What's so Great About Hamilton? DU History Professor Joyce Goodfriend Explains
Performances of Hamilton began in Denver last week, and it opened to rave reviews from critics and audience members alike. The musical tells the life story of founding father Alexander Hamilton, from his arrival in the American colonies as a young adult through his climactic duel with Aaron Burr. Joyce Goodfriend, a professor of history who specializes in the Early American time period, is also a self-professed Hamilton fan. Below she answers some questions about the musical and the man.
Q: How well does “Hamilton” the musical capture the life of the real Alexander Hamilton?
A: Although I have not yet had the opportunity to see the musical Hamilton, I do have the CD and have listened to the music and relished the lyrics many times. Alexander Hamilton, the 18th century New Yorker who captures the imagination of Broadway audiences every night, is clearly envisioned as a man for our times. Therefore, it's not surprising that the musical downplays aspects of his life that hold little appeal for people of the 21st century. As I wrote in the preface to my recent book Who Should Rule at Home? Confronting the Elite in British New York City (Cornell University Press, 2017), “Hamilton was a forward looking American entrepreneur eager to shed the encumbrances of a royalist society. That this young immigrant from the West Indies had quickly insinuated himself into the local gentry was conveniently obscured in the show, no doubt in recognition of the truth that Americans were bound to recoil at a hero who shared the elitist values of his privileged contemporaries.”
Q: Your latest book, Who Should Rule at Home? Confronting the Elite in British New York City, examines the cultural authority held by the urban elite in New York City from 1664 to 1776. Was Hamilton a part of elite society in those days?
A: By attending King’s College (now Columbia University) and marrying into the Schuyler family, a distinguished New York clan that traced its roots back to the Dutch colony of New Netherland, Hamilton situated himself squarely amid the city’s elite. Who Should Rule at Home? Confronting the Elite in British New York City illuminates the social world and core values of this powerful urban elite by focusing on the variety of challenges it faced to its cultural authority during the first three quarters of the 18th century. Directly and indirectly, individually and collectively, Dutch speakers, awakened Protestants, dissatisfied wives, and emboldened enslaved African workers stood up to the gentlemen who felt entitled to rule the city. The story of these multiple contests and the responses of the local elite to protest from below amplifies our understanding of the drama of the American Revolution as it unfolded in New York.
Q: Hamilton himself, and the show that bears his name, have become quite popular since the show debuted. How does a pop culture phenomenon like this affect our understanding of history, both as an academic discipline and our general cultural interest?
A: Indisputably, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a brilliant example of musical theater at its best. But Miranda’s appropriation of Hamilton is significant for another equally important reason—its salubrious effect on American popular culture. As a result of Miranda’s creativity, many Americans formerly oblivious to history now know that our country’s founders, not to mention the British King from whom they rebelled, need not be dry characters buried in dusty historical tomes. They can be infused with life and meaning for our generation through adopting our language, our sensibilities, and our cultural diversity. By arousing interest in the revolutionary generation, flaws and all, Hamilton has proved a tonic, not only in the classroom but across our communities.