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“Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away”: The presentation of American slavery in ‘Hamilton: An American Musical’

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Authored by Kathryn Nuttall
Published on 7th December, 2021 18 min read

“Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away”: The presentation of American slavery in ‘Hamilton: An American Musical’

An image of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with the Hamilton poster.

This paper is on the presentation of freedom and slavery in ‘Hamilton: An American Musical’. The show has been praised for its ‘revolutionary’ nature, and for changing theatre from a traditional to a more accessible form of entertainment. However, despite the space ‘Hamilton’ provides for people of colour within the theatre industry through its colour-blind, or ‘color-conscious’, casting, the story’s omission of slavery and the subsequent idolisation of the Founding Fathers creates a problematic narrative that perpetuates the white-washing of history and an ignorance of the painful legacy left by slavery in the USA. This may be due to the capitalistic aim of appealing to the majority-white theatre audiences. As a result, the musical perpetuates the silencing and dismissal of slavery in American history. The paper will conclude that the show is painted as progressive despite that label not being entirely historically accurate, primarily due to the omission of slavery as the show’s retells the legacies of these powerful enslavers in a modern world.

The musical follows the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries, with the cast predominantly made up of people of colour in the roles of these white historical figures. The show received some backlash when an early casting call encouraged ‘non-white’ actors to audition (Kohn, 2020), but has since been praised for providing “the opportunity to see history through a more relatable lens”, racially reflective of a modern-day USA (DeRoche, 2016). This ‘revolutionary’ show was hailed so as “it undoubtedly spoke to a generation of people who felt ostracised by the white world of theatre” (Arboine, 2020). However, criticisms of the show became more widespread when it became available to stream on Disney+, with many highlighting the problematic nature of a show that “focuses on real historical figures who enslaved Black people or benefited from the system in some way” (Gonzales, 2020) but has no representation of historical people of colour as significant characters (Onion, 2016). The show’s tagline is ‘the story of American then, told by America now’, which has been criticised as it implies that people of colour were not a part of ‘American then’, and therefore it erases people of colour and their experiences in Revolutionary America (Monteiro, 2016a) whilst still profiting from their theatrical performances.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of ‘Hamilton’, commented that he struggled to fit so much of the history of these Founding Fathers into the show and eventually had to cut large segments of their lives, enhancing them (Freeman, 2015) by cutting each of the main characters’ use and ownership of enslaved people. I use primary and secondary sources that explore slavery alongside criticisms of the show to explore how the musical benefits by omitting and not providing an accurate historical representation of American slavery.

Miranda sets Hamilton’s storyline up in the first few songs of the show, giving us a brief snapshot of his life up to the point when he moved to New York. We learn of his commitment to work and making the most of his intellectual potential in the song ‘My Shot’, in which he meets several characters that serve as his friends and allies throughout the show’s first act, including John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and Marquis de Lafayette. We are led to believe that this group are fighting for the same cause, and Hamilton himself refers to them as “a bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists” (Original Broadway Cast of ‘Hamilton’, 2015, ‘My Shot’). This statement is, historically, factually incorrect, with Hamilton being documented as a trader of enslaved people (Reed, 2015), and having used enslaved people himself (Onion, 2016; Serfilippi, 2020). Furthermore, “Hamilton accepted the notion of counting black people as three-fifths of a person in the new Constitution to ensure Southern states would join the Union” (Schneider, 2020), highlighting that he was strategically willing to sacrifice his belief in equality for political gain. This contrasts to John Laurens, who declares during the same song that “we’ll never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me”, with the character upholding a belief in upholding equality regardless of race. This echoes Laurens’ efforts to assist enslaved men fighting as soldiers in order to gain their freedom, and therefore the character is reflective of Laurens’ genuine beliefs and historical actions. Hamilton on the other hand is a victim of ‘Founders Chic’, a concept that surrounds the ignoring of the Founding Fathers’ involvement in slavery (Onion, 2016) in order to idolise them. 

Portraying Hamilton as an ‘manumission abolitionist’ disrespects and devalues the lives of the enslaved people that he traded and bought, for which there is evidence in primary sources (Serfilippi, 2020, p. 14), instead allowing the audience to root for him as the progressive protagonist. In historical reality, he perpetuated the systems of oppression towards black people for personal gain, using his job working at a charter for the trade of enslaved people to reach a position from which he was able to travel to New York, where he further compromised on the rights of people of colour in order to maintain his own privilege. This contributes to the show’s biggest controversy “in regards to America's dehumanizing treatment of Black people and specifically, Alexander Hamilton's own participation in America's gruesome original sin” of slavery (Baker, 2020).

The show is centred around the American fight for independence from the British, and lyrical motifs appear to echo this sentiment. In the first act, an important reoccurring motif is to “raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away” (Original Broadway Cast of ‘Hamilton’, 2015, ‘The Story of Tonight’). This is initially sung by John Laurens, with ‘them’ referring to the British. While this is meant as an uplifting and motivating motto between friends, it is hypocritical and ignorant of the thousands of people of colour that were not allowed ‘freedom’ despite it being considered a core value of an independent America (Brands, 2003). Ironically, although Laurens was seemingly the most considerate of the enslaved population, his words here erase them entirely by applying only to the white population. 

One of the show’s unique selling points is its multiracial cast, representing ‘America now’, with people of colour playing all (but one) named characters in the show. While this ‘colour-conscious’ casting was intentional (Monteiro, 2016a) in order to make space for people of color in the theatre industry, it can be argued that “no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative” (Onion, 2016) and storyline in the show. Morales (2020) questions whether the irony of people of colour playing the Founding Fathers undermines the importance of their characters being enslavers (Brands, 2003) and overlooks the hypocrisy of the ‘freedom’ in question that would only have applied to white Americans, and therefore not the cast (Monteiro, 2016a). 

The audience recognise ‘freedom’ as an intrinsic American value, and therefore this lyric is likely to resonate strongly. However, using this motif continuously ignores the existence of people of colour in Revolutionary America, and serves to disrespect the people of colour acting in the show. As a result, the “erasing [of] the presence of black bodies continues throughout the play” (Monteiro, 2016a, p. 94), with “slavery [being] unquestionably downplayed” (p. 95). As Douglass addressed in his speech ‘What to the slave is the Fourth of July?’ (1852), “shouts of liberty and equality [are] hollow mockery” (p. 10) to the enslaved population. Despite the progressive casting choices in ‘Hamilton’, the hypocrisy of ‘freedom’ in America has been dismissed in the show through this lyric. 

As a part of the first of two ‘Cabinet Battles’ that made it into the show, the characters of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson argue over the establishment of a national bank. Jefferson opposes the plan as he aims to keep Virginia’s wealth within the state. While slavery is never explicitly stated in this song, it is referenced when Hamilton resorts to Jefferson that “your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor… keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting” (Original Broadway Cast of ‘Hamilton’, 2015, ‘Cabinet Battle #1’). While all of the Founding Fathers are idolised in the show and fall victim to varying extents to ‘Founders Chic’, Thomas Jefferson is used at times as a villainous scapegoat in regard to slavery, with Hamilton positioned here as his progressive, “forward-looking” opposition (Freeman, 2015). 

While Jefferson is known to have owned and mistreated enslaved people, “it’s not entirely fair to paint Hamilton as the good guy on the question of race” (Schneider, 2020), with other characters in the show such as George Washington being “as embedded in slavery… as Jefferson was” (Onion, 2016). Washington, however, is not criticised on this in the way Jefferson is, but instead is portrayed as a heroic character in the musical who takes on a paternalistic ‘father figure’ role to Hamilton. Furthermore, “despite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play” (Monteiro, 2016a, p. 93) aside from a singular reference by Jefferson to ‘Sally’, who we assume to be Sally Hemings. Hemings was enslaved by Jefferson, and he fathered her six children. A member of the ensemble takes on her non-speaking role for less than 10 seconds and is uncredited with her name in the show’s Playbill, likely due to the extremely subtle reference. 

The audience, if aware of the true history of these men, are “unlikely to be convinced of the wise nobility of plantation owner George Washington or mollified by the depiction of the already defamed Thomas Jefferson as a villain” (Arjini, 2019). It may be that Jefferson is presented in this way due to the notoriety of his racial views on the “unfortunate difference of colour” (Jefferson, 2011, p. 143). In his writing, he considers black people “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (p. 143). In this case, the use of a non-white actor in the role of Jefferson “visually distances… racism from Jefferson’s whiteness, enabling a (largely white) audience to forget the degree to which they are implicated in the violent, anti-black histories of the United States” (McMaster, 2016). 

Taking the concept of a majority-white audience into consideration may help in understanding why the presence of slavery in the musical is virtually non-existent. Released in 2016, ‘The Hamilton Mixtape’ included unreleased songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda for the show before it was finalised, including ‘Cabinet Battle 3’. The song directly addresses the issue of slavery and how it could be tackled, making it extremely relevant to the era in which the show was set. The lyrics refer to slavery as “a stain on our soul and democracy. A land of the free? No, it’s not, it’s hypocrisy” (Lin-Manuel Miranda, 2016, ‘Cabinet Battle 3 (Demo)’), highlighting criticisms as discussed earlier that ‘freedom’ did not apply to everyone in Revolutionary America. 

It seems counter-intuitive that this song would not be included in the show, particularly as the musical’s main criticisms centre around the neglecting of slavery in its retelling of history and the resulting idolisation of the Founding Fathers. However, only recently have discussions of the existent systemic racism across the world and the ever-lingering impact of slavery in the USA become more mainstream. It is possible that the show was designed in this manner to “[privilege] white liberal [audiences] by allowing them to embrace blackness on their own terms” (Morales, 2020).  With around 80% of Broadway show attendees being white (Demby, 2016; Monteiro, 2016a), it is no surprise that the show is tailored towards white audiences and how they will receive the musical’s racial undertones (McMaster, 2016), music, lyrics, and casting. As a result, ‘history’ has been sanitised and made “more palatable and attractive to modern audiences” (Mineo, 2016). Using “the slave’s language: Rock and Roll, Rap and Hip Hop” in order to romanticise and idealise Founding Fathers (Reed, 2015) upholds ‘Founders Chic’ and allows white audiences to appreciate blackness from a comfortable distance. 

Throughout the musical, Alexander Hamilton is presented as a progressive protagonist, fighting alongside the Founding Fathers for freedom and equality in Revolutionary America. However, as explored in this essay, these historical figures “were anything but heroes” for people of colour (Arboine, 2020), and presenting them as so obscures history by devaluing the experiences of the people they enslaved (Serfilippi, 2020). This is extremely problematic, and while it could be argued that some artistic licence can be granted to this type of art form, the lingering past of slavery is very real and scarring for many Americans. As the show has become engrained in popular culture, it “[reinforces] the norms that structure our society” by perpetuating “the oppressive systems that surround us” (Monteiro, 2016b) in regard to race.

The show is also “a positive vehicle for the exposure and success of people of color on Broadway” (Morales, 2020). As we see the success of the musical grow over time, future research may evaluate the cultural impact of the show, both positively and negatively. It would be particularly interesting to analyse the impact of the omission of slavery on people of colour within the show’s ensemble and within its audience. While creating theatrical space only for people of colour is praise-worthy, some believe that “the casting has helped ‘submerge’ the issue of slavery” (Mineo, 2016) in order to appease the white audiences that fill the seats of the theatre night after night.


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Authored by Kathryn Nuttall

Kathryn Nuttall

Kathryn Nuttall is a Political Science major at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she is currently studying abroad as part of her undergraduate Politics degree from the University of York.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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