Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

Historic Hamilton and America’s Future

Alexander Hamilton is boffo at the box office. The heretofore unsung Founding Father best known for losing a duel is the subject of over two hours of song and dance in the new musical Hamilton. The Off-Broadway show is packing people in to rave reviews and reactions and is expected to move to Broadway this summer. Hamilton has become a bit of a phenomenon that has taken Manhattan by storm.

Hamilton also is of critical importance to health and future of this country. While that might seem like an over-the-top assertion, it isn’t.

To set the stage for my argument, I turn to a recent blog at Huffington Post by Louise Mirrer, president of the New-York Historical Society, entitled “The Case for ‘American’ American History”. She raises the question: “Is there still a place in our schools for an American American history?”

Diversity-in-AmericaShe acknowledges that the question might seem “odd.” The she cites the required classes in the California public schools: Native American history, African American history, Mexican American history, Asian American history, LGBT history, and disabilities history all as part of United States history.

Mirrer follows up on that example with her own experience as a Vice Chancellor in the CUNY system. In that position, she was involved in the hiring of faculty. According to her, the positions went to people with specialization in Asian- African-Latino-Native-Women’s history. The hyphenization of history has triumphed. There is no longer a place for the individual in history.

A review of the courses at a college or the papers presented at a history conference documents the validity of this claim. Individuals are passé. Mirrer reports the CUNY faculty arguing, “What could George Washington have to say to students who are new Americans.” Ironically, the impetus for Hamilton was the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, a classic biography in the American tradition on the role of the individual in history which Puerto-Rican New Yorker Lin-Manuel Miranda read on his own outside of school. The rest, as they say, is theater history.

Trulia_Diversity_National1Before I continue, let me clarify how serious I think the stakes are. The demographics in America are changing. Projections frequently show the county becoming increasingly diverse. New York is projected to become a majority-minority state in 2031, the 11th to do so. The consequences of this shift have been raised before in Northern New York. Downstate areas have little interest in upstate history, as witnessed by the comparative lack of state support for the 250th Anniversary of the French and Indian War and the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812. The Women’s Suffrage Centennial may garner more support downstate, but the prospects for historical memory in New York are grim.

France is facing this issue right now. In a recent article in the Boston Globe by Robert Zaretsky, “Can Teaching Patriotism Protect France?” addresses this very concern from a French perspective. Zaretsky cites French teachers reporting students who sympathized with the murderers. The Minister of Education announced a renewed strategy which would “transmit republican values.” According to the article, the French are leery of a hyphenated citizenry, which Louise Mirrer argues already prevails in many history departments and social studies curricula in America.

France wants its citizens to identify as French, so that French citizens do not define themselves in terms of their ethnic or religious identities. But how are the immigrant French citizens today supposed to identify with the Gauls, Charlemagne, and Napoleon? Why should they sing “La Marseillaise”? In other words, what is the French narrative story that can encompass the centuries old French traditions and include the newcomers? All things considered, it will be a challenge for France to convince immigrants they are French and that France’s stories are their stories.

What of America? What of New York? Right now New York City residents seem to share three things in common:

1. The weather – from Sandy to the current cold
2. Professional (not high school or college) sports teams – how about those Yankees?
3. 9/11

But even the trauma of 9/11 is receding. It was 14 years ago and many Americans have a different view of 9/11 than the families of those who died or who were first responders. The state social studies curriculum now has been updated to include 9/11, but it will be interesting to see how students respond to that history in the classroom, especially if there are African-Asian-Latino-Disabled-Women’s versions which have to be presented.

So what can be done? We live in a world where Caucasians from Europe are white, Caucasians from Latin America are Hispanic, and Caucasians from Asia are Asians. In the name of diversity, the individual has been seemingly relegated to the dustbin of history. And then there is Hamilton, the hip hop musical by a Puerto Rican that honors the Caribbean immigrant dead white heterosexual man, who as author of the Federalist Papers and Secretary of the Treasury helped define the country in which we live. Hamilton can remind us that Americans define themselves as “We the People” in a country of e pluribus unum.

9 thoughts on “Historic Hamilton and America’s Future

  1. Kudos to Peter for this article. From the ancient days when I learned history without hyphens to todays emphasis–no obsession–with cultural diversity it seems that the Founding Fathers and an earlier time in America is indicted for being racist, miksogynist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic…you name it. Those times in the past that embarass us as a nation seem to be a favorite of some writers but virtues and positive times are ignored except on celebrations like the 50th anniversaries of WWII and Selma. Smart people can figure things out. In the incredible canvas that is the US, our history is one continuous course. Hyphens can be incorporated into that course without disparaging or minimizing areas of history that have hitherto been the basics of our knowledge. Otherwise, I’ll simply have to wait until that day when a small minority clamors for courses and history departments devoted to Caucasian-American history. How sad would such an outcome be, America’s always been a big tent, with all its faults, so I refuse to believe our single historic course can’t be as well. GO “HAMILTON.”

  2. I would like to make the readers aware of a neat coincidence.
    Last October I saw a new play written about Alexander Hamilton at Kean University’s Premiere Stages in Union, NJ.
    The play is called All Things Liberty and it’s by James Christy, a New Jersey resident an up and coming, award winning playwright.
    It was fabulous.
    I hope it gets around to other places.
    Premiere Stages is an equity theater on the grounds of Kean University and is housed in a carriage house alongside William Livingston’s residence. As stated by the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society Blog:
    “Liberty Hall was built by New Jersey’s first governor, William Livingston, who hosted Alexander Hamilton while Hamilton attended a preparatory school in Elizabethtown.”

    The full AHA article can be read at:

    Here is a newspaper link to an article about the show.

    I highly recommend it!

  3. A very thought-provoking article that celebrates diversity to the fullest…which also includes those individuals that helped architect a new nation, and the foundations that the nation relies on today…order, the rule of law, the rights of the minority, the rights of the majority, meritocracy. To learn more about Alexander Hamilton, http://www.AllThingsHamilton. For events and free newsletters:
    Keep the articles coming Mr. Feinman!

  4. “The hyphenization of history has triumphed. There is no longer a place for the individual in history. … In the name of diversity, the individual has been seemingly relegated to the dustbin of history.”

    What troubles me about this phrasing is that this sounds like a competition, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Mirrer’s closing statement seems more to-the-point to me:

    “We must make sure that Americans honor their differences, but also know that they have a shared history — a history that is the indispensable basis for an inclusive, tolerant society.”

    There’s no battle between “hyphenated Americans” and traditional American history – there are viewpoints that ought to be balanced, and if at the moment the pendulum has swung a little farther to one side (one that’s kind of owed some time in the sun, considering that it was ignored for so long), it’s likely to end up in the middle, balanced, as it should.

    1. That’s partially true. Certainly ethnic and racial differences are an important part of American history. I have written about the Dutch, English, French, and Germans/Palatines in the Mohawk Valley. I have written about the absence of paths through history in New York for the contributions of the Dutch, Irish, and Italians to New York History and the abandonment of Pataki’s Freedom Trail as well. For me all these stories are part of the American narrative and not separate from it or in opposition to it. The danger is one of nuance and intent. To shine light on peoples who have been overlooked due to the dominance in history writing by New-England-trained elitists especially in the 19th century – the Scotch-Irish, southerners, women, blacks, and others who paid a price for that is welcomed. But if the response is to focus on the leaf, your leaf, the hyphen of interest to you [not “you” personally], and not see the forest is in my view detrimental to the health of the country. As long as July 4 is the birthday of their country, I don’t care what language they recite the Pledge of Allegiance in. Thanks for writing.

  5. Two thoughts- in one sense, it is “deja vu all over again”: in the 1920s at a time when the US had the largest proportion of immigrants in our history [and many immigrants such as Italians were regarded as a different race], there was a “Colonial Revival” emphasizing our earliest roots that led to a renewed emphasis on American History in both the public sphere and in education. Secondly, the larger problem has been that for quite some time [decades] the teaching of History, American History in particular, and the liberal arts in general, has been disparaged in elementary and high school, as well as at the collegiate level. The battle needs to be joined at the School Board level in every community and through educating our state legislators regarding what has been lost.

  6. Peter,

    Great article, the problem with Cassidy’s “very reasonable” response about the swing of the pendulum and a particular view getting its moment in the Sun is this:

    Accepting this very reasonable thesis will, however, jeopardize a whole generation of our young people’s understanding.
    When the pendulum swings back it begins to catch the next generation but can never catch up with the lost generation.
    To compound this situation, the now parents of the next generation have little or no frame of reference or understanding to aid and guide their children.
    We have seen this time and time again within various curriculum areas. With my children there was almost no geography or civics in the curriculum and mathematics was going through one of those revisionist times. Fortunately, both my wife and I were strong in all those areas….on more than one occasion our children were accused of having their parents complete their assignments which was “never” the case.

    Many of our children’s friend’s parents used to come to us asking what they should do because when their children entered 9th grade (this is where the “rubber really begins to hit the road”) they were at a loss because suddenly the homework piles up and the grades are failing.
    Almost all critical subjects (reading, writing, arithmetic and history) are cumulative learning processes starting when they are very young.
    They all require rote learning until the logic pathways in the brain “click into place” then the internal understanding takes off.
    If you read the NYTimes best selling book “Outliers” and believe what it says….it takes 10,000 hours of practice to refine a new skill and become good at it.

    There are no short cuts…..this is what we had to tactfully tell these other parents.
    Was all lost? Not necessarily, however, the blood, sweat and tears required to come up to speed is very painful and most won’t do it.
    I remember that there were concepts I should have “mastered” as an undergraduate but didn’t…so it wasn’t until I put in the necessary blood, sweat and tears as a graduate student over and above the normal course requirements until mastery was finally reached and I could move forward.

    What few understand is; there is a huge gulf between “just passing or getting by” and mastery.
    Mastery is what makes us useful in real live. I want a master builder building my house and I want a master surgeon cutting me open…..not someone who “got by” in either case.

    I’ve gotten carried away some but I think you see my point…..we must be very careful what we mess with when it comes to core education principles.

    I wonder how many people who attend “Hamilton” have the slightest clue how important he was to the formation of the American Democracy we live in and experience it today?


  7. Sorry, but I read the Mirrer piece, and I’m just not getting her point. In fact, it seems that she’s intentionally misrepresenting reality in order to make the sort of flimsy argument that’s more suited to the likes of Lynne Cheney (or, quite frankly, Madison Grant) than to the head of one of New York’s leading historical institutions.

    OK, so California requires the teaching of African-American history, Mexican-American history, native American history, etc. as part of its public school curriculum. She implies that because of this, the kind of American history that’s traditionally been taught–the standard survey courses and such–has stopped being taught and that the entirety of American history is now being taught through the perspective of these historically underrepresented groups. Does anyone think that’s actually the case? It seems much more likely that California is supplementing the traditional history curriculum with materials that present the perspectives of the groups, and I don’t understand how anyone who loves American history, in all its diversity and richness, could be against that. All these perspectives are an undeniably important part of American history, and I think it’s great that California is doing this. I hope New York is doing the same thing.

    Her section on how all the new professors are specialists in Asian-American history, or LGBT history, or whatever, is a bunch of nonsense. Well, of course they’re specialists–ALL historians at the doctoral level are specialists. But you have to have a really solid background in American history to be able to get to that level of specialization–and in fact, many of these professors, especially during their early years in academia, spend a heck of a lot of time teaching general, intro American history courses. So, more hot air from Mirrer.

    This paragraph, I just don’t believe at all: “Many of these faculty members argued that the material traditionally taught in U.S. history courses would be irrelevant to CUNY students, who come from all over the world. What could George Washington possibly have to say, they asked, to students who are new Americans?” Sorry, I don’t believe it. Many? How many? Two? I just don’t believe most American history faculty, wherever they teach, believe this. Sorry.

    Her paragraph on Frederick Douglass and George Washington is nothing but one big straw man.

    I’ll stop here, but if Mirrer wants to focus on something, maybe she should focus on making her own institution relevant. Last time I was there, the overpriced waste of time called the New-York Historical Society consisted of a restaurant selling $18 sandwiches, a beer hall masquerading as a just-OK exhibition on the history of beer, a whole bunch of old silver that’s been there since I was a kid, some lousy art curated in an utterly amateurish manner, and an attic filled with half-destroyed Hudson River masterpieces. Not planning to go back for a long, long time.

    She does have those pithy chats at the Historical Society with Samuel Alito every so often, so bully for her.

    I did like the Slavery exhibition, so I’ll give her kudos for that.

Comments are closed.