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Feuding Fathers

Robert Sullivan mentions my reservations about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton merely to say that criticizing the musical makes you “feel like a churl,” given its upbeat message and immense popularity [“The Hamilton Cult,” Essay, October]. Of course my goal isn’t to spoil the pleasure of the show, but I think it’s crucial for historians to point out its flaws. Miranda, despite his use of hip-hop and radical casting, tells a story about the American Revolution that excludes people of color.

As I wrote in an article for The Public Historian, from which Sullivan quotes, thousands of enslaved and free black men participated in the Revolutionary War, on both sides of the conflict. One of the first Revolutionaries to die was Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent, who was killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Yet Attucks, and every other black person who participated in the formation of the United States, is absent from Miranda’s stage. Casting actors of color as the Founding Fathers only makes matters worse, by playing into the long-standing white fascination with black entertainers to make the Founders seem “cool.”

How we choose to narrate the past — what we refer to as “history” — is always about laying claim to rights and power in the present. Hamilton is a representation of what public historians call the “exclusive past,” in which the heroes are white and the contributions made by people of color go unmentioned. As a result, Hamilton bolsters the false notion that the legacy of the Revolution belongs only to white Americans.

The modern definition of “churl” — a rude or boorish person — derives from a Middle English word meaning peasant, serf, or lowborn. I can understand if saying critical things about Hamilton would make Sullivan, a white man, feel like a churl, but I wish he wouldn’t speak for the rest of us.

Lyra Monteiro
Assistant Professor of History and American Studies, Rutgers University
Newark, N.J.

Sullivan rightly notes that the reputations of the Founding Fathers rise and fall according to the needs of each generation. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant and entertaining musical offers yet another version of Alexander Hamilton, tailor-made for the current era of income inequality and identity politics, but I would argue that the character onstage is far more attractive than the actual man.

Hamilton was not a champion of the common man or woman. He is praised for diversifying the economy and promoting manufacturing, but the system he devised placed too much emphasis on overseas trade, favoring owners of large enterprises while ignoring local manufacturers, small businesses, and the many thousands of farmers who helped power the engine of American prosperity. I think we can appreciate Hamilton’s contributions to the American Revolution and the early republic without overlooking his desire for a conservative, British-style economy that served the elite. If the musical inspires a careful reconsideration of his legacy, as I hope it will, any “cult” of the real Alexander Hamilton is likely to remain quite small in the years to come.

Annette Gordon-Reed
Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History, Harvard Law School
Cambridge, Mass.

Street Scenes

When I lived in San Francisco, not far from Division Street, I taught at San Quentin Prison, a place that Rebecca Solnit has also visited. She is right to connect the problem of homelessness to the problem of mass incarceration [“Division Street,” Photo Essay, October]. It’s an inescapable cycle for many homeless people, whose everyday actions and needs are criminalized. As Solnit notes, both homeless and incarcerated people experience a persistent lack of privacy, which, paradoxically, leads to a pain I’ve often heard described as loneliness. It’s lonely when people try so hard not to see you, to acknowledge your existence. It’s lonely to be deemed disposable. Robert Gumpert’s photos, in tone and texture, capture this loneliness. They show the humanity of people surviving inhumane conditions.

Perhaps it’s true that millennials don’t realize “how few people were homeless before the 1980s,” but it’s unfair to suggest that “the young” fail to see homelessness as a problem that “doesn’t have to exist.” I was born in the 1980s, but as I stepped over sleeping bodies and strewn belongings on the sidewalks of my neighborhood, the phrase I kept repeating was, It doesn’t have to be this way, followed quickly by the question, How can we fix it? We are born with a natural inclination toward justice; we don’t have to have seen what’s right to know when something is wrong.

Katharine Blake McFarland
Cambridge, Mass.

Teacher’s Pet

Nicholson Baker’s charming account of a fifth-grade classroom could be a day in any teacher’s life [“A Joyful Noise,” Readings, October]. Baker sheds light on what so many of us do in our classes: steel our emotions, drop what isn’t working, console frustrated students, and try to instill a love of learning in the kids. That so many teachers do create order out of chaos every day is a testament to their hard work and dedication. After hours of shouting, Baker begins reading a Roald Dahl book to the class, and they are transfixed by the story. The room is quiet. He realizes that the earlier disruptions were just the kids’ way of rebelling against the endless worksheets and other meaningless tasks he was making them do. Give children a chance to really learn and they’ll take it every time.

Katherine Scheidler
Providence, R.I.


Because of an editing error, Alexandria Neason’s “Held Back” [Letter from Detroit, October] misstated a provision of a bill that concerned the restructuring of the Detroit Public Schools. Principals and the superintendent had to reapply for their jobs, not all teachers and staff, as the article stated on page 39. We regret the error.

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December 2016

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