Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton is, without question, the decade’s biggest Broadway hit. Based on historian Ron Chernow’s biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, the hip-hop-infused musical has grossed more than $1 billion and won a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy, and nearly a dozen Tony Awards. And it’s certain to gain a new legion of fans come July 3, with the release of the Hamilton movie on Disney+.
Put simply, Hamilton made history, but it’s also made of history. So, that begs the question: Just how accurate is it?
Miranda — who wrote the music, lyrics, and book — was so committed to making Hamilton true to real life that he brought on Chernow as a historical consultant. ”I felt an enormous responsibility to be as historically accurate as possible,” Miranda told The Atlantic, “while still telling the most dramatic story possible.”
But those two interests — historical accuracy and dramatic storytelling — occasionally clashed. Indeed, there are moments where Hamilton fudges the fine points: Timelines are condensed, characters are collapsed, thorny details are glossed over. It doesn't take much internet sleuthing to find article after article after article bemoaning all the facts Hamilton gets wrong.
But the musical was never intended to be a work of scholarship. It’s a work of commercial entertainment. And despite its factual faults, as far as musical theater goes, it’s one of the most historically accurate scripts to ever grace the Great White Way. But don’t take our word for it. Take Ron Chernow’s.
Writing in The New York Times Magazine in 2015, the historian said: “[Miranda] has plucked out the dramatic essence of the character — his vaulting ambition, his obsession with legacy, his driven nature, his roving eye, his brilliant mind, his faulty judgment.” And Chernow isn't the show's only fan. Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of American History at Yale University and a leading expert on Alexander Hamilton’s life, wrote in Slate that “Miranda’s telling … contains a remarkable amount of historical fact.”
The truth is, the majority of Hamilton sticks to … well … the truth.
"History has its eyes on you."
To start, the musical nails all the basic biographical details: Hamilton was an immigrant raised in the West Indies who rose to become an accomplished lawyer and revolutionary soldier, eventually landing a spot as one of George Washington’s right-hand men. He became the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, was embroiled in one of the nation’s first political sex scandals, and ultimately died after a fateful duel with then-Vice President Aaron Burr.
But these are general plot points; it’s in the finer details that Hamilton shines. “The creation of a national bank, the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, the ‘dinner deal’ that moved the United States’ capital south: All receive their due in rap battles and ballads,” Freeman wrote.
Even the easy-to-miss bits of biography get their due. At the show’s start, Hamilton is drawn to Burr because of their similar backgrounds. In the musical, as they did in life, Burr and Hamilton share parallel lives: Both are parentless, both establish law practices at the same time, and both concurrently climb the ladder of America’s fledgling government.
Hamilton also deftly captures a key difference of character between the men: privilege. Burr had family connections that helped catapult him to the highest levels of political society. Hamilton, on the other hand, was a poor immigrant from Nevis. Hamilton accurately paints Burr as a tight-lipped patrician, a man of manners who claims it’s best to “talk less, smile more.” One of Burr’s contemporaries, General Erastus Root, said Burr’s manner of speaking was “terse and convincing.” Hamilton, on the other hand, was “flowing and rapturous.”
Hamilton’s “flowing and rapturous” nature is something the musical captures magnificently. Lacking the privileged upbringing of the other founders, Hamilton swaggered with a chip on his shoulder. He was obsessed with proving himself and, as a result, could be something of a loose cannon. Some founders looked down on his unrefined background. John Adams, for instance, routinely questioned his Americanness and was “preoccupied with Hamilton’s illegitimacy and foreign birth and could be quite heartless on the subject,” according to Chernow.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hamilton wasn’t immune to feelings of not belonging. He wrote in 1802, “Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.” But as the musical depicts, he wasn’t one to give up so easily.
"Why do you write like it's going out of style?"
In late 1775, Hamilton wrote a series of 14 essays called “The Monitor,” in which he argued that colonists should prepare to “lead an honourable life or to meet with resignation a glorious death.” This “swooning fascination with martyrdom,” as Chernow calls it, is present throughout the musical. At one point, Hamilton’s character says: “I will lay down my life if it sets us free.”
It’s in this kind of material — where Hamilton refers to primary source documents — that the musical does some of its best historical work. It’s stuffed with citations to 18th- and 19th-century letters, essays, and speeches.
Take, for instance, the moment where Hamilton pleads with George Washington to stay on as president for a third term (which happened in real life, too). The president declines, saying, “I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree.” In truth, that was one of Washington’s favorite phrases. The words, a reference to scripture (Micah 4:4), appear in Washington’s personal papers nearly 50 times.
There are also dozens of references to Hamilton’s own writings. Just look at the lines from the opening number, which describe how a young Hamilton came to America.
Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned / Our man saw his future drip, drippin’ down the drain / Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain / And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain.
This is a reference to one of Hamilton’s earliest known publications, a 1772 missive describing a hurricane that ravaged the West Indies. This “first refrain” was published in The Royal Danish American Gazette and convinced locals to pool their money together and send the young man to stay in the United States (a scenario aptly described in the song “Hurricane”).
The musical also explicitly calls out the flirtatious letters shared between Hamilton and his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church. In 1787, one of Angelica’s correspondences contained a misplaced comma, making the letter sound ambiguously amorous. The exchange is captured in the song “Take a Break,” with Angelica obsessing over one of Hamilton’s own saucily-placed commas.
In a letter I received from you two weeks ago / I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase / It changed the meaning. Did you intend this?
Where some bits take inspiration from primary source documents, others quote directly from them. In the song “One Last Time,” a tune about George Washington’s farewell address, the characters sing passages lifted straight from the first President’s speech. (The song also accurately touches on some of the topics in the address, such as Washington’s desire to stay neutral in foreign wars — like the French Revolution — and his admonishment of partisanship.)
But the most notable straight-from-the-source moment appears after Hamilton cheats on his wife, Eliza Schuyler. In 1792, while he was Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton had an affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds. When Maria’s husband discovered the tryst, he blackmailed Hamilton and demanded hush money. News of the affair eventually leaked, and rumors began to swirl that Hamilton had engaged in illegal speculation with federal funds. In other words, Hamilton was caught in a major sex scandal tinged with allegations of corruption, prompting him to air his dirty laundry in a long defense now called “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” The musical recites some of the text almost word-for-word.
“The charge against me is in connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife for a considerable time — with his knowing consent.”
“There’s definitely fidelity to the primary sources,” Kalenna Black, an education specialist at the Library of Congress, told Library of Congress Magazine. “There are whole passages that are just taken verbatim.”
"Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"
If there’s one place where Hamilton fails to draw directly from primary source materials, it’s in the dynamic between Hamilton and his wife, Eliza. And there’s a good reason for that.
Fans of the musical already know that Eliza burned all of her letters after learning about her husband’s affair. In life, Eliza actually did burn most of her letters, though it’s not certain when — or why — she destroyed them. Miranda acknowledges this problem by spinning some self-conscious lyrics: “Let future historians wonder / How Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.”
Indeed, it’s Hamilton’s interactions with women that provide some of the musical’s most factually questionable moments. The show suggests, for example, that Eliza spurned Alexander after learning about the affair and only began to slowly reconnect while they jointly grieved the loss of their firstborn, Philip, after he was killed in a duel. But that timeline is all wrong — she did leave for her parents’ home in Albany, New York, for a couple of months (and gave birth to their sixth child there), but she returned to New York City in late 1797, four years before Philip’s ill-fated duel. The musical also suggests that Angelica was the first Schuyler sister to start crushing on Hamilton, though this likely wasn’t the case — Angelica was already married.
Some of these fictional moments are because Miranda had no choice but to make an educated guess. Others are mere matters of convenience. The Song “Ten Duel Commandments,” for example, accurately describes the gentlemanly procedure of properly organizing a duel. But the real Code Duello lists 25 rules (which would have made for an unnecessarily long and meandering song). Additionally, the Schuyler sisters are presented as a brotherless trio, but in fact they had many more siblings, including brothers. (They were the three oldest children, however.) Meanwhile, one of the musical’s most glaring historical flubs revolves around Hamilton’s duel with Burr, which is depicted as occurring after Burr’s failed bid for president in 1800. In truth, it happened after Burr’s failed run for Governor of New York in 1804. (But that’s not as high-stakes a climax, is it?)
When it comes to these variances from reality, Miranda told The Atlantic, “When I did part from the historical record or take dramatic license, I made sure I was able to defend it to Ron [Chernow], because I knew that I was going to have to defend it in the real world.” And the real world has certainly judged it. Critics have argued that the show exaggerates Hamilton’s anti-slavery sentiment and inaccurately characterizes Hamilton — a bona fide elitist — as a man-of-the-people.
But by the same token, the musical gets much more right than it gets wrong. And it has undoubtedly inspired a generation of students to become more interested in America’s history. In fact, a pair of enterprising students at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg recently investigated 208 lines in Hamilton that “raised questions of authenticity” and fact-checked them. Their results? They found that 77% of the lines in question were factual, 19% were fictional, and 4% occupied an ambiguous gray area.
In other words, Hamilton got a C+. But, from the perspective of Miranda's imagined Alexander Hamilton, the "10-dollar Founding Father" would surely be pleased with his newfound legacy and musical perpetuity.
Feature image credit: kilyan_s/ Unsplash