How Hamilton Uses History

What Lin-Manuel Miranda included in his portrait of a heroic, complicated Founding Father—and what he left out.

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs at "Hamilton" Broadway.
Lin-Manuel Miranda takes a bow at Hamilton’s opening night on Broadway at Richard Rodgers Theatre on Aug. 6, 2015, in New York City.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

With its inventiveness and energy, its witty meld of past and present, its catchy and moving music, and its skillful word craft, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton is near irresistible. Deeply traditional in its praise of an American founder, yet radical in its reinvention of that founder as an immigrant in a multicultural, inclusive world whose lingua franca is rap, Hamilton embraces both poles in polarized times; it is a play that everyone can love.

Miranda’s version of Alexander Hamilton is also lovable—a product of the play’s humanizing focus on Hamilton’s vulnerabilities and ambitions. He’s a complex character—though not as complex as his historical counterpart. The real Hamilton was a mass of contradictions: an immigrant who sometimes distrusted immigrants, a revolutionary who placed a supreme value on law and order, a man who distrusted the rumblings of the masses yet preached his politics to them more frequently and passionately than many of his more democracy-friendly fellows. Hamilton smooths over such inconsistencies, and for good reason. Hamilton’s striving, hungry spirit is the play’s heart and soul; it speaks to the present. His realpolitik qualms and fears dilute that message.

Hamilton’s story and character seem tailor-made for drama. Born poor and illegitimate in the West Indies and orphaned at a young age, he impressed locals with his intellectual talents, inspiring them to assemble a charitable fund to send him to North America for college. Arriving in New York in 1772 as a revolution was brewing, Hamilton was swept up in the furor, becoming an ardent pamphleteer, a soldier yearning for acts of derring-do, and ultimately, an aide-de-camp to Commander in Chief George Washington. One of the nation’s earliest and most insistent advocates for a stronger national government, he aggressively promoted that agenda as the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. But he had a self-destructive streak. Voraciously ambitious and always sure that he was right, he sometimes pushed too far, said too much, and compromised too little—often in print; he was involved in 10 near-duels before his fatal encounter with Aaron Burr. Two pamphlets that he wrote, one confessing to adultery to disprove speculation charges, the other attacking his own party’s candidate for president in 1800, irreparably damaged his political career. He spent his final years swimming against the democratic tide until his profound distrust of Burr’s politics and character led to their duel and Hamilton’s death in 1804.

Of course, in transferring that life to the stage, Miranda has taken some liberties for clarity and flow. Time is condensed and historical events are shifted in time; for example, the presidential election of 1800 didn’t lead to the Burr-Hamilton duel, nor did Hamilton’s son Philip fight a duel before that election. Big-name characters take the place of lesser-knowns: Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison didn’t solicit Hamilton’s 1798 adultery confession. Representatives Frederick Muhlenberg, James Monroe, and Abraham Venable did. Some events are invented: John Adams didn’t fire Treasury Secretary Hamilton, who resigned under Washington in 1795, but this invention handily explains Hamilton’s opposition to fellow Federalist Adams’ bid for re-election as president in the election of 1800, highlighted later in the play.

Such creative license makes sense, particularly given that Hamilton is not a formal work of history. It’s a play centered on one man’s rise and fall, framed to enhance the qualities that made him notable. Even so, Miranda’s telling of that life contains a remarkable amount of historical fact, even concerning policy debates that hardly seem suited to the Broadway stage, let alone a musical. The creation of a national bank, the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, the “dinner deal” that moved the United States’ capital south: All receive their due in rap battles and ballads. Part of Washington’s Farewell Address is quoted—or rather sung—verbatim. Indeed, quotes from Hamilton’s writings are sprinkled throughout the show. One of the play’s many achievements is its blend of an inclusive present with a historical past that is rooted in fact.

In many ways, Miranda’s Hamilton is also true to life, propelled by the same driving ambitions, rough edges, and loose-cannon character as his historical counterpart. Much like the real Hamilton, he’s a committed nationalist who fears the riotous upset of revolutionary France and strives to give the new nation a market-driven commercial future. Jefferson, in contrast, is depicted as a Virginia-centric slaveholder singing the praises of agrarianism. In Miranda’s telling, Hamilton is forward-looking and Jefferson clings to a pastoral slavery-bound past.

Yet one could argue the reverse. One could argue that Jefferson’s heartfelt faith in the democratic many makes him seem forward-looking and that Hamilton was very much a man of his time, modeling the United States on the great commercial empires of his day. Along similar lines, although Hamilton assumed that a market-driven economy would energize the young republic and take advantage of what he called the American people’s “unequalled spirit of enterprise,” he had no qualms about courting the rich and powerful in the hope of using their wealth and status as ballasts to stabilize the fragile American polity.

Here we see one of Hamilton’s contradictions in full force. A man with the humblest of pasts, he was never entirely comfortable with the masses. The passions of a politically engaged populace unsettled him; in the period’s furious debate over the nature of popular politicking in a democratic republic, Hamilton believed that less is more. But he was fully invested in the American experiment in government; indeed, his urgent politicking was his greatest strength and his greatest weakness, raising him to power and then dashing him to ruin. It’s also the emotional fuel that drives Hamilton. Hamilton’s qualms about popular politicking would only complicate this story.

Clearly, melding past and present has its challenges; it takes a skilled hand to speak to the present while staying rooted in the past, and Miranda manages it brilliantly. Yet the complexities of the past sometimes resist translation, defying classification or staying clouded in the cultural haziness of times long gone. For example, take the word “immigrant,” which in 2015 carries a heavy load of cultural baggage. That baggage is part of Hamilton’s power; Miranda celebrates America’s immigrant roots in a way that loudly and proudly speaks to the here and now. He tells American audiences of all kinds that this story is their story, a message with extraordinarily powerful resonance, particularly given the thread of nativism currently poisoning our politics. In many ways, our nation is engaged in a sweeping struggle over inclusion and exclusion. Hamilton’s unapologetic inclusiveness is a breath of fresh air in troubled times.

Yet that inclusiveness smooths over yet another of Hamilton’s many contradictions. Hamilton did indeed see himself as an immigrant, on some level viewing himself as a permanent “other.” Thus his remarkable lament in 1802, after a lifetime of promoting his vision for the nation: “Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.” Yet he sometimes had mixed feelings about immigration. He liked the idea of immigrant workers powering American industry, but he worried about their political and cultural impact on the young republic, particularly after the Republican triumph in the election of 1800. When newly installed President Thomas Jefferson proposed opening the doors of citizenship, Hamilton protested, fretting about the corruption of national character, and (revealingly) claiming that if only “native citizens” had voted in 1800, Jefferson wouldn’t be president.

The past isn’t an exact fit for the present. But Hamilton isn’t about that exact fit. It’s about making that past inclusive and empowering, humanizing and energizing a subject—the nation’s founding—that all too often seems carved in stone. It gets at the spirit of that past with rap music that blends bravado and a sense of urgency, capturing something of the uncertainties, fears, and hopes of America’s early decades, restoring a sense of contingency to those decades in the process. And in breathing life into Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda transforms a historical figure of great contradictions into a man whose striving spirit speaks to us today.