‘Hamilton’ Starts to Tell America’s Story

hamilton musical tells america's story

While pundits bemoan the alleged low state of American race relations, the hit musical “Hamilton” defies that conventional wisdom. With their rapping and dancing, the show’s black and other minority actors glorify America by retelling its founding story as a triumph of multiculturalism. The race-conscious casting ultimately defends (to the irritation of leftist critics) the universal appeal and attraction of America.

Of the principal roles, only the villain King George is played by a white actor. We are not seeing a parody of non-traditional casting, but the performance escapes being a farce by teaching a reflective patriotism that arises from love of its principles and the historical characters.

Showing their scorn for love of country, leftist critics grumble about the show’s positive narrative about America, the failure to have more condemnation of slavery, the exaggeration of the prospects for immigrant success, the overwhelming number of whites in the Broadway audience, and so on.   And they are right that “Hamilton” often seems even less critical of America than the song “America” from “West Side Story.”

“Hamilton” blends the political passions of “1776” and of “Les Miserables” (not without religious overtones), with the drama of “West Side Story” and the patriotism of the older “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The predominance of black and Latino actors does not come off as blackface or black students’ “acting white” but as a celebration of the inclusiveness of the American idea. Lyrics and music can be found online (rap vulgarity alert).

Hamilton celebrates ambition, vision, and real or natural aristocracy.

The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther by workin’ a lot harder
By bein’ a lot smarter
By bein’ a self-starter

Above all, the musical captures the dynamism immigrants have added to America, embodied in the incredible rise of Hamilton, “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore,” who became a “hero and a scholar,”  who would sit “at the right hand of the Father” Washington. Throughout the musical we hear the refrain

I am not throwing away my shot
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy, and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot

Inspired by vacation reading of Ron Chernow’s “Hamilton,” this New Yorker son of Puerto Ricans clearly sees his own story in his subject. Numerous acting awards, a Pulitzer Prize for writing the play, and a MacArthur “genius” award attest to his talent. Like many a poet, the aptly named Miranda may not understand his own considerable wisdom as deeply as he might.

Most important for us, the playwrite gives voice to the historical Hamilton, as from the end of Federalist 11. 

“The world may politically, as well as geographically, be divided into four parts, each having a distinct set of interests. Unhappily for the other three, Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has in different degrees extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia, and America have successively felt her domination. The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the mistress of the world, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit.”

The historical Hamilton implies that Europe’s female domination over the world’s regions is not racial but unnatural in other ways, “by force and fraud.” Is it possible for reason to have a decisive role in governing the chaos of human affairs? By basing good government on reason, personal and national ambition can be satisfied.

“It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother [who was a mistress a few lines before—is Europe a hermaphrodite?] moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs. Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!” A united America will teach Europe the wisdom of moderation, the truth of human equality.  That truth and devotion to it is the root of American greatness.

Hamilton’s spiritedness echoes that of the Declaration of Independence.

This is not a moment, it’s the movement
Where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went
Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand
We roll like Moses, claimin’ our Promised Land

Today the Miranda-Hamilton duet about American greatness can restore a dispirited country.

I practiced the law, I practic’ly perfected it
I’ve seen injustice in the world and I’ve corrected it
Now for a strong central democracy
If not, then I’ll be Socrates
Throwing verbal rocks
At these mediocrities

Hamilton’s passion should bring about this Socratic probing of who we are as a nation. That and the patriotism it inspires are the startling contribution of a popular musical that inspires regard for the founders.

The play’s significant liberties with history and its meaning are noted by Richard Samuelson in his Claremont Review of Books essay.  He rightly warns that the “Hamilton” progressive approach to history may “prove the show’s King George right” that Americans are on the way back to being another tyrant’s subjects, and, as Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Convention speech allusions to the songs signify, being no longer able to change the subject.

Who today best remembers the real Hamilton and can tell his story? It cannot be those who praise not American but “European greatness.” Lin-Manuel Miranda shows the way, but let the historical Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 11, be the one who gets the last shot here.

“Men admired as profound philosophers have in direct terms attributed to her [European] inhabitants a physical superiority and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America—that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere. Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the Europeans.”

“Hamilton” calls us to reclaim America’s struggles—American lives matter! The musical glorifies manly defense of equality in the face of the smug tyranny of elites. In 2016 our dogs are barking louder than ever against today’s Europeanized American elitists.

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, as well as for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of seven books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.