Thatcher because she was the daughter of a grocer, or Kissinger because he was once a refugee. Most gravely, it is to forgive and forget Hamilton’s complicity in the enslavement of actual black people. But it is also, of course, to invert the fact, best expressed by Gore Vidal in Burr, that ‘Hamilton wanted no part of the lower orders. He rejected his own origins and consorted only with the well-born and the rich.’
3. Barrington Moore Jr, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (first published 1966, Penguin 1981).
4. The show pays homage to Hamilton’s elitism in many ways, most notably through its ticket prices. On Broadway, punters can expect to pay up to $849 for a ‘premium seat’.