Many people in Britain wouldn’t have heard of Alexander Hamilton before the musical adaptation of his life was launched in 2015.
The musical depicts a life of dramatic turbulence and is based on the biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
He is described as a revolutionary and painted as a progressive outsider who struggled defiantly against slavery and for a strong economy to lift the US onto the international stage.
The production, written and performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has generated thousands of column inches. Liberals love it because it popularises and sanitises their worldview.
One review in the New York Times said, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But Hamilton… might just about be worth it.”
Hamilton has been defended by some on the left. Compared to sexist, racist US president Donald Trump, he may have been a paragon of virtue.
But he was no friend of working class people and his vision of the US wasn’t to be rid of exploitation or oppression, rather a different economic model with which slavery didn’t fit.
Hamilton was born on January 11th 1757 (or possibly 1755) in Charlestown, Nevis, in the West Indies. By the age of 12 he was orphaned and had a job in a general store.
In 1772, his aunts had saved enough money to send him to New York to study and the year after was enrolled in Kings College. In 1775, he began his military career and in 1776 named Captain of the Provincial Company on New York Artillery.
This struggle from modest beginnings to leading in the American military during the war for independence is championed as a momentous individual achievement that we should all look up to.
This is really what the musical seeks to do—promote the individual successes of Hamilton as a symbol for “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”.
But Hamilton’s military role gave him the insight that the US’s freedom from British rule left it weak and vulnerable. For him what was crucial was industrialization led by a strong federal government, combined with a permanent military that could serve a political and economic role.
US magazine The Nation described Hamilton as “spying the democratic promised land in the distance, slammed on the brakes, executed a nimble three-point turn, and sped off in the direction they had come—back toward empire, exploitation, and arbitrary rule.”
After his military career, he turned to law before politics, regularly clashing with other leading members like Jefferson and Washington.
He was a founding member of the New York Manumission society, a group made up of wealthy white men from New York who campaigned against slavery through legislation even though some of the members owned slaves or had made their fortunes through slavery.
This contradiction summed up the politics of the group, and would lead to the US Civil War.
Their objection to slavery wasn’t on the grounds that it was unjust. They wanted to break from the relatively inefficient and largely monocultural production of the Southern slave states so that the US could compete on a world stage.
They lobbied for the state of New York to abolish slavery and eventually won that all children of slaves would be freed and to stop the exportation of slaves.
However, the law stated that the same children would have to serve their mother’s owner until 28 for males, and age 25 for females.
There was also nothing listed in the law which dealt with slaves once they were freed as the issue was too contentious.
After years of scandal including resigning his position Hamilton was eventually killed in a duel with vice president Aaron Burr on July 11th 1804.
The musical takes the life of Hamilton as a re-imagining of American history in an attempt to relate to current conditions.
Mike Pence watched the show in New York. The producers wrote an announcement which said, “We truly hope that our show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
It was hailed as a blow against the Trump administration by shaming it. But liberal self-righteousness won’t get the change we need. Donald Trump, Mike Pence and the rest of them can’t be shamed to change their ways because they have no shame.
And fawning over Hamilton as a progressive figure is way off the mark.
In the lyrics between characters Lafayette and Hamilton say “We’ve had quite a run. Immigrants... we get the job done!”
Hamilton actually made it difficult for immigrants to become citizens and referred to them as “aliens” in letters to his friend Timothy Pickering. “The mass ought to be obliged to leave the country,” he wrote.
The show has been lauded for its use of rapping to tell the story.
Miranda says he wrote it this way because Hamilton reminded him of Tupac. But Tupac was a staunch critic of the US state and his mother was a Black Panther.
Hamilton was a pioneering capitalist who fought against the bill of rights. The day before his death he referred to democracy as the “real disease”.
The story of Hamilton is not one that should be celebrated and promoted.