We welcome a guest post today from John Mac Kilgore, author of Mania for Freedom: American Literatures of Enthusiasm from the Revolution to the Civil War. “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841. While this statement may read like an innocuous truism today, the claim would have been controversial in the antebellum United States when enthusiasm was a hotly contested term associated with religious fanaticism and poetic inspiration, revolutionary politics and imaginative excess. In analyzing the language of enthusiasm in philosophy, religion, politics, and literature, Kilgore uncovers a tradition of enthusiasm linked to a politics of emancipation. The dissenting voices chronicled here fought against what they viewed as tyranny while using their writings to forge international or antinationalistic political affiliations.
In today’s post, Kilgore discusses the realities of the real Alexander Hamilton versus the Hamilton of the critically acclaimed musical.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton is undeniably great. I love its wit, its verve, its inventiveness. Nevertheless, I’m troubled by its wild popularity. And I’m not the only early American scholar who feels that way.
Why are some of us troubled? There are many reasons, but I’ll stick to the obvious one: Alexander Hamilton. In today’s parlance, Hamilton is the voice of “the 1%” par excellence. This is a man who wanted to create a “fiscal-military state.” A man who opposed a Bill of Rights. A man who desired to integrate banking interests, patrician power, and the federal government. A man who encouraged the suppression—by force—of any and all popular dissent against federal bureaucracy, whether it was the “wicked insurgents of the West,” as he called members of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, or the “head Quarters of Faction,” as he called the state of Virginia when its legislature opposed the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts on constitutional grounds. And let’s tarry here for a second with the Alien and Sedition Acts. They were not only xenophobic, they also criminalized criticism of the government, what Hamilton dubbed “incendiary and seditious” speech. This is Hamilton: “Renegade Aliens conduct more than one of the most incendiary presses in the UStates. . . . Why are they not sent away?”
None of these realities, of course, show up in the musical. And they couldn’t. Why? Because Hamilton’s exercise in Founder’s hagiography relies heavily on the portrait of Hamilton as an immigrant himself, a self-made man of humble origins, as if this bootstrap narrative were crucial to his political identity. The opposite is true.
Yes, Hamilton has his admirable qualities. Yes, his role in the Revolutionary transformation of American society should be better appreciated. And nobody denies his genius as the mastermind behind the American federal and finance system. To villainize him is just as false as to lionize him. More to the point, why should anyone expect a popular drama to give a nuanced critical history lesson? I certainly don’t. And I could forgive Hamilton for refusing to present a more balanced picture of the man’s politics if not for the fact that smart historical criticism (of slavery, for example) is foundational to its power and charm. My point is this: it’s such an incongruous moment to perpetuate Founders Chic, to applaud the man who is the ideological father of Wall Street, the debt economy, deportation, militarism, and the criminalization of protest. I can’t sing to that.
Hamilton also works at cross purposes with the predominant ethos of early American historians, cultural critics, and literary scholars. Our goal as academics has been to move “beyond the Founders” and tell the complicated, uneven, less triumphant stories of revolution and nation-building, the stories of a heterogeneous America plotted on a grid of global exchange and imperial conflict, the stories of voiceless commoners, people of color, and women, including the plurality of ideas and interests—the dissensus—that defined the early republic (outside of the Cabinet Battles). Many of us feel that it is the proper hour to accent what Dana Nelson recently calls “vernacular or commons democracy,” democracy from below, not Hamilton’s republican formalism. We want to give power and perspective back to the Americans whom Hamilton called the “unthinking populace,” the multitudes who, disrespectful of their betters, and in “opposition to tyranny and oppression,” “run into anarchy,” the same anti-populist rhetoric deployed at the Republican National Convention against the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movement. In my work, I’m trying to write against the grain of Hamiltonian constitutionalism as the horizon of the political, to emphasize another American legacy of the people’s democratic dissent. And when I hear Black Lives Matter protesters chanting, “No justice, no peace,” I’m reminded that this was also the message of Thomas Paine. And Tecumseh. And Martin Delany. And Walt Whitman.
Let us imagine, then, an award-winning musical about a young West African girl seized from her home, brought to America on a slave ship named The Phillis, and sold to a rich Boston family; a precocious girl who learned to read Greek and Latin, and as a young woman published one of the most remarkable books of American poetry, chronicled the Anglo-American crisis, criticized the hypocrisy of American slavery, corresponded with George Washington, traveled to England as a celebrity where she met the Earl of Dartmouth and Benjamin Franklin, and ultimately wrote her way to emancipation before her tragic death at the age of 31, while living and laboring, poor and ill, in a discriminatory environment with few opportunities for black people. “What’s your name, woman?” “My name is Phillis Wheatley.”
Let us imagine that story performed at the GRAMMYs or the White House. Though I can’t help but wonder: would Miranda’s Wheatley musical receive the same universal acclaim? Excite the same interest? Would it be so hard to get a ticket to that show? In the finale of Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings, “But when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?” And the Company later echoes with the chorus, “Will they tell your story? Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Indeed, Phillis Wheatley. Indeed, Crispus Attucks. Indeed, Deborah Sampson. Indeed, Little Turtle. Who does remember your name? Who will tell your story?
John Mac Kilgore is assistant professor of English at Florida State University. His book Mania for Freedom: American Literatures of Enthusiasm from the Revolution to the Civil War is now available.