Hamilton - header

“Immigrants, we get the job done”: National Identity in Hamilton By Esther Adema

In the past few weeks you may have heard a lot about the Broadway musical Hamilton. The show raked in a record number of sixteen Tony nominations and won eleven. Its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has won a Pulitzer for this show and has been the recipient of the MacArthur Genius grant. Hamilton tells the story of the first U.S. Treasury Secretary and one of the youngest Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. However, instead of featuring a variety of white men in powdered wigs, as you might expect, the cast consists almost exclusively of people of color. In fact, the only white main cast member plays the part of King George III of England, locating whiteness firmly in the past. The music is also not what you might expect, as hip-hop is a major influence, as well as jazz and R&B. This contemporary interpretation of the founding of the United States is meant to bring the audience closer to the story. As Miranda said, “This is a story about America then, told by America now and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.”[1] However, there is another effect to telling the story in this way. Hamilton not only tells the story of nation-building in the past, it also actively participates in contemporary nation-building, through its message of hope and the American Dream that is aimed specifically at people of color and immigrants. In a time of turmoil concerning police brutality towards people of color, an immigration crisis, and islamophobia, such a message has a revolutionary and uniting effect in American society.

National identities are not static, they are not predetermined; instead they “are subject to processes of (re)construction, (re)interpretation, and (re)appropriation.”[2] Miranda understands the constant flux of national identity because he thinks “it’s a comfort to know that [political debates] are just a part of the more perfect union we’re always working towards, or try to work towards, and that we’re always working on them…[The country] was never perfect, and there’s been no fall from grace. I find that heartening, honestly, that we’re still working on it.”[3] Nations and national identity depend heavily on a sense of community, which is always imagined as a kind of brotherhood among its members.[4] Hamilton allows for immigrants and people of color to feel like they are part of this brotherhood. As such, Hamilton, much like a Shakespearean history, says at least just as much about contemporary society as it does about the past.

Hamilton - Ensemble

The musical is narrated by Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s life-long enemy. The first act of Hamilton details the Revolutionary War, in which Hamilton and his friends the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, and Hercules Mulligan fight for independence from Britain. In this process, Hamilton becomes George Washington’s right hand man, meets Eliza Schuyler and marries her, and lays the groundwork for the enmity between himself and Aaron Burr. The second act shows us the budding Republic, the many conflicts that occurred between Hamilton and other Founding Fathers, most notably Thomas Jefferson, and details how Hamilton got involved in the nation’s first sex scandal. Eventually, Hamilton’s frequent disagreements with Burr come to a head during a duel which proves to be fatal to Hamilton, consigning Burr to the role of villain in the eyes of history.

Shakespearean History

In a sense, Hamilton could be considered a Shakespearean history. As is typical of Shakespearean history, some adjustments to historical facts and timelines were made.[5] Though Miranda has paid close attention to the historical accuracy of his play, he made some changes for dramatic effect. For instance, the Schuyler sisters, who play a prominent role in Hamilton’s life, do not have brothers in the play, even though they did in real life. Also, oldest sister Angelica Schuyler was married in real life when she met Hamilton, but for the purposes of the play, is still single when they meet. Within this narrative, it becomes possible for Angelica to struggle with her attraction to Hamilton because she is aware that “I’m a girl in a world in which / my only job is to marry rich / my father has no sons so I’m the one / who has to social climb for one.”[6] Hamilton, who is poor and a bastard son at that, is not a good match for her. Miranda created a more dramatic story here to fit his narrative needs.

More importantly however, much like Shakespearean histories,Hamilton reflects on contemporary society throughout.[7] In eliminating the distance between the story and the audience, Miranda has found and emphasized parallels that are relevant to today’s society. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, where Hamilton premiered off-Broadway, has also noted this similarity with Shakespeare. According to him, Miranda “takes the language of the people, and heightens it by making it verse…That’s precisely what Shakespeare did in all of his work, particularly in his history plays. He tells the foundational myths of his country. By doing that, he makes the country the possession of everybody.”[8] By linking past and present, the country’s history becomes intelligible to everyone, even to those who are often left out of history. For instance, John Laurens, Hamilton’s close friend and outspoken abolitionist, says in his introductory verse that “those redcoats don’t want it with me / cause I will pop chick-a pop these cops till I’m free.”[9] The 18th century British are equated to the corrupt and oppressive regime of the police force that we are familiar with in today’s American society. This comparison will be particularly resonant to people of color, who bear the brunt of the police’s violent and oppressive tactics. In another example, Angelica Schuyler becomes a proto-feminist in Hamilton when she says she’s “been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine / so men say that I’m intense or I’m insane / You want a revolution? I want a revelation / so listen to my declaration: / ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident / that all men are created equal’ / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson / Imma compel him to include women in the sequel.”[10] As such, the character becomes intelligible and relatable to contemporary feminists.

Hamilton - Schuyler Sisters

Lyrics such as these serve to create a connection between the audience and the characters, while also telling us quite clearly whose side we should be on. Laurens fights for equality for all races against a corrupt and oppressive regime and Angelica fights for women’s rights, making them the morally superior characters who supported certain values and ideas well before it was the social norm to do so. Meanwhile, King George III refers to the colonies as his “sweet submissive subject” and tells them that “when push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”[11] Simply put, in these cases King George III is presented as a psychopathic tyrant while the Americans represent modern moral values. Furthermore, these lyrics ensure that we understand these characters in a contemporary setting. Laurens’ comparison of redcoats with cops in particular forces the audience to align themselves with the plight of people of color today. It also suggests that this is a problem that concerns all Americans, even if it does not affect them directly, much like the oppression of the British was supposed to be a concern for all those living in the colonies. Without erasing the fact that police violence is targeted especially at people of color, the musical suggests that we should all care about this injustice, because police violence, like British tyranny, is unjust.

Immigrants and National Identity

First and foremost, Hamilton tells the story of how a nation came to be, with all its attendant struggles. By focusing on particular elements of this history, Miranda changes the dominant narrative surrounding nation building. In particular, his focus on the importance of immigrants is quite revolutionary, especially in today’s anti-immigrant and xenophobic cultural environment.

The opening lyrics of the musical are indicative of Miranda’s project to change the way we look at history. Burr opens with, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a / forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence / impoverished, in squalor / grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”[12] It is supposed to be unlikely that an illegitimate child from the Caribbean could ever make it as far as Hamilton did. This sentiment is repeated throughout the musical, as Burr creates numerous variations on those opening lyrics, such as “Hamilton / an arrogant / immigrant, orphan / bastard, whoreson.”[13] Hamilton’s immigrant status is seen negatively by Burr, something to be despised or sneered at, not unlike the way right-wing populist politicians speak of immigrants. This xenophobia becomes more pronounced as the musical progresses and the enmity between Hamilton and Burr grows. Whenever Burr feels Hamilton has wronged him, he brings up Hamilton’s immigrant status and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison eagerly join in these tactics. When the three of them confront Hamilton with what they believe to be proof of embezzlement, they tell him “Ya best g’wan run back where ya came from!”[14] They do not allow Hamilton to be truly American: every perceived mistake or flaw is proof that he does not belong, that he cannot and never will be American in the eyes of these characters.

Hamilton himself, on the other hand, contributes much of his success to his struggles as an immigrant. Following a hurricane that destroyed his home town, he wrote a poem which convinced the affluent townspeople that he should get an education in the US and raised money to realize that goal.[15] Hamilton tells the audience:

I wrote my way out of hell
I wrote my way to revolution
I was louder than the crack in the bell
I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell
I wrote about the constitution and defended it well
And in the face of ignorance and resistance
I wrote a financial system into existence.[16]

Hamilton’s struggles gave him an insatiable drive to write, even when met with opposition, as he frequently did. As Miranda explained, this also motivated the choice of music because “the hip-hop narrative is of writing your way out of your circumstances.”[17] Where Burr wants to use Hamilton’s immigrant status to discredit him, Hamilton, and by extension Miranda, make it quite clear that his successes can be at least be partly attributed to his origins as an immigrant orphan.

Hamilton - Yorktown

The most obvious example of the importance of immigrants comes near the end of the Revolutionary War. Right before the final major battle of the war starts in Yorktown, Hamilton and Lafayette, who had involved the French army in the war, discuss their plans. The two of them proudly proclaim, “Immigrants / We get the job done!”[18] These simple lines evoked such strong reactions from audiences that Miranda decided to add a few bars to the song to allow for applause and cheering.[19] Miranda explained the importance of immigrants further by saying:

Well, I think it’s a particularly nice reminder at this point in our politics, which comes around every 20 years or so, when immigrant is used as a dirty word by politicians to get cheap political points, that three of the biggest heroes of our revolutionary war for independence were a Scotsman from the West Indies, named Alexander Hamilton; a Frenchman, named Lafayette; and a gay German, named Friedrich von Steuben, who organized our army and taught us how to do drills. Immigrants have been present and necessary since the founding of our country.[20]

Immigrants are essential to the narrative, not just of the musical, but of America itself. To foreground immigrant experiences in this way is bound to resonate with contemporary immigrants and people of color, who are often left out of historical narratives completely.

National Belonging

Hamilton serves to change our understanding of who belongs in a country and who does not. Again, this is a process that is under constant construction. As Homi Bhabha explained, “The problem of outside/inside must always itself be a process of hybridity, incorporating new ‘people’…[and] generating other sites of meaning.”[21] In other words, national identity is always hybrid, it can never be reduced to the experiences of a homogenous group.[22] Hamilton captures this hybridity by foregrounding immigrant experiences and by making people of color feel included in their nation’s history, without shying away from the nastier parts of history, such as Jefferson and Washington being slave-owners or the ways in which immigrants are met with aggression and derision.

The musical also manages to bring people of color closer to their country’s history. Students of color are disproportionately likely to dislike history in school, mostly because their history classes alienate them by only including stories of their defeat and demise.[23] Actor and rapper Daveed Diggs, who plays Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, echoed this sentiment when asked about how he relates to this show and the history it portrays, saying, “this is the only time I’ve felt particularly American.”[24] Similarly, Leslie Odom Jr., who portrays Burr, explains that Miranda “has made these dead white guys make sense to a bunch of black and brown people.”[25] In this way, the play and its casting and musical choices allow for people of color to feel part of their country’s history. The United States has always had immigrants who built the nation and it still does. Such a message is heartening and encouraging when political figures such as Donald Trump claim that immigrants are tearing the country down.

Conclusion

Immigrants are invaluable and people of color are part of United States history: those are two of the messages at the heart of Hamilton. Of course, Hamilton alone cannot stop the hostility towards immigrants or the continued whitewashing of history, but its success may inspire others to create similar (hi)stories, ones that allow for people of color to hope, to create. In any case, Miranda’s choice to tell Hamilton’s story with a cast of color and hip-hop as its main musical influence reflects today’s society and its struggles with police brutality and xenophobia as much as it does the struggles of the Founding Fathers to establish independence from a tyrannical ruler and build a nation where many different ideas can collide and coexist. The moral of Hamilton, then, is that “the world is wide enough”[26] for this variety of ideas and people to exist in today’s society as well as in the past.

Works Cited

[1] Delman, Edward. “How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History.” Theatlantic.com.The Atlantic, 29 Sep. 2015. Web. 1 June 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/lin-manuel-miranda-hamilton/408019/

[2] Karner, Christian, Dr. Negotiating National Identities. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 15 June 2016. p. 21.

[3] Delman, Edward. “How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History.” Theatlantic.com. The Atlantic, 29 Sep. 2015. Web. 1 June 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/lin-manuel-miranda-hamilton/408019/

[4] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2007. Print. p. 7.

[5] Chernaik, Warren. The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s History Plays. Cambridge, 2007. Google Book Search. Web. 1 June 2016. p. 11.

[6] Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “Satisfied.” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording).Atlantic, 2015. MP3.

[7]The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s History Plays. p. 14.

[8] Miranda, Lin-Manuel, and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton: The Revolution. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016. Print. p. 103.

[9]Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “Aaron Burr, Sir.” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. MP3.

[10] Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “The Schuyler Sisters.” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. MP3.

[11] Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “You’ll Be Back.” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. MP3.

[12] Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “Alexander Hamilton.” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. MP3.

[13] Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “Your Obedient Servant.” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. MP3.

[14] Miranda Lin-Manuel. “We Know.” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. MP3.

[15] “Hurricane Lyrics.” Genius.com. Genius Media Group, 2015. Web. 1 June 2016. http://genius.com/7898652

[16] Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “Hurricane.” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. MP3.

[17] CBS Sunday Morning. “’Hamilton’: A Founding Father Takes to the Stage.” Youtube.com. Youtube, 8 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

[18] Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down).” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. MP3.

[19] Hayes, Chris. “Billboard Cover: ‘Hamilton’ Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Questlove and Black Thought on the Runaway Broadway Hit, Its Political Relevance and Super-Fan Barack Obama.”Billboard.com. Billboard, 30 July 2015. Web. 15 June 2016. http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/magazine-feature/6648455/hamilton-lin-manuel-miranda-questlove-black-thought-the-roots-chris-hayes-interview

[20] Delman, Edward. “How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History.” Theatlantic.com. The Atlantic, 29 Sep. 2015. Web. 1 June 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/lin-manuel-miranda-hamilton/408019/

[21]Negotiating National Identities. p. 208.

[22] Idem.

[23] Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. New York: Touchstone, 2007. Print. p. 2.

[24] “Hamilton.” Cbsnews.com. CBS, 12 June 2016. Web. 15 June 2016. http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/hamilton-part-two/

[25] Idem.

[26] Miranda, Lin-Manuel. “The World Was Wide Enough.” By Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. MP3.