The musical creates a complex narrative. This is important.
People are complex and the biggest failure of historical portrayals and education are that they often fail to show it.
As someone who has taught history and written about it, one of my constant frustrations is how we like to simplify the lives of historical figures. It is easier that way. It is hard to fully explore someone’s 50+ years of life within a 45 minute class period. However, it does that person little justice to make their life a buffet and select the parts that are simple to comprehend.
One example of a historical figure we have over simplified is in the news a lot these days: Christopher Columbus. And yes, I know this is an article about Hamilton, but please… wait for it.
For many years, the narrative around Christopher Columbus was shaped by White voices and only discussed his colonialist successes. From this point of views, he discovered a new region of the world, set up trade routes, and educated Europeans on this region. From a first glance this sounds positive. The man sounds like an educator and traveler, something we all dream of becoming. This narrative has been set in stone for so many years that it is no surprise we see backlash at the criticisms from Indigenous communities. The Indigenous narratives were never considered important. We strategically ignored Columbus’ role in mass murder, rape, and cultural genocide so long that it is difficult to have a discussion about him. We failed to make him a complex historical figure filled with faults. As a result, he has been deified as a (White) hero who explored a new world.
Hamilton takes this approach of deification and throws it into the wind. In the musical, Alexander Hamilton is extremely motivated (“I’m not throwing away my shot”). He is a revolutionary who wants a better world, who wants to make something of himself, and to have a place at the table. He also does not think before he speaks (“Talk less, smile more”), he has an affair, he encourages his son to be reckless, and he is impulsive. The man orchestrates a duel against George Washington’s wishes. Alexander Hamilton is a hero with many faults.
Through the musical, you can’t help but have fun and cheer on Alexander. You want him to be successful and keep rising, but you cannot ignore how he self-sabotages his life. You can not ignore how his actions hurt those around him. People attached to Alexander Hamilton tend to find themselves dragged into the chaos of his actions. In short, Alexander Hamilton is a brilliant revolutionary, awful politician, and a bit toxic. And that is why Hamilton is a wonderful historical interpretation.
People are messy. They may build an entire nation, but their personal lives are constantly falling apart as a result. Hamilton subverts the hero narrative by showing us that our American heroes were petty, prideful, and cutthroat people who did many things we consider heroic for their own gain. Our founding fathers did not always think about what was best for their new nation. Sometimes, they just wanted to be president or be published in the newspaper. They were, shockingly human.
Hamilton does the portrayal of an American icon perfectly. It does not shy away from his successes, but it creates a complex person we can all, at times, feel angered and disgusted at. That is how history education should look. When we create complex narratives we learn to accept the wholeness of a person and time in history. It allows us to fight off the dangerous deification process that many problematic figures like Robert E. Lee and Columbus have undergone. With creating complex narratives about our history it allows us to truly decide who we wish to honor with building names, parks, and schools and who we should allow to simply remain in a museum.