Why Hamilton? How is it that of all the founders, he's the one whose life story has become the subject of a hit Broadway musical? Indeed, perhaps the biggest hit in Broadway history. Why Hamilton, and not Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison? After all, each of those men became president, whereas Hamilton never did. The last time he was on Broadway, in 1804, Hamilton was in a coffin, on the way to his burial in the graveyard of Trinity Church, at Broadway and 12th. He hadn't managed to reach the age of fifty. But in an age of geniuses, he was one of the greatest. During the Revolution, Hamilton, while still in his early twenties, Hamilton became George Washington’s chief aide and played a heroic role in several battles, including the one that forced the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown. Like the commander-in-chief, Hamilton thought "continentally," and he was so good at reading Washington's mind that the general trusted him to manage his correspondence and even to write his orders. And that was just the beginning of Hamilton's brilliant career.
American historian Gordon Wood commenting on Alexander Hamilton at the opening of the "Hamilton" musical on Broadway in New York Review of Books, January 14, 2016: "Although Alexander Hamilton never became president of the United States, he is more famous than most presidents . . . because of the hit Broadway show Hamilton. Indeed, the response to this musical has been phenomenal: it is sold out for months. Both the left and the right like this play; President Obama, who took his daughters to see it, said that he was “pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career.” It’s patriotic without being self-righteous or stuffy. So excited have people become with this musical treatment of the rise and fall of our first secretary of the treasury that the Rockefeller Foundation and the producers have agreed to finance a program to bring 20,000 New York City eleventh-graders to see Hamilton at a series of matinees beginning next spring and running through 2017. Using a curriculum put together by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, they plan on drawing the students largely from schools that have a high percentage of low-income families. No one thought of doing this for Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables, or even 1776, which dealt with America’s writing of the Declaration of Independence. This show is different. Not only is it sung in the stylized rhythmic and rhyming manner of rap and hip-hop, but perhaps more important, the cast is deliberately composed almost entirely of African-Americans and Latinos. This symbolizes as nothing else could that the history of the founding of the United States belongs to all Americans at all times and in all places and not simply to elite white Anglo-Saxon males who lived in the eighteenth century. Since we Americans have no common race or ethnicity, the main things that hold us together and make us a nation are the ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy that came out of the Revolution, the most important event in American history, in which Hamilton was a major participant. Americans have been desperate to attach all immigrants and all minorities to the history and meaning of the US, and this play helps to do that. It is no wonder that it has been so passionately and universally celebrated."
Gordon S. Wood,
The American Revolution: A History,
FURTHER READING FOR THE TEN WEEKS
Here is a PDF document you can download and print with Prof. Thompson's reading for the whole quarter.