Art has a long tradition of shaping public perceptions of history. Shakespeare transformed Richard III, a brutal monarch in a typically brutal time, into a physically-deformed, Machiavellian tyrant. Leon Uris romanticized the story of Israel’s founding for a generation of Americans with Exodus. Evita immortalized a controversial Argentinian icon as a cynical, power-hungry entertainer. Now, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has the opportunity to change the way people consider one of the Founding Fathers and the era he lived in.
Miranda is the writer, composer, and star of Hamilton, as well as the newly minted recipient of a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. His show follows the trajectory of Hamilton’s life from an orphaned upbringing in the West Indies to his death at the hands of Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s core elements—its hip-hop and R&B-inspired music and its racially diverse cast—are geared specifically towards making history as relatable as possible. “This is a story about America then, told by America now,” Miranda explains, “and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.”
Hamilton, then, has the potential to strongly influence the way Americans think about the early republic. For one thing, as my colleague Alana Semuels writes, it understands Thomas Jefferson to be a deeply flawed individual. It presents an American history in which women and people of color share the spotlight with the founding fathers. The primarily black and Hispanic cast reminds audiences that American history is not just the history of white people, and frequent allusions to slavery serve as constant reminders that just as the revolutionaries were fighting for their freedom, slaves were held in bondage.