On March 14, President Barack Obama welcomed the company of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton to a special White House performance. In his introductory remarks, Obama celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop rendering of Alexander Hamilton’s “quintessentially American story,” and quickly identified the reason why the show has become a “cultural phenomenon.” “In each brilliantly crafted song,” said the president, “we hear the debates that shaped our nation, and we hear the debates that are still shaping our nation.”
Shifting to the same playful tone that has characterized his other recent public appearances, Obama even staked a claim to his own role in getting the show off the ground. He referred to Miranda’s 2009 participation in one of the first cultural events of the Obama administration, when the Nuyorican writer-actor-rapper, whom many expected to deliver lines from his earlier musical In the Heights, instead busted out a lyrical homage to the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. Alluding to this previous White House rendition of the song, which eventually became the opening number of Hamilton, the president joked that the show’s producers “do owe me.” “This,” he cheekily asserted, riffing on one of Aaron Burr’s most memorable lines from the show, “is definitely the room where it happened.”
Obama was clearly speaking in jest when he took credit for launching Hamilton, but there’s nothing haphazard about the fact that Miranda initially got his shot in the presence of this president. As he nears the end of his final term in office, Obama has taken a more active role in the nation’s literary and cultural affairs than any American head of state since John F. Kennedy. In recent years, he has interviewed novelist Marilynne Robinson, awarded Nobel laureate Toni Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and hosted countless events for the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Stephen King.
Even by these standards, though, the Obama-Miranda relationship is uniquely collaborative. Several critics have noted that with its multicultural cast, its immigrant hero, and its implicit validation of big-state activism (Hamilton was perhaps the earliest proponent of the executive order), Hamilton functions as a particularly apt metaphor of both the style and substance of Obama-era liberalism. But the connection between politician and performer is not merely symbolic. In addition to the March White House show, Miranda appeared alongside the president during a November 2015 fundraiser for the Democratic Party at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. And earlier this summer, the two joined together on a policy-oriented initiative, as Miranda put his name (and his lyrics) behind a controversial Obama-backed bill to establish a fiscal control board to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt.
All of this made Hamilton’s virtual sweep at the Tony Awards in June, where it picked up 11 wins on a record 16 nominations, seem a bit like an industry endorsement of the president, as well as of his favorite musical (Obama again introduced Hamilton at the Tonys, this time by video, alongside Michelle). News coverage of the Tonys highlighted the diversity of the award winners—14 of the 30 nominees in the acting categories were actors of color—and placed Hamilton at the center of a multicultural turn on “The Great White Way” that also included Eclipse, The Color Purple, and a remake of the 1921 classic Shuffle Along.
It’s hard not to see Hamilton’s so-called color-conscious casting as an integral part of its appeal to audiences, especially in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that emerged in January to criticize the failure of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to nominate a single non-white actor for this year’s Oscars. At the beginning of the evening, host James Corden deadpanned, “Think of tonight as the Oscars, but with diversity,” and in March Obama lauded the show’s producers for assembling “a cast as diverse as America itself.” Yet Hamilton’s mainstream success stems from much more than the physical appearance of its actors. It’s no coincidence that the three major issues that the musical addresses—immigration, race and economics—are also the issues that have dominated the current election and that will play a large role in shaping Obama’s legacy. Miranda’s genius resides to no small degree in his ability to steep his theater in the zeitgeist, to freely mix the personal, the artistic, and the political.
So why did Hamilton become such a cultural phenomenon? To begin to get a handle on its timeliness, we need to return for a moment to that first performance in 2009. Miranda was coming off the success of his first musical, In the Heights, set in Manhattan’s predominantly Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Washington Heights. The story had autobiographical roots—Miranda himself grew up in the neighborhood in the late 1980s—and the show’s incorporation of Spanish idioms and its musical blend of salsa, merengue, and reggaeton with traditional Broadway numbers paid homage to the cultural hybridization of New York’s Hispanophone communities. In the Heights was similarly of the moment: its upbeat multicultural message hit the scene when the mainstream US political and cultural agenda was tipping toward greater inclusivity of the country’s Hispanic population. The show debuted at New York’s Off-Broadway theater just before the Senate began discussions on a Comprehensive Reform Act (supported, it should be noted, by President George Bush) that would have created a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And it won the Tony for best musical in 2008 the same year that the Dominican-born novelist Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which also used Spanglish and focused on Caribbean immigrants, won the Pulitzer Prize.
We may never know exactly what possessed Miranda to depart from the Latino subject matter of his first musical (Díaz, for example, has continued to pursue the same themes), even if we accept that he first seriously considered a Hamilton project after reading Chernow’s monumental biography in August of 2008. But the timing would suggest that Obama’s sudden political ascent factored heavily into the decision. The nation was not only on the verge of electing its first African-American president, but also a president whose father—like Miranda’s—was born outside of the United States. As the birther smear campaign later made clear, Obama’s rise to the nation’s highest office challenged some of the most deeply held (and often only half-expressed) assumptions about the relationship between political power and place of origin. Like Obama himself, Miranda believed that the age of Obama would require a new model of US history. It was a belief, to quote Obama’s words from The Audacity of Hope, that “there was—and always had been—another tradition to politics, a tradition that stretched from the days of the country’s founding to the glory of the civil rights movement.”
What Miranda unveiled that night in 2009 was the rhythmic reprise of this Obamaesque view of American politics, the beginning of an artistic search for the foundation—and the founder—of an alternative tradition. In pivoting from a musical about late-twentieth-century Latino life to a period musical about Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first immigrant politician, Miranda did not simply hit upon a means of making history accessible by framing the founding era through our era’s popular musical forms of hip-hop and R&B. He also distilled the story of Hamilton’s migration to the United States into an urgent contemporary allegory. As many critics have noted, the musical accentuates the similarities between the valor of non-native eighteenth century Revolutionary War figures and the value of more recent immigrants to the country they helped to create. At one point, General Lafayette, one of the many “foreign” soldiers who fought for American independence in the Revolutionary War, sounds like an Obama Dreamer when he remarks, “Immigrants, we get the job done.”
In the book about the musical that Miranda recently co-authored with Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton The Revolution, these parallels coalesce into a veritable thesis about the development of American political life. The book describes Hamilton as an “immigrant who came here to build a life for himself and ended up helping to build the nation…the prototype for millions of men and women who followed him.” It then goes on to suggest that Hamilton directly anticipates Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a “Kansas girl” who “fulfills the American promise that any kid, however unlikely, can be president.” In April, McCarter presented a variation of this thesis in a BuzzFeed piece, where he claimed that “the president, like the show, has picked up a melody that runs all the way back to the founding of the republic.”
The technical term for the historical mode Miranda and McCarter propose here is typology, and it has been an integral part of American culture since long before the founding era. The practice of typology originated in biblical exegesis, specifically the explanatory mode by which religious scholars “demonstrated” that scenes from the Old Testament prefigured scenes from the New Testament. The Puritans famously employed it to equate their own plight in the wilderness of New England with the Israelites wandering through the deserts of Canaan, thus creating one of the earliest blueprints for American exceptionalism. In the nineteenth-century, African American narratives of escape from slavery drew their own analogies to Exodus.
Miranda and co.’s version of typology is, of course, both modernized and secularized, but ultimately no less mystical in its thrust toward historical synthesis. Hamilton The Revolution casts Hamilton as the “prototype” not only of Obama but also of Miranda’s Puerto Rican father and the Jamaican-born hip-hop “founder” DJ Kool Herc. In Miranda’s worldview, the Hamiltonian brilliance radiates forward to encompass the twenty-first century and outward to embrace Nuyoricans and the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. This typological vision helps to explain the underlying continuities of Hamilton and In the Heights. Here, for instance, are some of the first lines sung in In the Heights:
I am Usnavi and you prob’ly never heard my name.
Reports of my fame are greatly exaggerated,
Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax
Is highly complicated because I immigrated from the single
Greatest little place in the Caribbean,
I love it.
Compare them to the opening verses of Hamilton as delivered by Aaron Burr:
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 and squalor,
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The basic theme is the same: how immigrants learn to survive/thrive in America. What deepens in Hamilton, beyond the musical notes themselves, is the historical sense of this migrant condition. The effort to recover the past for the present, introduced by the next line’s yoking of our inert “ten-dollar” portrait with that Caribbean “founding father,” culminates in the suggestion that we will finally “know [Hamilton] rewrote the game.” Hamilton might seem like just “another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom”; as with Usnavi, whose name you’ve probably “never heard,” so too with the Treasury Secretary: “America forgot him.” But the rest of the musical serves to convince us precisely why we shouldn’t have forgotten. Perhaps the most dramatic accomplishment of Hamilton is that its message was heard beyond the stage. According to the Obama administration, the show’s success—or perhaps more accurately, the show’s successful portrayal of Hamilton himself as a success—helped to convince the Treasury Department to keep this other founding father on the $10 bill.
Miranda’s search for historical analogies between the early republic and the age of Obama also led him to reinterpret Hamilton’s relationship to US racial politics and the legacy of slavery. At the most basic level, the play follows Chernow’s biography in depicting Hamilton as a conscientious abolitionist. In a well-known scene, the Treasury Secretary confronts Thomas Jefferson in the heat of a cabinet (rap) battle with the following rhyme:
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor,
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.’’
Yeah, keep ranting,
we know who’s really doing the planting.
These lines have earned plaudits from critics who appreciate how the musical exposes latent contradictions in the slave-holding Jefferson’s agrarian discourse. Others, however, have objected to the lines’ insinuation that Hamilton himself was an anti-slavery crusader. Last year, the novelist and essayist Ishmael Reed lambasted the play’s omission of references to Hamilton’s involvement in the slave trade, and historian Lyra Monteiro pointed out that for all the diversity of its on-stage actors, the musical effectively silenced the contributions of African American historical actors to the Revolution and early republic. To be fair, Chernow acknowledges that Hamilton’s continued ties to the slave trade compromised his up-from-the-bootstraps narrative and later membership in the New York Manumission Society. Of the fund that allowed the young Hamilton to move from the island of St. Croix to New York, for instance, Chernow observes: “the education of this future abolitionist was partly underwritten by sugarcane harvested by slaves.” Yet in lyricizing this moment, Hamilton itself settles for a weaker form of adjacency: “And every day while/slaves were being slaughtered and carted/away across the waves, he struggled and kept/his guard up.”
In Hamilton The Revolution, Miranda glosses the line with an argument taken almost straight from Chernow: “Hamilton’s early life was marked by trauma and a firsthand view of the brutal practices of the slave trade.” But Hamilton never actually wrote about his relationship to the slave trade in St. Croix (as Reed points out and Chernow confirms), so the idea that Hamilton’s early experience with slavery haunted his psyche smacks of a kind of wishful thinking. Though the play does not let us forget about slavery, it never fully reckons with Hamilton’s ties to the institution.
Yet it would be a mistake to reduce Hamilton’s racial politics to the amount of stage time that it explicitly devotes (or fails to devote) to the question of slavery. That’s not to give Miranda a free pass on his depiction of the founding because of a misguided idea of poetic license—indeed, Miranda himself has stressed that he reached out to Chernow because he “wanted to get the history right.” Rather, it’s because Hamilton, like all other artistic works that deal with the past, speaks simultaneously to the historical moment it depicts and to the historical context in which it was produced. It’s therefore important to remember that Hamilton appeared in the immediate aftermath of several high-profile films about slavery, most notably Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the first film by a black director to win an Academy Award.
Indeed, the Obama years have seen a resurgence of the genre of the so-called neo-slave narrative, that is, contemporary works that imaginatively reinvent the country’s past from the perspective of the slaves themselves. As literary scholar Ashraf Rushdy has shown, the neo-slave narrative emerged in the wake of the civil rights and black power movements, a kind of artistic equivalent to the bottom-up narratives emerging in recently minted black studies departments as well as the post-sixties historical profession as a whole. The early novels in the genre, which included Alex Haley’s bestselling Roots, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Beloved, and Ishmael Reed’s own Flight to Canada, sought to self-consciously undermine both idealized portraits of the antebellum South and the “great white man” narratives that revolved around “visionary” politicians such as Lincoln.
More recently, however, there has been a backlash against the Obama-era resurgence of the genre, ranging from Adolph Reed’s critique of the fetishization of autonomous black agency in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained to Snoop Dogg’s objections to the remake of Roots, based on the idea that the entertainment industry “wants to keep showing the abuse we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago.” In Snoop Dogg’s call for a more affirmative vision of black life—“ When you all going to make a fucking series about the success that black folks is having”—one notes a sentiment that seems widely shared by the African American cast members of Hamilton. Okieriete Onaodowan, for instance, who plays Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in the show, is quoted in Hamilton The Revolution as saying that he had no desire to do “another show about a messed-up black kid,” and that in Hamilton, “I’m a black man playing a wise, smart, distinguished future president.” Elsewhere Diggs has claimed that “I walked out of the show with a sense of ownership over American history. Part of it is seeing brown bodies play these people.”
Monteiro and (Ishmael) Reed imply that such statements reflect the cast’s failure to fully understand the contradictions of their participation in the play, but this just doesn’t seem true, especially when we take into account Onaodowan’s statement that he’s “hyperconscious” about the acting roles he takes and Leslie Odom Jr.’s insistence that he was/is “a student of African American history.” More likely, the African American actors decided to join the show based on an awareness of the dominant genres of black historical representation in the age of Obama—the neo-slave narrative, the civil rights drama (Selma), the black uplift film (42, Red Tails) —and a desire to make a different kind of art.
Whatever one might feel about the politics of Hamilton’s color-conscious casting, it’s a choice that seems motivated, once again, by an Obamaesque historical vision. In Obama’s most famous statement on race, the 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech delivered just three months before Miranda reportedly picked up Chernow’s biography, the then-primary candidate began with an account of the contradictions of the country’s founding. Describing the Constitution as an indispensable but unfinished document, which appealed loftily to the principles of liberty yet remained “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery,” Obama insisted that its redemption had demanded the labor of “successive generations who were willing to do their part…to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.” Obama was referring to nineteenth-century abolitionists and mid-twentieth-century civil rights activists who struggled against legal inequality, but he was also strategically positioning his own candidacy—and later presidency—as evidence that racial progress continues to occur. He expressed his optimism by repeatedly quoting a line from MLK (itself a variation on a quote from Theodore Parker): “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Miranda’s idea was to literally, i.e. visually, cast Obama’s argument onstage. We see the arc of U.S. history, from Washington to Obama, in the actors themselves. We visualize the promise of the ideals of the Constitution—or at least Obama’s version of them—embodied in our time. The plausibility of the musical’s casting decision thus depends, in ways both immediately obvious and surprising difficult to pinpoint analytically, on the simple fact that we have a black president. Although the musical dramatizes the counterfactual, it makes its greatest emotional pitch to the actual. In this sense it is significant that while Miranda himself took the role of Hamilton, who never achieved the nation’s highest office, the country’s early presidents (Washington, Jefferson, and Madison) are all played by black actors (Christopher Jackson, Diggs, and Onaodowan respectively). This seems calculated to produce a particular affective response in the audience. In the heated debates between Washington and Hamilton, for example, where the commander-in-chief always has the last word, we are meant to be struck both by the gravitas of the nation’s first president and by our concurrent awareness that we live in a time in which nobody holds more power than a black man. The show’s color-conscious casting is less a subversive gesture than a performative demonstration of how Obamaesque incrementalism leads to substantive change over time.
Hamilton also encourages its audience to divine an economic message in Hamilton’s eighteenth-century worldview that can speak to the divided politics of the present. The musical has received mixed reviews on this front, too. An April New York Times article quoted historian Sean Wilentz’s remark that Hamilton was “more a man for the 1% than the 99%” and that his theatrical conversion into “an up-from-under hero…seems dissonant amidst the politics of 2016.” And in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik captured the paradox of the musical’s framing succinctly: “Though the show was made by progressive artists for largely liberal and even leftish audiences, its hero, Alexander Hamilton, has been, far from exclusively but typically, a hero of Wall Street—the man who brought in a national bank in order to fuel city-bound capitalism in place of Jeffersonian agrarian localism: the very first ‘bankster.’”
Gopnik’s insight seems basically right: the show does indeed make the case that Obama is “directly in the line of Hamiltonian liberalism.” But Gopnik’s conclusion, that Hamilton proves the ultimate correctness of Obama’s vision, is far too celebratory for me. Indeed, while I find it plausible and even likely that Hamilton’s artistic commentary on immigration and race seeks to discredit the contemporary political right, on matters of money, the musical demonstrates a clear liberal argument against the left.
Hamilton’s economic vision is a blend of Chernow and Obama. In the prologue to his Hamilton biography, written before the 2008 financial crisis, Chernow referred to Hamilton as the “prophet of the capitalist revolution in America” and counterposed his “finer sense of economic opportunity” to “the rosy agrarian rhetoric and slaveholding reality of Jeffersonian democracy.” “Today,” Chernow concludes, “we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world” (here one gets a sense of where Miranda’s historical telescoping comes from).
In fact, Miranda’s musical, composed in the midst of the Great Recession, hints at the more sinister aspects of Hamiltonian capitalism that Chernow’s biography plays down. In the Jefferson/Hamilton debate during the first cabinet battle, for instance, Jefferson gets in his own zinger about Hamilton’s Wall Street connections: “In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground/We create. You just wanna move our money around.” In the vein of Miranda’s recent assertions that the play doles out as much shade as praise for Hamilton, he glosses the line in Hamilton The Musical thus: “Jefferson echoes the feelings of many Wall Street critics today…If I were watching that in a rap battle, I’d nod my head.” Yet the line hardly functions in the musical as the prelude to a sustained economic critique. Not only does Hamilton manifestly defeat Jefferson in the cabinet battle with his plan to “assume the [state’s] debts” so the Union “gets a new line of credit, a financial diuretic.” The musical, like Chernow’s biography, also insinuates that Jefferson and Hamilton represent the only viable alternatives for the economic blueprint of the nation.
Ironically enough, Aaron Burr—the musical’s villain and a kind of a third wheel in these founding debates—was one of the many politicians of the early republic whose economic views differed sharply from those of both Hamilton the banker’s man and Jefferson the slaver. As Burr biographer Nancy Isenberg has written, though the musical portrays Hamilton’s eventual killer as a “man without a compass,” Burr was in many respects a far more radical figure, one who “backed progressive policies for funding internal improvements such as roads and bridges, debtor relief, and establishing a more democratic method of electing state senators.”
This conviction in the inevitability of finance—or better yet, of our current financial system—is Obama’s as well. In the prologue to The Audacity of Hope, also written before the 2008 financial crisis, Obama follows his statement that he is “forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized” with an avowal of his rejection of certain “dogmatic” views of the Democratic Party: “I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship.” For Obama, as for Chernow, Hamilton represents the key figure of this alterative political tradition precisely because he wedded a belief in government intervention with faith in the market:
All the Founding fathers recognized the connection between private property and liberty, but it was Alexander Hamilton who also recognized the vast potential of a national economy—one based not on America’s agrarian past but on a commercial and industrial future. To realize this potential, Hamilton argued, America needed a strong and active national government, and as America’s first Treasury secretary he set about putting his ideas to work. He nationalized the Revolutionary War debt, which not only stitched together the economies of the individual states but helped spur a national system of credit and fluid capital markets.
After the economy collapsed in Bush’s last year of office, Obama gamely accepted the role of anti-corporate firebrand. But it was clear from both his appointments and his policy decisions that he continued to believe that the fundamentals of the economic system crafted by Hamilton remained sound. During the 2016 Democratic primary, the soundness of that system became the defining issue. As Gopnik suggests, there are many people who believe that Obama has charted the best course. And then, of course, there are many people who think he hasn’t. I suspect that the former will be more favorably disposed toward Hamilton than the latter.
This brings us full circle to Obama’s characterization of Hamilton that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, as a musical in which “we hear the debates that shaped our nation, and we hear the debates that are still shaping our nation.” In speaking about what “we hear” rather than what “we see,” Obama artfully evades the evident contradiction that only a small percentage of “us” can actually afford to see these debates about “our nation.” Everyone knows that Hamilton has become the most expensive show in Broadway history (the average ticket price skyrocketed to $1800 in early July, right before Miranda, Odom and Phillipa Soo left the show). And that means that it runs the risk of peddling a self-defeating message. Hamilton opens by telling us that we must bear witness to the story of how the nation’s first Treasury Secretary “changed the game,” yet that very game prohibits the vast majority of people from gaining access to the story. Somehow, “Listen to the soundtrack” seems to fall far short of the musical’s (and the president’s) hortatory idealism.
Of course, here, too, there is both a cynical and a generous reading of Hamilton’s economics. On one hand, when I saw Hamilton in late 2015 (full disclosure: I bought the ticket six months in advance for the face value of $140—a lot of money, but far less than any ticket on the secondary market), the theater appeared to be filled almost exclusively with older, white, wealthy patrons. And the disconnect between cast and audience felt very real. This struck me most forcefully when Daveed Diggs delivered the line, “If you don’t know, now you know, Mr. President,” an obvious reference—as even a white kid who grew up in the nineties could tell you—to that notorious verse from Biggie’s 1994 hit “Juicy:” “And if you don’t know, now you know, nigga.”
With this crowd, it simply didn’t register. The whole hip-hop ethos seemed, at that moment, thoroughly sanitized—complexly whitewashed, but whitewashed nonetheless. As Reed might suggest, this was a story about rich white people performed before rich white people (Monteira notes that 80% of all Broadway ticket buyers are white). On the other hand, when I finally saw In the Heights for the first time in Brooklyn in early May, having paid $18 that same day for my ticket, the contrast couldn’t have been greater. The crowd was diverse in age and background, attuned to both the razor-sharp lyrics and the socio-economic conditions that lay behind them. After its Broadway run, Miranda’s first show was licensed for amateur and professional production throughout the country—indeed, throughout the world. According to the In the Heights website, in the next few months you can see the show performed in Plano, TX, Phoenix, AZ, and… Hamilton, NJ. The same will likely be true of Hamilton once the Broadway show has earned its billions. At that point, Obama’s affirmation that “Hamilton is not just for people who can score a ticket to a pricey Broadway show; it’s a story for all of us, about all of us” will go from being a projection of desire to a statement of reality. Many, many people will eventually get to see it.
And herein lies another lesson of Obama’s Hamiltonian vision of our economic system: wealth is not a zero-sum game. Obama can laud Hamilton for its extraordinary financial success and for the producer’s commitment “to make sure that thousands of low-income students have a chance to see the show.” Ultimately, this seems to be Miranda’s vision as well—not only for Hamilton but also for Broadway itself in the twenty-first century. As Alisa Solomon writes in The Nation, Hamilton harks back to the “golden-age musical,” a genre that “may have had dark, even tragic, elements…but in the end [it] left audiences with a good feeling as they celebrated a community that cohered and looked to the future.” Solomon goes on to elaborate the subtle ways in which Hamilton’s ur-narrative of the American Dream superimposes an unrealistic expectation on the twenty-first century: “if Hamilton had been sent here today to attend college as he was some 240 years ago, he’d have accrued a huge burden of student-loan debt and would have been kicked back to the Caribbean as soon as his student visa expired.”
And let’s not forget that In the Heights, which begins by acknowledging the economic depression of its mostly Hispanic community—one of the main characters, Nina, drops out of Stanford because she can’t pay for her expenses—ends with the communal repartition of $96,000 from a winning lottery ticket. The metaphor here is suggestive. In 2016, the ticket to success may just be the ticket itself: the $2000 Broadway ticket as the pecuniary proof that the US economic system continues to pay fabulous dividends for a few; the lottery ticket as the recognition that for many others the best hope of realizing the American Dream is to submit to a game of chance.
Like other critics who have taken issue with aspects of Hamilton, I willingly admit that I’m obsessed with the musical and listen to the soundtrack regularly. What’s more, I recognize that the very form of the Broadway musical makes it a difficult medium for addressing many of the historical arguments that concern me most. But if I’m wary of the critical impulse to disregard Hamilton on purely political grounds, I’m equally mistrustful of the idea that the musical offers a real foundation for contemporary politics. Weirdly enough, though, this is where Hamilton-mania has taken us over the past few months. In his comments at the White House in March, in what seemed like a joke at the time, Obama asked Miranda if he had “any ideas about a show for Congress.”
In late April, Miranda took the president at his word—albeit with a single song rather than an entire show. Appearing at the end of a segment of Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver, he performed a thirty-second rhymed monologue on the Puerto Rican debt crisis. The song, which reiterated arguments Miranda had previously made in a March New York Times op-ed, implored Congress to draft a bill to bring debt relief to the embattled government of the island. Lyrically, Miranda was as impeccable as ever: “Paul Ryan, I’ll come sing Hamilton at your house; I’ll do-si-do with Pelosi; I’ll wear my Hamilton blouse.” And he demonstrated the same uncanny ability to sum up complex issues in a single verse: “3.5 million American civilians are on the hook for billions; vulture funds are circling and lobbying for payout; there’s nothing left to cut, we’re stuck; we need a way out.” Ostensibly, there was nothing wrong with his heartfelt appeal to a “nonpartisan” compromise.
But the ironically titled PROMESA bill that resulted from that compromise, and that Obama signed into law on June 30th, exemplifies the ongoing contradictions of the federal system that Hamilton set up. Approved by a Congress in which Puerto Rico has no voting representative, the law provides for the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt while imposing a seven-member oversight board (ominously referred to in Spanish as “La Junta”) appointed by Republican and Democratic leaders. Coupled with a recent Supreme Court ruling that Puerto Rico’s sovereignty ultimately rests with Congress rather than its own institutions and laws, PROMESA sends a clear signal that this all-too-frequently forgotten spot in the Caribbean remains a US colony in everything but name. Though the bipartisan bill passed both houses with relative ease, in Puerto Rico, the legislation has riven the population. As Ed Morales has written, echoing Oliver’s analysis on his show, opponents of the law argue that the debt crisis itself arose in large part because of patently discriminatory legal measures reflecting the island’s territorial status. (Other criticisms of the law—and Miranda’s involvement in its passage—can be found here, here, and here).
Both Miranda and Obama invoked Hamilton (and Hamilton) in pushing for the passage of PROMESA. In his March op-ed, Miranda matter-of-factly stated that “I write about Puerto Rico today just as Hamilton wrote about St. Croix in his time,” reiterating that when “I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton in 2008 [I] found the inspiration that changed my life.” On May 31, he published a Spanish-language article in favor of the bill in El Diario NY that began with an analogy between political compromise and artistic collaboration (“Collaboration is essential to the creation of a night of theater”). Obama similarly conjured the spirit of the author of the Federalist papers in his weekly presidential address on June 11, urging the Senate to adopt the bill. “This bill is not a perfect solution,” the president admitted, before immediately stressing that it was “only option” possible: “That’s what happens in divided government.” What he forgot to mention—and one would hope that all of the founding fathers would have pointed this out—is that Puerto Ricans themselves don’t play any role in that government.
In his video for the Tonys, Obama reaffirmed his belief that Hamilton has become “not only a smash-hit but a civics lesson.” But what exactly is that lesson? If the takeaway is that Obama’s presidency—in both its undeniable achievements and its undeniable limitations—has spurred a generation of artists to revisit the country’s history for answers to its present, then it’s a lesson I’m glad we’ve learned. As Hamilton director Thomas Kail eloquently put it in his Tony acceptance speech, “what we have seen this season is that there are stories to be told and that there are people who want to hear them.”
But if the lesson is that we should take our current policy cues from a telescoped version of eighteenth-century politics, then it’s one I’d rather not heed. Indeed, the main problem with the kind of typology that Hamilton endorses, in its relentless search for transhistorical equivalences, is that it fails to account for the real differences that have emerged in the actual historical development of the United States. However much it might pain us to hear it, America is no longer “young, scrappy, and hungry;” it is an entrenched, middle-aged superpower. The presidency of Barack Obama has rightfully infused hope that a different future is possible—and it’s worth recalling that difference even as we insist that it hasn’t been enough. But that’s all the more reason to reject the invocation of Hamiltonian expediency to impose the same austerity policies that have already failed to work in Puerto Rico (as elsewhere in Latin America). Here, too, we will need to rewrite the game.