Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of the award-winning hip-hop Broadway musical about the Founding Fathers, Hamilton. Evidently a New York Democratic Congressional candidate, Oliver Rosenberg, has heard of it too. During a debate on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC this week, Rosenberg quoted Alexander Hamilton to the effect of: “This is not a moment, this is the movement . .Foes oppose us. We take an honest stand. We roll like Moses claiming our promised land. Rise up, rise up and vote.”
Unfortunately for Rosenberg, it wasn’t long-dead founding father Alexander Hamilton who said that, but the character of Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton.
Granted, Miranda and his musical have become something of a cultural juggernaut, scooping up awards and securing a MacArthur “genius” grant for Miranda. Rosenberg might be forgiven for succumbing to the cultural zeitgeist (he was, however, resoundingly defeated at the polls).
But fans of the musical could see Rosenberg’s gaffe of a useful reminder of the malleability — and potentially misleading simplicity — of popular presentations of American history.
Although a few historians have faulted the musical for not being progressive enough, most have simply noted the production’s inaccuracies in its portrayal of key players in the nation’s founding. As the New York Times noted, “ ‘The show, for all its redemptive and smart aspects, is part of this ‘Founders Chic’ phenomenon,’ said David Waldstreicher, a historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who last September sounded an early note of skepticism on The Junto, a group blog about early American history.”
Louisiana State University history professor Nancy Isenberg added, “Hamilton may be (a) delight to watch, but let’s not convince ourselves that it honors the discipline of history. When he interviewed Lin-Manuel Miranda, Late Show host Stephen Colbert joked: “I didn’t have to read the Bible, because I saw Jesus Christ Superstar.” That pretty much says it all.”
As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, and perhaps even crack open a copy of Hamilton, the book about the musical, make sure to leaven the hip-hop musical magic with some straightforward history.