The Problem with Hamilton

Like many of us probably did, I watched “Hamilton” on Disney+ this past summer, and I have a confession to tell you: I really did not like it. For all of you gasping and shaking your heads in disbelief, I will explain some of my legitimate concerns with this cult-favorite musical and why I was so deeply disappointed with it.

As we all should know by now, we are in the midst of an anti-racism movement in the United States due to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer. During a time when Americans are finally attempting to own up to the horrifically racist past (and present) history of this nation, it seems so incredibly regressive to have so many people praising and even becoming obsessed with such a sugarcoated, propaganda-esque piece of media like Hamilton.

While this musical is littered with flaws, the biggest issues I will tackle today are how Hamilton glamorizes slave-owners, glosses over some of America’s most deeply disturbing history, and how it fails drastically in its intent to provide “good representation” to minority groups. 

I’m going to lay down some of the key facts for you:

  • Thomas Jefferson fathered several children raised by his slave Sally Hemmings (the nature of the relationship is unknown, but the power imbalance is as clear as day).
  • While Jefferson was abolitionist, he owned about 600 slaves in his lifetime and was greatly white supremacist in this belief that Africans were inferior to white people and had to be shipped back home after they were freed.
  • Hamilton’s own wife came from one of the largest slaveholding families in New York.
  • Hamilton supported the 3/5 compromise in the Constitution, which counted every enslaved person as three-fifths of a human being to give the Southern states greater representation in Congress.
  • George Washington became a slave owner at the age of 11 and owned about 150 slaves in his life, although this number increased after marrying his wife Martha. 
  • George Washington also whipped and beat his slaves, as well as split up families as a form of chastisement. He also purposefully evaded legislation that would have freed enslaved laborers if they escaped.

These are all abhorrible attributes of some of the main characters of this musical (and our “Founding Fathers”), yet there is almost no discussion of this in the painstaking two hours and forty minute-long musical. While there is so much detail and attention brought the Hamilton’s complicated (and F-boy-like) romantic life, there is an apparent lack of necessary conversation centered around the topic of slavery, despite it being a key point of debate during the era. 

Yes, I understand that Hamilton is meant to be a piece of entertainment and not an AP U.S. History lecture, but discussion of racism is seldom boring if you actually care about the issue. If this is something you wish to look into and learn more about I implore you to check out Dr. Ibram X Kendi’s antiracist book recommendation list

Let’s move on to why Hamilton is a terribly failed attempt at providing representation. There is so little representation of people who are non-white, non-cis, and/or non-heterosexual in today’s media, yet in my opinion Hamilton does nothing to combat that. While the original cast of Hamilton has indeed a diverse group of black, Asian, Latinx, and mixed-race actors, it is truly imperative to point out that they are all portraying old rich white people – okay Hamilton wasn’t rich but essentially everyone else was. The intention behind the color-blind casting is quite obvious – to provide roles for nonwhite actors who are starving for proper roles on stage. Yes, nonwhite actors completely do deserve the chance to star in shows and I hope we can see more of this in the future, but the issue with Hamilton is that it only provides the most surface-level experience of representation for the nonwhite audience member. It is great to see actors that look similar to us on stage or on the big screen, but it is even more important to see those actors telling stories about these nonwhite characters and providing different perspectives to mainstream media that has for so long been all too one-note. 

Hamilton does not do this. It is a retelling of white history that overshadows all of the stories missing from America’s past. It is merely a reinforcement of the racist and white supremacist propaganda we received as children in school from biased textbooks. Color-blind casting is simply a disguise for these harmful reinforcements of false history that demand we see America as the leader of the “free world”. 

Hamilton seems to me to be an objectively bad musical. It came out in 2015, so I refuse to acknowledge any arguments that say it is just dated and contains many “complexities” we have only now realized in 2020. Racism did not just come into existence in 2020. Slavery did not start to become controversial in 2020. Representation did not start being an issue in 2020. These are all things minority groups have been discussing through a critical lens for decades, and it is only now that the white majority are giving it some thought. 

Please, let’s stop romanticizing American history like it doesn’t have centuries of white supremacy and racism entrenched into it. We should be encouraging pieces of media like the 1619 Project that recognize U.S. history through a necessary critical lens, not ones that bolster trite myths about our Founding Fathers. We can all do better, so let’s try.