Hamilton at the MHS

You Great Unfinished Symphony: the History behind Hamilton

As part of her internship at the MHS during the summer of 2018, Lindsey Woolcock (UMass Amherst, History) explored the history behind Hamilton: An American Musical by looking at the convergence of history, music, and memory. Read Lindsey’s interpretation illustrated with items from the MHS collection.

Hamilton: An American Musical takes a story that the United States thought it knew and turned it on its head. Telling the story of “founding father” Alexander Hamilton using rap and hip-hop, and featuring a cast entirely made up of people of color, it appropriates a traditional white, male narrative for African-Americans, Latinos, women, and immigrants. It tries to give voice to the usually-untold history of these people’s experiences and their contributions to the founding of the United States, re-centering the narrative around them. 

Visitors discuss the latest gastronomical innovations over cups of tea. That being said: the historical Alexander Hamilton is a dead white man. All of the characters we love from the musical were white. They did and said things in direct opposition to what the musical says they did and believed. So how do we reconcile this beautiful, wonderful story with that? 

In the musical’s final act, Alexander Hamilton calls the new United States, “you great unfinished symphony”: something never seen before, but not yet complete, with competing and discordant lines of music clashing together. It speaks to the fact that despite the rich language of liberty and equality that was placed at the foundation of the United States, many people—people of African descent, women, and immigrants of all stripes—would continue to be oppressed. There was a long struggle yet to be fought, work yet undone. 

The musical we know and love could not have been created with Alexander Hamilton’s life alone. It draws from a long history of struggle by generations of African-Americans, women, and immigrants to exert their agency and power in a society which seeks to degrade them, and the rich cultures that they have built for themselves. Generations of unknown and unnamed individuals, who speak out to us from unofficial sources: from our families and communities, from songs, dance, and dress, and so many other places much closer to home and heart.  

The vivacity, spunk, and drive of Miranda’s Hamilton comes from that history; that’s the history that needs to be told, and that’s what we’re going to be examining here. 

The three sections of my interpretation each look at a different group: African Americans, women, and immigrants, and the broader history of their experiences in the founding of the United States.

And following that mindset, I think it’s important to ask a larger question: What is the history behind Hamilton? 

Martial African-Americans: the Black Battalion, Hamilton, and Slavery 

John Laurens: “But we’ll never be truly free / until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me / you and I / do or die / wait until I sally in on a stallion / with the first black battalion / have another shot!” 

When I first listened to the musical, I grew to love the character of John Laurens—he was someone I knew nothing about, and I knew less about the “black battalion.” But the participation of African-Americans in the military side of the American Revolution is fascinating and complex. African-Americans participated in the American Revolution on both sides: some on the side of the patriots, but more on the side of the British, who offered enslaved black men freedom if they would fight against their masters. This had an obvious attraction—immediate freedom and fighting back against the person who was enslaving you. Further, the Americans were hesitant to allow black men to fight in the military. The idea of African and African-American men fighting in the military scared many white men, who believed they would use the opportunity to rise up and overturn white domination. From 1775, African Americans were first discouraged from enlisting in the Continental Army, then officially banned by Congress following Washington’s suggestion. 

However, all-black battalions continued to be formed in the state militias. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was one example of a black battalion, and its men would fight and be key players in winning the Battle of Yorktown. Another example is the “Bucks of America”, whose medallion and flag are part of the MHS collection. The Bucks of America were a regiment of the Massachusetts militia, and following the war were honored by Governor John Hancock. Little is known about the men who served in it—currently we know only one of its soldiers’ names, Colonel George Middleton, who would become a member of Boston’s African Society and the African Lodge after the war. Free blacks and enslaved men from Saint-Domingue (later the Republic of Haiti) also fought as part of the French forces who came to fight on the side of the Americans. They helped to defend the city of Savannah, including a young Henri-Christophe, who would later become a general in the Haitian Revolution. 

Bucks of America medallion
Bucks of America medallion, Silver planchet, 18th century 

Laurens’s battalion was never formed: when he advocated for it in the South Carolina assembly, its members (many of whom were planters and slaveholders) refused to consider it. The limits against anti-slavery sentiments and action were sharply defined by racism, fear, and custom.  Even Laurens brought one of his father’s slaves, Shrewsberry, as his personal servant while serving as Washington’s aide-de-camp. 

In the musical, at the end of the Battle of Yorktown John Laurens sings, “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom.” Washington steps in and says, “Not yet.” That moment is fleeting, but if we stop and pause over it, it becomes a poignant moment, where we can see the breath of hundreds of enslaved people pause—and then the musical moves on. They don’t receive their freedom. 

This history is hard, because we want the musical to be true. We want justice for those who were wronged in the deepest ways possible. It should remind us that this struggle isn’t over—that it’s literally built into the foundation and fabric of the nation. 

Work!: The Schuyler Sisters and the Struggles of American Women

Angelica Schuyler: “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine / some men say I’m intense or I’m insane / you want a revolution? / I want a revelation / so listen to my declaration—” 

Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy Schuyler are celebrated in the musical for their intellectualism, vivacity, and kindness. But the Schuyler sisters are only one of a broad range of women’s experiences in the American Revolution. They were from the elite of New York society: their father, Philip, owned huge amounts of land in upstate New York and a number of slaves, and this deeply impacted how they experienced the Revolution. 

Many white and black women found their lives at home upended by the Revolution, and came to occupy an essential but unstable middle ground. Women were essential to the war itself: they fought alongside men (some disguised as men, others taking up arms as women in a single battle) provided support for the Continental Army, and holding up the economic networks of farms, businesses, and households which had to continue to function during the conflict. These contributions typically receive little recognition, because they’re “housework”—they don’t hold the same clout as the war or the political founding, and thus never fully recognized as an essential part of the American Revolution.

An object which exemplifies how middle class white women experienced the American Revolution is Abigail Adams’s dimity pocket, a small cloth pocket which was tied around the waist and used to hold small objects as a woman went about her day. While John Adams was away, Abigail acted as the “deputy husband” for the family: she raised her children, ran the farm, bought and sold land, and tried to economize as much as possible to keep the household going during war time. As historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observed, “…this homely object symbolizes the obscurity, the versatility, and the personal nature of the housekeeping role … whether it contained cellar keys or a paper of pins, a packet of seeds or a baby’s bib … it characterized the social complexity as well as the demanding diversity of women’s work” (Ulrich, Goodwives, 34). 

Abigail Adams dimity pocket
Dimity pocket belonging to Abigail Adams, Ladies pocket, dimity fabric by unidentified maker, late 18th century

The other side of the coin can be seen by looking at the experience of Elizabeth Freeman. Black women, and especially enslaved black women, faced double inequality in American society: being both black and women, they were lowest on America’s social hierarchy, and had to deal with struggles completely unknown to white women. Like Abigail Adams, Eliza Hamilton, and Angelica Church, Elizabeth Freeman was a mother—but unlike them, she had to fight to get ownership of her own body, her labor, and her children. Freeman was owned by Massachusetts lawyer Theodore Sedgwick (a member of the Federalist party and a friend of Alexander Hamilton). After the Revolution, she sued him for her freedom, claiming that the principles the new government was based on meant that she was legally free, and he didn’t have the right to hold her in bondage. She won her case—and was one of the very few who did. Black women, free and enslaved, all had to navigate a society that was hostile towards them, regardless of the change in government.

Elizabeth Freeman
Elizabeth Freeman ("Mumbet"), miniature portrait by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811 

Still, the Schuyler sisters stand out to us as incredible women; Eliza’s struggles later in the musical are heartbreaking, and the two sisters stand together when Hamilton’s selfishness causes them pain. When Angelica spits out, “God, I hope you’re satisfied,” we can see the cracks in the pristine image that we have of “great men”, and allows us to question, what kind of people in history do we want to hold up? Who is worth celebrating? 

“Another Immigrant Coming Up From the Bottom”: The Unstable Stance of Immigrants in Early America

The interpretation of Hamilton: the Musical that has had the greatest overt impact on the way people imagine Alexander Hamilton is the emphasis on his birth in the Caribbean, and his emigration to New York. The image of his “immigrant experience” that comes out of the musical draws on a familiar narrative—pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, and looking back on the journey of immigration with a sense of nostalgia as you enjoy your new-found prosperity. 

Immigration has become a central part of our national history: we are a “nation of immigrants.” Most people don’t associate the American Revolution with immigration: we imagine that everyone has generally “arrived” by this point, and we move on to the development of legislature, political tracts, and mass protests. However, in the period after the Revolution there was a spike of new immigrants. The wars of the French Revolution sparked a new wave of immigration from Europe, which led to the creation of this broadside on information for potential immigrants to New England. It shows that although immigration increased dramatically at particular points in history, new immigrants were always a part of the United States’s history. 

Information for Immigrants to the New England States
Information for Immigrants to the New-England states, Broadside by Massachusetts Society for the Aid of Immigrants, Boston 1795

The historical Hamilton’s immigration is more complicated. He was not actually an immigrant—he was an emigrant, because he moved to New York from the British West Indies, which were also a British colony. Meanwhile, the bootstrap narrative didn’t exist in the 1700s; Hamilton’s writings show little if any interest in musing over the islands that he left behind.  

Hamilton was also a major supporter of the Alien Act of 1798—the United States’s first anti-immigration legislation. In the wake of the Haitian and French Revolutions, French immigrants (many of them slaveowners and enslaved men and women from Saint-Domingue) streamed in to the port cities of the United States. Hamilton and others in the federalist party became increasingly anxious that these immigrants would try to enact a new revolution in the United States and overturn the current government. They passed the Alien Act as an attempt to stifle this immigration and its influence on American politics.  

The Act allowed the immediate deportation of any person “dangerous to the safety and peace of the United States.” Below is a blank warrant of deportation by the Alien Act with President John Adams’s signature, which would be filled out by law enforcement:

blank warrant
To [blank] Marshal for the District of [blank] or his Deputy, Greeting. Whereas by an Act of Congress, intituled, "An Act concerning Aliens," passed on the twenty-fifth day of June, one thousand, seven hundred and ninety-eight,... Printed form by United States. President (1797-1801: John Adams); Washington, D. C.: unidentified printer, 1798

In the 19th and 20th centuries, immigrants would face constantly evolving forms of restriction and xenophobia. The change in the image of immigrants, and our perception of them as “rags-to-riches” heroes, largely came long after Hamilton was dead, through the striving of generations of later immigrants who sought equality and dignity in American society. 

Yet that doesn’t destroy the power of the musical: remembering the historical Hamilton as an emigrant is valuable. Immigrants and emigrants were vital to our history, and it let’s us ask why? Why did the historical Hamilton stop thinking about the places he left behind? It also helps restore a lost connection: that the Caribbean was once closely aligned with the United States, and our culture, economy, and history were tied together. 

Thinking about Hamilton historically 

The historical realities of Hamilton’s life complicate the picture of him in the musical; and because we’ve come to love Miranda’s Hamilton, we feel pain when we find out that the real man doesn’t live up to those expectations. That pain is real and valid—there are so few wonderful stories like this in history, that we form intense emotional bonds to them when we find them. However, it would be wrong to deny the reality of history for the sake of that image. African Americans, women, and immigrants fought hard and faced hatred in a society where the balance was already tipped so steeply against them: pretending that Alexander Hamilton was a perfect hero denies them the place in history that they deserve. 

This doesn’t mean that you have to hate Hamilton. (Although if you hate the historical Alexander Hamilton, I can’t blame you. I often do.) It doesn’t degrade what Hamilton has done: it’s an incredible musical with passion, that makes you love a dubious character. 

But what we should do to think about Hamilton historically isn’t to give it unwavering love or condemnation. People find power in the musical, and that’s a beautiful thing. But the way to think about Hamilton historically is to remember both sides. When you listen to John Laurens’s refrain in My Shot (“Rise up / if you’re livin’ on your knees then you / rise up”), you should feel excited and hopeful—you should remember the African Americans who fought in every avenue of life to maintain their humanity and dignity in a society which sought to turn them into property. When you think of the Schuyler sisters, think both of what they were denied (political rights, education on par with men) and what vast privilege and resources they had. They did not know how deeply liberty mattered to Elizabeth Freeman, who fought tooth and nail for her own life and the future of her children. When you think of Alexander Hamilton, you can admire his achievements, his drive, his seemingly endless energy. But also remember that he was not a radical by any means, and helped build or perpetuate some of the worst parts of the society we live in today. Remember both stories: the radical ideals of the American Revolution, and how they failed for so many people. By thinking of both, we do the real work of history: we look the past in the face, question what stories we’ve been told about it, and seek out better answers, empowering ourselves with that knowledge. 

The power I find in Hamilton isn’t Hamilton and his friends rising up—it’s the potential for us to rise up. 

Works cited:
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Goodwives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. New York: Vintage, 1991.