PBS’s documentary on Hamilton (the musical), the value of historic sites, and being a Hamiltonian when Hamilton wasn’t cool


I finally got around to watching that PBS documentary on the making of Broadway’s Hamilton (which premiered last week to an audience of 3.6 million viewers), so I thought I would share a few thoughts on it. When I first started teaching back in the late 1990s, I was at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond. Most of my students were Virginia natives and had grown up with teachers that loved Thomas Jefferson and vilified Alexander Hamilton. They almost always expressed some surprise when I complicated that picture by giving a more sympathetic depiction of Hamilton, and, in fact, I embraced a more Hamiltonian point of view when discussing the Early Republic. I took great glee in this, as it not only got students to see that history is contested, but also because I was (and am) an avowed Hamilton fan.

When I moved back to my home state of Alabama for grad school and also began teaching here, I found much less resistance from students that had not grown up in the shadow of Monticello. But what I did find was graduate courses with the eminent historian Forrest McDonald, and he was obviously a fervent defender of Hamilton. I came to appreciate the least-celebrated of the Founders even more, and over the years have engaged in debates with fellow grad students and now colleagues over the whole Jefferson/Hamilton divide (which are all the more fun in casual conversations).  My undergrad courses in US History to 1877 have always incorporated that division in some way in the final exam, with students always pretty much aware of where I stand. So yes, what I am trying to point out is that I was Hamiltonian when Hamilton wasn’t cool.

But now he is cool.  Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical (which was inspired by Ron Chernow’s exhaustive and exhausting biography), Hamilton is now the hippest of all the Founders and Jefferson is the villain of the story. The PBS documentary does an exceptional job of showing the very personal reasons why Miranda became obsessed with Hamilton, and gives some interesting insights into the process of writing a musical. The generous helpings of performance clips were also mesmerizing (especially for someone that has not seen the show yet), and offered a broad outline of how the musical translates the main events of Hamilton’s life for the stage. Along the way, the documentary provides commentary from cast members (including Miranda himself), celebrities and politicians (including Jimmy Fallon, who admits that he had barely even heard of Hamilton before seeing the show, and George W. Bush–strangely enough),  but also from several nicely chosen historians. The result is a pretty good mini-biography of Alexander Hamilton which offers a sympathetic rendering of his life.

It also indirectly promotes historic tourism.  I loved that the documentary featured scenes of cast members visiting historic sites associated with Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton’s lives (as well as George Washington’s), as they learned from museum curators, historic home tour guides, and National Park Service rangers. The experiences were clearly inspirational for the cast members (especially for Miranda and Christopher Jackson–who portrays Washington in the musical) and helped them to feel more connected to their roles.  As a big believer in the value of historic sites as teaching tools, I am hopeful that the many people that have fallen in love with the musical might be inspired by the documentary to seek out these sites, and from there begin to look for other historic sites around them and while traveling.

And yet, even as a Hamilton fan, I was a little annoyed by the hero-making aspects of both the musical and the documentary. Jefferson’s objections to Hamilton’s policies and character definitely do not get much treatment, and this is despite the fact that Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed was one of the documentary’s talking heads. I’m more than certain that she offered her interviewers commentary that provided a more complicated view of both Jefferson and Hamilton, but most of it must have been left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I won’t complain too much about this, but it does leave me wondering if the pop cultural power of the musical (which will soon be traveling the country and will no doubt eventually get turned into a movie) will soon have such an impact that future teachers will find students are stunned when they offer a sympathetic treatment of Jefferson!

Bottom line: if you have it recorded or want to stream it online (which you can do with the link below), be sure to catch the documentary. It will make you hunger to see the musical and inspire you while watching Miranda’s passion and his creative process (He is a very interesting artist). It also provides a nice little history lesson, although not a very objective one.

I guess I will just have to accept that being a Hamilton fan no longer places me in an exclusive club.



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