Hamilton after Hamilton

How the Broadway hit has crafted a new American civic myth.

Photo by Adobe Stock/johan10.

In November 2016, cast members of Hamilton earned the censure of President-elect Donald Trump when they directly addressed his running mate, Mike Pence, at a performance. “We welcome you here,” the actor playing Aaron Burr told Pence, but he asked that he listen to those “diverse Americans” who feared that the new administration would not protect them. They hoped that Pence would be inspired to “uphold American values” by a “wonderful, American story, told by a diverse group of men and women, of different colors, creeds, and orientations.” Trump immediately responded with a tweet describing the cast’s action as “harassment” and calling on them to apologize. After an election where Trump had attacked immigration, called Mexicans “rapists,” pushed for a national registry of Muslims, and gave power and access to white nationalists, it’s no surprise that he also attacked a musical that offers a radically different vision of America from the one he has both tacitly and openly promoted. Far more surprising is how few other Republicans have been critical of the show or its politics. Even Mike Pence insisted that the show was “incredible” and a “real joy.” Hamilton has, in fact, actually bridged traditional political divides between Americans.

Former President Barack Obama calls Hamilton “the only thing” on which he and former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney agree. Conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch tweeted that Hamilton was a “Fabulous show!” after seeing it in March 2015, while former First Lady Michelle Obama called it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” Democrat Hillary Clinton, among the lucky few to have seen the show more than once, calls Hamilton a “great, great musical” that makes her cry every time she sees it. The show has also earned the praise of Clinton critic Bill O’Reilly, a conservative talk show host at Fox, who said on his program that he had heard Hamilton was “unbelievably good” and was happy that this historically minded musical was “so big a hit.” The show has earned rave reviews not only from David Brooks, one of the New York Times’s conservative columnists, who called it “a jewel” that “asks you to think afresh about your country and your life,” but also from liberal MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who urged anyone who is “a hip-hop head, a history buff…or just loves things that are awesome” to see it. Hamilton has been praised on the pages of both The Nation and the National Review, two magazines that are at polar ends of the political spectrum.

What exactly is going on? Hamilton has brought Americans together across party lines, and even more remarkably, has done so with a story about America’s history, a subject that in recent years has inspired heated conflict over museum exhibits, textbooks, and school curricula. Since at least the mid-1990s, debates about how American history should be represented and taught have become so contested that battlefield metaphors seem the most appropriate way to describe them. On one side of the so-called “history wars” stand political conservatives who insist that historical narratives should cultivate pride in America’s past and highlight the nation’s exceptionalism and continual progress towards greatness. On the other side stand people on the left who believe that celebratory, patriotic versions of United States history ignore the reality of racism and oppression in America’s past and fail to encourage critical thinking and active citizenship.

The genius — and much of the appeal — of Hamilton lies in its ability to transcend what have long seemed to be these irreconcilable political positions. In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has crafted a hopeful and inclusive origin story for the nation — a civic myth — that not only stands in direct opposition to the claims put forth by Trump and his white nationalist supporters, but also resonates with many people on both the left and the right.

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