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Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point

Fans know exactly what Hamilton is about. Why don't historians?

'Hamilton' Broadway Opening Night - Arrivals And Curtain Call
The original Broadway cast of Hamilton takes an opening night curtain call.
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Earlier this year, the New York Times turned heads by asking whether the hit Broadway musical Hamilton’s historical fudging on certain points is, well, good for us. It's an excellent piece of concern trolling, giving several historians an opportunity to hand-wring about the musical’s overglorification of Alexander Hamilton, the immigrant revolutionary who authored the Federalist Papers and founded the US Treasury.

Several historians interviewed in the piece were quick to emphasize the liberties Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken with regard to the show's historical timeline, geographic location, and political context, which Miranda himself has been upfront about time and again. But Miranda’s blatant overidentification with his subject — he also stars in the title role — seems to have pushed many of them over the edge, leading to questions of whether Miranda’s celebration of Hamilton may be misleading students of history.

"Alexander Hamilton ‘was more a man for the 1 percent than the 99 percent,’" Princeton's Sean Wilentz explains. Another historian, Lyra D. Monteiro, argues — while pointing out what she views as Hamilton's erasure of Black Revolutionary history — that "the founders really didn’t want to create the country we actually live in today."

The author of the piece, the Times's Jennifer Schuessler, comments: "It’s an odd moment for the public to embrace an unabashed elitist who liked big banks, mistrusted the masses and at one point called for a monarchical presidency and a Senate that served for life."

This criticism of how Hamilton places its title character in context might be legitimate if Hamilton weren’t, well, what it is. In essence, Hamilton is a postmodern metatextual piece of fanfic, functioning in precisely the way that most fanfics do: It reclaims the canon for the fan.

In this case, Hamilton’s canon is history, and the fan, Miranda, is doing a lot more than simply adapting it. Like the best fanfic writers, he’s not just selectively retelling history — he’s transforming it.

Hamilton historians are viewing Hamilton as part of the "Founders Chic" movement — but the musical doesn't really fit into that trend

Alexander Hamilton has long been a divisive figure in the annals of historical study, but in recent years he’s become a focal point of a historical trend many academics and history enthusiasts refer to as "Founders Chic." Founders Chic first appeared as a term in a July 2001 issue of Newsweek and quickly caught on to describe the sudden millennial trend of lauding the forefathers.

A year later, in a now-offline essay for Common-Place, Jeffrey Pasley observed that "Founders" really meant "Federalist," as most of the acclaim was centered on David McCullough’s dazzling biography of John Adams, with plenty going to fellow Federalist Hamilton on the side.

Numerous other biographies of the Founding Fathers soon followed, as did a 2008 biopic based on McCullough’s Adams biography. Soon after that, Miranda famously conceived the idea for the musical while reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, which focuses on Hamilton’s early life as an illegitimate orphan on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, and emphasizes the way his formative years shaped his relationship to the US.

Analyzing the Founders Chic trend in 2003, the Atlantic wrote critically of it: "In revering the Founders we undervalue ourselves and sabotage our own efforts to make improvements — necessary improvements — in the republican experiment they began. Our love for the Founders leads us to abandon, and even to betray, the very principles they fought for."

But although Hamilton stems from one of the trend's byproducts, its function as a text is to do exactly what the Atlantic calls for and critique the history the founders began. The real-life Hamilton’s experience, passion, and ambition resonated with Miranda, who is deeply concerned with the American immigrant experience. Miranda immediately recognized a fellow hip-hop artist in Hamilton, in that the founder had all the earmarks of a Tupac or a Biggie Smalls: innate intellect, brashness, unrelenting ambition, and a grand tendency to start drama. (A much-admired piece of recent Hamilton fan art notes he will "fight anyone, including himself.")

As the first Treasury secretary of the United States, Hamilton lacked all the stature and privilege of his fellow Founding Fathers, many of whom resented him for being a low-class upstart and possibly multiracial. (John Adams, among other contemporaries referred to Hamilton as a "creole bastard.") This dynamic, with all its incumbent social, class, and racial tensions, is crucial to the narrative of Hamilton, a musical in which nearly the entire cast is made up of people of color.

Putting himself and people like him at the center of musical theater has long been one of Miranda's central concerns. The son of native Puerto Ricans, Miranda was brought up on a diet of rap and show tunes. Writing about his first musical, 2007’s Latino Washington Heights homage In the Heights, Miranda noted, "I put in all the things I'd always wanted to see onstage … propulsive freestyle rap scenes outside of bodegas, salsa numbers that also revealed character and story. I tried to write the kind of show I'd want to be in."

In the Heights, which went on to sweep the Tony Awards, was essentially a trial run for Miranda’s proclivity for self-insertion and vision of the musical as an interactive space in which different genres speak to one another onstage. Hamilton goes one step further: As musical influences, fans, creators, and a multiplicity of identities interact with one another, Miranda's manipulation of time allows distinct historical moments to magically overlap through the power of allegory. In essence, Hamilton is a liminal space in which fans and performers talk back to historicity itself.

And talking back to the canon is what fanfic does best.

Hamilton is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it

Miranda’s musical is fanfiction — that is, it’s literally a creative text written by a fan that reinterprets or expands on a previously existing source material, or canon. More specifically, Hamilton is a fanfic of Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and more generally of US history itself. Here are a few structural elements that Miranda uses in order to create the uniqueness of Hamilton that are crucial, common elements of much contemporary fanfic:

  • Real Person Fanfiction (RPF) — Hamilton itself is RPF, part of a huge and ancient genre of fiction (both fanfic and fiction classified as literary) that retells stories of real historical figures, usually taking many liberties with historical accuracy.
  • Alternate Universe (AU) — a type of fanfic that changes something crucial about the original story or source material
  • Racebending — the act of changing a character's race or ethnicity to make the character part of an underrepresented cultural community, in turn creating a role for an actor from that community
  • The Modern AU — an AU that removes characters and/or plots from their original context in the past and brings them into the present
  • The Political AU — an AU that puts the original characters and/or plots into a different or new political context
  • The Crossover — a fanfic that combines elements of two or more fandoms

In many ways, Hamilton is an extremely typical fanfic. It’s simultaneously an alternate version of American history and a modern political AU in which none of the Founding Fathers are white and everything happens in a blurred temporality that could be modern-day America.

This is one reason the question of historical authenticity is a derailment of the argument Hamilton is making. The musical isn’t about what Hamilton, the historical figure, was or was not; any critique that views it from this angle is missing the point.

Hamilton the musical has as much to do with Hamilton the dead white Founding Father as Hamilton the dead white Founding Father has to do with Eminem and Sweeney Todd — the two characters on which Miranda explicitly bases his version of Hamilton. Here's a Tumblr post celebrating the musical theater characters and hip-hop legends that Miranda combined in order to create the characters from Hamilton, according to his descriptions of them in his now-famous original casting notices:

In fandom terms, these amalgams are known as a "crossover," the union of unlikely story elements or character traits that work surprisingly well together. Hamilton is also a racebent text, meaning it takes preexisting characters — real people, in this case — and swaps either their racial identities or their ethnic backgrounds so they can be played by people of color.

Racebending is a concept that has existed in fandom since long before Hamilton, in both a pejorative sense, as when roles are whitewashed, and a positive sense, as when they’re reclaimed for marginalized identities. Racebending most often occurs in fan art, as fandom’s most immediately visual medium, but it’s often found in fanfic too. It’s usually an intentionally political statement, but just as often it becomes political without meaning to be.

In Hamilton’s case, the intent is overtly political. The musical announces its aim to destroy: "I’m passionately smashing every expectation / every action’s an act of creation." In other words, like all good fanfic, Hamilton is confident that far from being illegal plagiarism, a charge constantly leveled at its amateur fellows, it’s quite the opposite: It knows it's not a tawdry, derivative copy, but rather a transformative work.

Like countless fanfic writers before him, Miranda clearly loves his canon, but he expresses that love by tearing the canon to pieces. Like countless fanfic writers before him, he remains as close to the letter of authenticity as possible while also completely deconstructing the worldview he’s been given. Miranda uses his text to not only have fun with and celebrate US history but to critique everything about that history — something his perspective as the son of Puerto Rican transplants writing about an American immigrant from the Caribbean puts him in a unique position to do.

Miranda’s fanfic interrogates the mythos of the American dream, tearing down the idea that "America" emerged from a single cultural identity that belongs only to white European immigrants and their descendants. This is something Hamilton’s fan base seems to grasp innately. "Do you understand what it’s like to live in a nation where you are made marginal and inconsequential in the historical narrative that you are taught from your first day of school?" writes Tumblr user thequintessentialqueer in a brilliant explication of Hamilton’s function as a text:

Whose rebellion is valued? Who is allowed to be heroic through defiance? … Violence is only acceptable in the hands of white people; revolution is only okay when the people leading the charge are white … Hamilton is not really about the founding fathers. It’s not really about the American Revolution. The revolution, and Hamilton’s life are the narrative subject, but its purpose is not to romanticize real American history: rather, it is to reclaim the narrative of America for people of colour … If you’re watching/listening to Hamilton and then going out and romanticizing the real founding fathers/American revolutionaries, you’re missing the entire point.

Again and again, Miranda emphasizes that this version of US history is being told by those other immigrants — the ones who, as the show notes, "get the job done," and the ones who had no choice about whether to immigrate at all.

And just as he emphasizes that "you have no control … who tells your story," he reminds us that he’s telling the story of American history now — and he’s telling it his way.

It's blatantly hypocritical of the Times to call Hamilton historically inaccurate

The criticism of being historically inaccurate is one the New York Times has never thought it necessary to apply throughout the many decades in which it has reviewed and analyzed Hamilton’s revolutionary musical forefather, the typically all-white legacy musical 1776. That is significant. You’d think a rosy, shamelessly optimistic musical about the Founding Fathers would, at some point in the 50 years since it was written, come under scrutiny for delivering a perhaps naive take on American history to a skeptical postmodern audience.

Instead, the Times's history with 1776 is every bit as glowing as the American dream itself. In 1982, the Times saw 1776 as "a stage crowded with living men concerned with freedom." In 1993, the production's "efforts to be accurate about historical intent [made] 1776 a musical docudrama in the best sense." A 1997 review couldn’t gush enough about it: 1776 is "ingenious," "rich" with "historical detail," a "crazy definition of democracy, celebrated."

That same year, in a critique of how 1776’s historical characters and their reputations have withstood historical "battering" and "revisionism," the Times managed to blame Thomas Jefferson’s critics for sullying him with since-proven accusations of keeping an enslaved mistress. It also blamed modern audiences for "follow[ing] lesser men" while faintly praising the musical, both for "its obvious show-biz ploy to humanize an oracle" in Jefferson, and for keeping the historical accuracy of Abigail Adams's hotness: "Writing so pungent had to be quoted, and a man with a wife that attractive couldn't be all bad."

Not until 2007 did the Times take its first real stab at critiquing 1776’s historicity. Sylviane Gold writes:

The letter, like the rest of "1776," hews closely but not exactly to the facts. Peter Stone’s book has Adams sending for Martha Jefferson (Teal Wicks) so that her husband (Edward Watts) can concentrate on writing the Declaration of Independence. Didn’t happen. Mr. Stone has the delegates signing it one by one in the chamber where they voted on it. Didn’t happen. He compresses time and characters and, naturally, leaves out a lot. But if he were writing the book today, it seems unlikely that he would fail to include the real Abigail's wry observation to John that although the great men gathered in Philadelphia were clamoring for freedom, they were perfectly content to deny its benefits to their wives.

The chief issue here — that Peter Stone, who wrote 1776’s book, compresses time and characters — is exactly the same technique that Miranda uses to accomplish similar aims in his musical. Except in this review of 1776, the technique is seen not as a detractor or a flaw but as an asset: Immediately after the paragraph cited above, Gold adds, "The beauty of history is that we can keep rewriting it."

It’s not until the Times sets out to explicitly compare Hamilton and 1776, in 2016, that the phrase "historical inaccuracies" is associated with 1776 — perhaps, primarily, so that it can be associated with Hamilton. The Times sees fit to point out that the "founding fathers did not engage in rap battles," as if that somehow makes Hamilton more historically inauthentic than a 1776 that has the Continental Congress singing and dancing and rhyming words with "Connecticut."

Never mind that Hamilton on the whole hews extremely carefully to the facts; Hamilton's biographer Chernow was the first person to see the musical once it was written, and edited and spot-checked Hamilton for historical accuracy, serving as what we in fandom call a beta reader. Many lines from the musical come to us direct from the mouths of the Founding Fathers themselves.

If we rush to defend Hamilton in this instance, we can be forgiven: History is littered with examples of women and writers of color having their work subjected to a higher standard of inquiry and criticism than the work of their white male counterparts. And that is precisely why Hamilton exists as a text: to elevate and celebrate the dismissed and devalued.

As fanfic, Hamilton interrogates the text of American history from the "wrong" perspective to reclaim that narrative for those who were left out of it

Ultimately, critiquing Hamilton for historical accuracy regarding Alexander Hamilton's actual place in history is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Hamilton is doing as a modern metatext and as fanfic. The entire point of Hamilton is that the real Alexander Hamilton was a man for the 1 percent, not the 99 percent. The act of presenting Hamilton as a man for the people allows Miranda — and, by extension, the audience — to feel as though they are actively shaping the future by making the past all about themselves.

The fundamental objective of fanfic, especially when it is written by women, queer and genderqueer people, and people of color, is to insert yourself, aggressively and brazenly, into stories that are not about and were never intended to be about or represent you.

Hamilton unites the story of American independence with Black, Latino, and Asian actors who were excluded from it, and in doing so allows these excluded citizens to put themselves back into the narrative. Hamilton is not just a story of history — it is the story of the ongoing struggle to make sure that people of color, immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups are included in the sequel.

Fans of Hamilton don’t flock to the musical because of the way it transforms the Founding Fathers.

They flock to Hamilton because of everything the Founding Fathers never were.

Update: A mention of Lin-Manuel Miranda's immigrant status has been updated for clarity. We’ve also updated the piece to remove a reference to a specific fanfic trope and to note that Hamilton itself is RPF.

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