Essay — From the October 2016 issue

The Hamilton Cult

Has the celebrated musical eclipsed the man himself?

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The problem with any attempt to debunk Hamilton, currently America’s most beloved musical, starts with the history of the word debunk. It was coined by the writer W. E. Woodward in his 1923 novel Bunk, whose protagonist was notable for “taking the bunk out of things.” Inspired by a newspaper article he had read about delousing stations for European soldiers, Woodward came up with debunking. As it happens, he almost never used the word again. But just a few years after his novel came out, Woodward published George Washington: The Image and the Man, in which he attempted to correct the record on the first president. Washington, he insisted, wasn’t so much a saint or a military genius as a great businessman.

Illustration by Jimmy Turrell. Source painting of Alexander Hamilton (detail) by John Trumbull courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Illustration by Jimmy Turrell. Source painting of Alexander Hamilton (detail) by John Trumbull courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Woodward didn’t necessarily intend to debunk Washington in his biography. His goal, he said, was to liven up history writing, which he considered “dull, insipid and far too scholarly in style.” Not unlike the producers of Hamilton, he was trying to introduce the man in the street to a real Founding Father, whom he described as possessing a “typical captain of industry attitude.” The 1929 crash was years away; it wasn’t a slam. Indeed, coming from Woodward, who had himself worked in the financial industry and written something called Watch Your Margin: An Insider Looks at Wall Street, it was probably a compliment. Nonetheless, Woodward was “attacked,” as the New York Times noted in his 1950 obituary, “by patriotic societies and history scholars.”

He tried to disassociate himself from the word he had created. “As a matter of fact,” Woodward wrote, “I am an admirer of George Washington, and there is not a debunking paragraph in the whole book.” It didn’t matter. When he published a glowing biography of Thomas Paine in 1945, the Herald Tribune headlined its review woodward debunks the debunkers of tom paine. And in his memoirs, which also appeared more than two decades after his novel, he was still bemoaning his unhappy invention: “If I had it to do over again I would hesitate a long time before creating the word ‘debunk,’ and would make an effort to find another way to express the idea.”

All of which is to say that the past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble. Sometimes — especially in the wake of HBO’s John Adams (2008) — history can seem like a sequence of fan-produced biopics, memorializing every last Founding Father (as opposed to Mothers, though Abigail at least got some screen time). Washington, of course, has been celebrated from the moment he took command of the rebel army in 1776. Alexander Hamilton, a pioneer of such mundane aspects of American life as the waterworks, the industrial park, and the debt structure that simultaneously funded a federal militia and the expansion of a newborn empire, is a less likely folk idol.

Yet now he is making up for lost laudatory time. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical comes at a moment when America wants to believe it is (to use a term that made little sense at the beginning of the Obama presidency and is even more nonsensical now) post-racial. To embrace Hamilton is to embrace a liberal outlook on the world that even conservatives can tolerate, and sometimes vice versa. Out with welfare cheats, in with bootstrapping immigrants who don’t depend on the state for food stamps or health care. “Here’s a story that talks about American history and the ideals of American democracy,” a Rockefeller Foundation executive told the New York Times last October. Here was, she continued, “an immigrant who is impoverished initially and shows through perseverance and grit what he can achieve, in a vernacular that speaks to young people, written by a product of New York public education.”

The Rockefeller Foundation went even further, announcing a plan to bring 20,000 New York City eleventh graders, predominantly from low-income families, to see Hamilton. The organization also launched a project with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to develop “educational programming for students and teachers designed around the Hamilton experience.” Meanwhile, politicians from every part of the ideological spectrum — Bernie Sanders, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Lynne and Dick Cheney — are all for the show, having voted in some cases by repeat attendance. So are such celebrities as Beyoncé, who liked King George’s walk, and Lena Dunham, who lauded the show’s pedagogical firepower. “Love to hate things that others adore but Hamilton on Broadway is unimpeachably perfect. Wept, laughed, raged,” she tweeted. In a subsequent tweet, she added: “If every kid in America could see Hamilton they would thirst for historical knowledge and then show up to vote.”

In the face of such euphoria, who’s going to nitpick without feeling sheepish, let alone ineffectual? Well, there’s William Hogeland, a historian who has written extensively about Hamilton as both founding financier and post–Revolutionary War military commander. “I get trapped in this corner,” he says. He expects that fans of the musical will view him as a “sort of naysayer, trying to debunk something about Hamilton. But you can’t debunk a Broadway play! What people take away from it is this almost cultic love of this guy they don’t know anything about. If you knew what he was really about, would you still be so in love with him? That, I think, is the question.”

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is the author of numerous books, including Rats (Bloomsbury)and My American Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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