The conflicting sides of 'Hamilton'

The release of the popular musical on Disney+ has reignited debate about the show’s characterization of the Founding Fathers

Revisiting the popular musical in these unprecedented times.
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The much-anticipated Disney+ release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit Hamilton landed in our living rooms amidst a confluence of global, political, and social justice movements. 

Hamilton is the reimagined history of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary appointed by George Washington. With its trailblazing cast of diverse actors, Hamilton is “the story of America then, told by America now.” 

With refreshed interest in the musical, some are advocating to ‘cancel’ Hamilton because of its titular character’s relationship with slavery, which many say is glossed over in the show. 

However, there are those, myself included, who believe we can still enjoy Hamilton while engaging with its subject matter critically.

This extraordinary time we’re living through is a powerful moment for the release of this pro-shot version of Hamilton. Theatrically, the show is ground-breaking. Politically, it’s driving vital conversation about race and legacy.

Most representations of American history aren’t without their flaws, and Hamilton is no exception. As a 17th-century immigrant and abolitionist, Hamilton’s thirst for influential peers has inspired 21st-century criticism. Although Hamilton didn’t own slaves himself, his close relationships with many who did left him, at best, complicit in American slavery. 

Additionally, criticism regarding the play’s celebration of the Founding Fathers, most of whom were slave owners, has raised concerns about the show’s potential idolization of these figures

Now, amidst the current social and political climate, the story of Hamilton undoubtedly affects many of us differently than it did when the show was in its original run. The musical resonates with its audience in a deeply personal way, and in the context of systemic racism in Canada and the United States, the legacy of America’s Founding Fathers is not a good one.

In a statement, the Executive Chairman of Disney, Bob Iger, said “in light of the extraordinary challenges facing our world, this story is about leadership, tenacity, hope, love and the power of people to unite against the forces of adversity is both relevant and impactful.” 

In Miranda’s retelling of American history, his vision was the story of the country’s Founding Fathers made relatable to a diverse modern American audience. As journalist Alana Semuels put it, Hamilton communicates a version of American history in which both women and people of colour “share the spotlight with the founding fathers.” 

While the deliberate casting of predominantly non-white actors as white historical figures doesn’t absolve the show of its failure to engage with the Founding Fathers’ role in slavery beyond a few throw-away lyrics, it emphasizes in its own way that the history of the United States is not the history of only white Americans. 

Alexander Hamilton’s life embodies what many consider to be the American dream. As an immigrant and a self-made man who clawed his way to success, there’s strength and resiliency in his story that’s relatable to many audiences. 

History cannot be rewritten, nor should it be censored. Discussing the uncomfortable parts of a nation’s history is important in a conversation about legacy. Hamilton gives us the latitude to do just that: not only drive important conversation, but continuously better our understanding of the lasting impacts of a contentious time in history. 

The show doesn’t meditate on the Founding Fathers’ legacy perfectly, but that too should be included in the dialogue Hamilton inspires. 

 
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