This past Monday, January 11, was Alexander Hamilton’s 259th birthday (or possibly his 261st; historians aren’t sure). People celebrated on social media like they’d celebrate a living celebrity. And for the most part, the well-wishing was aimed at a living recipient, the man unexpectedly stewarding the Founding Father’s legacy: hip-hop artist Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Miranda wrote the song and book for Hamilton: An American Musical—in which he also stars. It’s a rap musical about Hamilton’s life and the founding of America, and it’s the hottest ticket on Broadway. Its success alone is newsworthy; in just under two years, including its initial run at the Public Theater, the show has earned nearly $70 million, and after just three months on Broadway, it dethroned The Lion King for a week as the highest grossing show. Its influence on Broadway has been nothing short of revolutionary (c’mon, I had to): reviews have lauded it as the most original and genre-changing musical in years, and critics are already predicting that it will sweep this year’s Tony Awards.
There are hundreds of articles breaking down how a wacky concept like Hamilton made it this far. I had the special pleasure of coming to it not from the reviews or local New York City hype, but through its fans. Despite being probably the least accessible work of art in existence (you can buy tickets, but only after July and only for several hundred dollars a pop), Hamilton’s reach is broad and diverse thanks to its spectacular cast recording. This piece at Indiewire by Liz Shannon Miller details how the album brought the musical to a global audience and skyrocketed Secretary Hamilton to a stardom that goes much further than his political legacy ever could.
Here’s what I knew about Alexander Hamilton before I bought the cast recording: he was among the youngest of the Founding Fathers and the first of them to die; he had a scandalous affair; he was the first Secretary of the Treasury. I had him filed away under “Thanks for your help, but you’re not as significant as Washington or Franklin or Jefferson.” I was actually a little clueless as to why he, of all people, was on the $10 bill. (If any of my professors are reading this, I swear it wasn’t you, it was me).
The last place I expected to find engaged, accurate, intelligent discourse on American political history was Tumblr. (Check out the “#hamilton musical” tag on Tumblr if you don’t believe me.)
It started as a trickle of debates between bloggers about things like whether Thomas Jefferson’s political ideals are still credible given that he owned slaves. I chalked it up to history nerds having a spat and ignored it. But then there were more posts, with more variety and more hits and more people getting involved. In a matter of weeks I was enthralled daily by thesis-level analyses of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” John Adams’s foreign policy, Ben Franklin’s humanist philosophy, and on and on.
And the name that connected all of it was Alexander Hamilton.
I was, and am, astonished. The reason I visit Tumblr is to get my fill of the ridiculous and benign, a chance to take a break from in-depth comparative discussions on the Federalist Papers (professors, again, sorry!). Tumblr is where I go when I want to turn my brain off and find out which bagel suits my horoscope.
But here’s the thing: sites like this, including Reddit and Twitter, facilitate an almost obsessive passion for fandoms that want to flesh out their stories with as much detail and "realism" as possible. What would Captain Kirk's favorite tea be? How would Aragorn handle Gondor's standing army? What's General Leia Organa's approach to supplying the Resistance? These are all posts I've read, fans speculating on the wider world of the stories they love.
So what happens when that passion for speculative storytelling gets applied to Hamilton? Essentially, it became a massive communal history class. These are the Founding Fathers, after all, which means Hamilton fans have 250 years of historical analysis to fill in the blanks for these characters. And, of course, they end up understanding these people as more than just characters.
Say, for example, that a student who’s fallen in love with Hamilton decides she wants to learn all she can about her favorite character, John Laurens. All it takes is a quick Internet search, and instead of having to imagine what his childhood was like or what his favorite pastimes were or where he got his values from, she can learn the facts, the history. She can’t make Laurens in her own image; she has to take the real man for who he was at face value.
Apply this process to all the Founding Fathers, and suddenly when two people are arguing about their “problematic fav” (a character they like who has at least one questionable trait), they’re arguing over real issues about real people whose choices have real consequences for the nation we’re living in now.
Demographically, sites like Tumblr, Reddit, and Twitter are dominated by young adults with liberal leanings who use their blogs for a plethora of modern causes. Some arguments are informed, just, and effective, others not so much, but overall these communities foster a generally "stick-it-to-the-Man" attitude.
The people they admire do not normally fall into wealthy, white, male, traditionally religious categories, and anything that happened in the past is by default the less enlightened, wrong way of doing things. This is a typical postmodern attitude, this idea that we should pull away from history as a thing that has real bearing on how we should live right now.
Furthermore, for young people today the idea that the founding principles of our country were built by wealthy, religious, slave-owning, white men is reason number one why America Is Not In A Good Place Right Now.
I’ve been in these internet communities for a long time, and there is a clear “before Hamilton” and “after Hamilton” when it comes to conversations about America. In the past, the internet might have been full of nerds—but if you loved ranting about history, you were still the dork in the chat room.
And these conversations are happening in such a way that their participants are encouraged to be informed and allowed to like what they read. I would never have called it, but there are posts out there now defending George Washington’s Christianity as a good and necessary value for our first president to have had. People who have built up an attitude that puts them in opposition to traditional ideas about government are now getting excited about the type of politician they would normally despise.
And sure, there’s still plenty of “Which Founding Father Is Your Soulmate?” -type content. But Hamilton fans are going back and reconciling themselves to their own history in ways they didn’t have the chance to before. It’s crazy and uncharacteristic, but my peers have found in Hamilton a reason to be patriotic.
The show’s tagline is “The story of America then told by America now.” It’s why the music is hip-hop, rap, and pop, and why the cast is almost entirely made up of people of color. But the consequences of directly tying America now to America then are wider-reaching than just the production details of the show.
Hamilton made history cool. It made American history cool. In Hamilton, the Founding isn’t idealized or idolized. It’s painful and real and problematic. It’s not something locked away in a boring textbook or thrown in our faces by a huffy politician.
It’s our history, and like our present, it includes things to worry about and things to be inspired by. True patriotism is knowing both and choosing to be proud.
Jessica Gibson is a former intern with Christianity Today Movies and a student at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets only to fangirl and gripe @GibbyTOD.