Freedom and American Exceptionalism In Hamilton


The following article discusses topics of a sensitive nature which may be disturbing and/or controversial to some readers. Hence, reader discretion is advised. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author and do not reflect Sunway University and Sunway College’s values.

I am sort of a loser. Like, I’m not even lying, my friends would call me a loser. I engage in loser activities like playing Genshin Impact and reading too much YA fiction. But I think one of the most loser things I have ever liked is musical theatre. To make matters worse, one of my favourite musicals is Hamilton. You could literally play any song from that musical and I would be able to recite all the lyrics and the dance moves. 

If you don’t know what Hamilton is about, the musical follows one of the Founding Fathers of the United States – Alexander Hamilton and recounts how his life was impacted by fellow friends and family members such as, as George Washington, Aaron Burr, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Marquis de Lafayette. The story starts in 1776, when Hamilton meets Aaron Burr and ends in 1804, when Burr fatally shoots Hamilton.

I love Hamilton. I think its music is amazing and I remember crying when I saw it on stage last June, but I am still able to criticise its core message (its core message being how great America is), even though the musical had a big hand in my developmental years. It is a bit ironic because the musical was released in 2015, only a year before the American democratic system started crumbling and quite possibly the worst man on earth got elected as president. 

But Hamilton has its problems, the main one being that its core messages play into themes of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is a concept that refers to the belief that the United States has unique qualities and character. It suggests that the U.S. is inherently different from other nations, with a special mission to promote freedom, democracy and progress around the world. This idea is rooted in the early years of the nation and has been a recurring theme in American history and political discourse. Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon that reflects the concept of American exceptionalism. The musical embodies this narrative by celebrating the founding of the United States and the ideals upon which it was built. The musical quite literally has a song where the characters repeat “In New York, you can be a new man”. If that’s not American exceptionalism, I don’t know what is. 

Another critique that is often raised by fans is that the play quite literally ignores how evil the Founding Fathers were. I don’t use the word “evil” that often, but I mean it when I say these men are genuinely disgusting people. Many of the major Founding Fathers owned slaves, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In total, these three men owned 953+ slaves. I add the plus there because Jefferson owned so many slaves that an accurate number cannot be determined. Not only that, Jefferson slept with his fourteen-year-old slave who later gave birth to his child at sixteen. While the others owned only a couple of slaves, some married into major slave-owning families. For example, while Alexander Hamilton, the main character of the musical, did voice opposition to slavery and supported its gradual abolition, he was not actively involved in the abolitionist movement. 

Later in George Washington’s life, he did agree to free his slaves but only after he died. Jefferson also does eventually condemn slavery, but this still doesn’t erase the years of pain his slaves went through. While the show briefly touches upon the issue of slavery, it still does struggle with fully grappling with its significance and impact on the Founding Era. The musical’s treatment of slavery is limited and sometimes unnoticeable, and some argue that this does not adequately address the role of the Founding Fathers in perpetuating or benefiting from America’s institution. This is an issue because it completely changes how the public views the Founding Fathers. If you were on Tumblr around the time Hamilton was popular, you saw in real time how the public perception of the Founding Fathers changed from slave owners to Tumblr sexy men. 

Another critique of the musical is how it portrays model minorities in liberal societies. Alexander Hamilton migrated to New York from the Caribbean as a teenager and an orphan. His mother was a sex worker who died when Hamilton was 13 and his father abandoned him at a young age. The musical makes much of the fact that Hamilton came from nothing. The first song, “Alexander Hamilton”, asks:

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore

And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot

In the Caribbean by providence impoverished

In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” 

The answer comes in the next line of the song,
“The ten-dollar founding father without a father

Got a lot farther by working a lot harder

By being a lot smarter

By being a self-starter

By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter” 

The lyric perpetuates the myth of a model minority, a person from the underclass who is given the opportunity to succeed in a liberal system. A liberal society expects the people to succeed through their individual efforts, often within a competitive and market-driven workforce.  Model minorities refer to the ethnic, racial, or class groups that are perceived to have achieved a higher level of socioeconomic success compared to other minority groups. They are often celebrated as examples of individual achievement and presented as evidence of a level playing field. As stated above, Hamilton focuses on exceptionalism and the success stories of individuals like Alexander Hamilton. By highlighting their accomplishments within the context of liberal society, some argue that it inadvertently reinforces the notion that anyone, regardless of their background, can achieve success through hard work and determination alone. However, this perspective overlooks the systematic barriers and structural inequalities that can hinder the advancement of marginalised communities. It fails to address the broader historical, social, and economic factors that contribute to the disparities in opportunities and outcomes. By presenting the stories of exceptional individuals, the musical may unintentionally divert attention from the need for broader systematic changes that address inequality and uplift marginalised communities as a whole. 

This concept of model minorities can sometimes lead to the erasure of the struggles and experiences of marginalised communities. By focusing on the achievements of a select few, it can perpetuate the myth that systemic racism and classism are no longer significant issues, ignoring the ongoing challenges faced by many communities in America. 

At the end of the day, I still love Hamilton. Even though it has corny lyrics and its Tumblr heyday is something I never want to experience again, this musical will always have a special place in my heart. It’s important to note that these criticisms do not necessarily negate the artistic merit and entertainment value of Hamilton. However, they highlight the need to approach media with a critical lens and recognise that this is an interpretation of history that may not fully encompass all its perspectives and nuances. 

Written by: Mei

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