Saturday, July 9, 2016
The Last Word On 'Hamilton' (The Musical) Is That Hamilton (The Man) Was Actually A Bit Of A 'Hater' On Immigration
The hip hop musical Hamilton has become a Broadway sensation, redefining what musical theatre in America looks and sounds like.
With a nearly all black and Latino cast playing the parts of the all-white founding fathers ---"diversity casting” it’s called --- the show has been sold out for months, and now fetches more than $1000 a seat. It’s been hailed as a work of artistic genius and a marvel of pluralism and inclusion--- a touchstone for a new America in which whites will soon no longer be in the majority. CNN said Hamilton embraces the history and diversity of America like no musical before.” President Obama has called the show “a civics lesson our kids can’t get enough of.”
The fact that Hamilton was an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean—the bastard son of a minor Scottish aristocrat and a British West Indian mother who was married to someone else at the time of his birth---has been much noted in the show’s publicity juggernaut. The show has also been cited a particularly clever rejoinder to the immigrant-bashing of Donald Trump. Giving the commencement address at Penn this year, the musical’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose parents are native Puerto Ricans, told graduates:
In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great, unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.
Miranda told the Atlantic that the show was
a particularly nice reminder at this point in our politics, which comes around every 20 years or so, when immigrant is used as a dirty word by politicians to get cheap political points, that three of the biggest heroes of our revolutionary war for independence were a Scotsman from the West Indies, named Alexander Hamilton; a Frenchman, named Lafayette; and a gay German, named Friedrich von Steuben, who organized our army and taught us how to do drills. Immigrants have been present and necessary since the founding of our country. I think it’s also a nice reminder that any fight we’re having right now, politically, we already had it 200-some odd years ago.
Miranda told the Times Broadway reporter Michael Paulson:
Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional. It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.
Calling the show “a story of immigrants, from creators who are the children of immigrants,” Paulson maintained that
Hamilton has contributed to the national conversation about immigration. A line from the show – “Immigrants/We get the job done” – gets such sustained applause that the pause that follows has been lengthened to allow time for the ovation to end.
Hamilton was center stage at the June 11 Tony Awards, or the “Hamiltonys” as many enthusiastic Broadway critics and writers had begun to refer to it, clinching 11 prizes in the 16 categories for which it received nominations. The night’s biggest applause line came during Corden’s opening monologue when he noted the contrast between that night’s Tonys the #OscarsSoWhite controversy over the dearth of minority nominations for Academy Awards in 2016. “Think of tonight as the Oscars, but with diversity,” Corden joked. “It is so diverse that Donald Trump has threatened to build a wall around this theater.”
A funny thing happened on the way to all the accolades however. The crush of exuberant reviews, adulatory reporting and flattering commentary that Hamilton received failed to notice that the show’s pro-immigrant theme was very much at odds with the anti-immigrant views held by the real Alexander Hamilton. Although Lin Manuel Miranda told Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow he was committed to historical accuracy, the show completely ignored aspects of Hamilton’s life story and thinking that undermined the progressive message on diversity and equality that the show wanted its mostly liberal New York audiences to take home.
Whether you're unapologetically pro-immigration, virulently anti-immigration or somewhere in the nuanced in-between, the historical record leaves no doubt that the real Alexander Hamilton would have scoffed at the glorification of immigration, both in the Broadway adaptation of his life and in the publicity surrounding it. Like many of the other founding fathers, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson--- Alexander Hamilton was dubious about the wisdom about granting citizenship to those not native-born, as well as the ability of “foreigners” to assimilate to American norms. And unlike Thomas Jefferson, who flip-flopped on the issue after becoming president in 1800, Hamilton took his doubts to the grave.
In fact by today’s standards, you might call the real Alexander Hamilton a bit of a “hater.” While he might not have been a xenophobe or a “nativist” in the sense of the 19th century Know-Nothings, Hamilton was certainly a nationalist and a restrictionist, and expressed his anti immigrant feelings in the same harsh terms, and with the same hostile tone, as Donald Trump. Even if Lin-Manuel Miranda is right that the fight about immigration we are having now being the same one we had 200 years ago --- and I'm not sure he is --- the record clearly shows that Hamilton was on the other side of that fight, not the side that Miranda wants you to think. Hamilton, like Trump had strong ideas on national sovereignty and identity. You could see him very much agreeing with Trump that "People want to see borders. They don't necessarily want people pouring into their country that they don't know who they are and where they come from." (sic, Trumpian garbled grammar.)
It was Alexander Hamilton who was the driving force behind the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, passed as the fledgling American republic fretted about alien “fifth columnists” and braced for war with France that luckily never came. With rough similarities to the much reviled US Patriot Act of 2002 as well as some of the more strident anti-immigrant proposals put forward by Trump, the Alien and Sedition Acts made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, lengthening the residency requirement from five to fourteen years. The Act also authorized the president to imprison or deport aliens considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States" and restricted speech that criticized government actions and policy, especially criticism from the foreign born. Hamilton believed that an influx of foreigners would undermine the cohesion of the new nation and, more significantly, that the preservation of a distinctly American national character and a distinctly American national spirit were essential to republican self-government.
The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education and family.
Hamilton thought immigration was divisive because it would make it difficult to define the broader national interest and to forge a sense of shared national community, especially in times of national crisis. Immigrants were a fifth column, Hamilton believed, ready to seize the chance to undo America’s liberty on behalf of their home nations, France in particular. Hamilton also thought foreigners had anti-democratic predispositions, largely because most were coming from countries governed by absolute monarchs, without English-style constitutional limitations and English traditions of natural law.
The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others, it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils. It has been often likely to compromise the interests of our own country in favor of another. The permanent effect of such a policy will be, that in times of great public danger there will be always a numerous body of men, of whom there may be just grounds of distrust; the suspicion alone will weaken the strength of the nation, but their force may be actually employed in assisting an invader.
Hamilton also thought that the different cultural traits of immigrants might be a bad fit for a young democracy, and that a process for assimilation was imperative. In other words, he believed that “culture matters,” as the neoconservative thinkers and sociologists like to say when discussing the challenges of absorbing immigrants from the Third World. Like the Jefferson who wrote Notes on Virginia (unlike the Jefferson who later reversed himself to support massive and automatic naturalization) Hamilton believed
that foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners… They will also entertain opinions on government congenial with those under which they have lived, or if they should be led hither from a preference to ours, how extremely unlikely is it that they will bring with them that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism.
There were notable exceptions, but the general rule was that “the influx of foreigners” tended to
produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.
Neo-Hamiltonians of today who favor open borders might argue that robust immigration is an essential precondition for economic dynamism and prosperity, but again Hamilton himself differed.
In the infancy of the country, with a boundless waste to people, it was politic to give a facility to naturalization; but our situation is now changed… It appears from the last census (1800) that we have increased about one third in ten years; after allowing for what we have gained from aboard, it will be quite apparent that the natural progress of our own population is sufficiently rapid for strength, security and settlement.
Hamilton argued there was a big difference between closing the door altogether and throwing it entirely open, affirming a “pathway to citizenship” for the foreign born that involved a significant residency requirement. (Fourteen years was his initial recommendation, which he eventually dialed back to five.) But his vision of immigration always prioritized the interests of American citizens and the national interest that collectively embodied it ---Americans First, you might say. He was especially anxious about the potential for immigration to degrade national security. Taking a position that might have come from the anti-amnesty community of today, or from right wingers who fear a link between Muslim immigration and Islamist terrorism, Hamilton insisted that
To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens the moment they put foot in our country would be nothing less than to admit the Grecian horse into the citadel of our liberty and sovereignty.
Hamilton thought that “The impolicy of admitting foreigners to an immediate and unreserved participation in the right of suffrage, or in the sovereignty of a Republic” was obvious---“verified by the experience of all ages.” He’d read his Gibbon: “Hardly anything contributed more to the downfall of Rome, than her precipitate communication of the privileges of citizenship to the inhabitants of Italy at large.”
He also pointed to the fate of the American Indian nation that European settlers had displaced, deriding Jefferson for romanticizing the “hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land” in his defense of open immigration. Hamilton wanted to know:
And what indeed was the courteous reception which was given to our forefathers, by the savages of the wilderness? When did these humane and philanthropic savages exercise the policy of incorporating strangers among themselves, on their first arrival in the country? When did they admit them into their huts, to make part of their families, and when did they distinguish them by making them their sachems?
With gleeful scorn Hamilton suggested that:
prudence inclines to trace the history farther, and ask what has become of the nations of savages who exercised this policy? And who now occupies the territory which they then inhabited? Perhaps a useful lesson might be drawn from this very reflection.
The solution? Hamilton may not have called for the kind of deportation squads Trump has mentioned on the stump. Yet he was definitely of the opinion that “the mass of aliens ought to be obliged to leave the country” although advising “let us not be cruel or violent (about it.)”
Foreign born journalists who libeled government officials like himself should definitely get the official boot however. Of one foreign-born publisher who’d dissed him, Hamilton scowled:
Renegade aliens conduct more than one of the most incendiary presses in the US and yet in open contempt and defiance of the laws they are permitted to continue their destructive labors. Why are they not sent away?
James Madison cursed Hamilton’s support for the Alien and Sedition Acts as “a monster that must forever disgrace his parents.” By contrast, Hamilton saw his support for the Alien and Sedition Acts as a proud legacy, practically calling for it to be chiseled on his gravestone.
The sedition law, branded with epithets most odious, will one day be proved a valuable feature in our national character.
Blending green-eyed envy with nativist mistrust, Hamilton insinuated that immigrant voter fraud was responsible for Jefferson’s presidential victory in 1800 and that this was the cause of Jefferson’s dramatic turnabout on immigrant question, as per Jefferson’s Message to Congress in 1802. Denouncing Jefferson for this reversal in his New York Evening Post column, Hamilton wrote:
It is certain that had the late election been decided entirely by native citizens, had foreign auxiliaries been rejected on both sides, the man who ostentatiously vaunts that the doors of public honor and confidence have been burst open to him, would not now have been at the head of the American nation.
With all this in his clip file, Hamilton might be the last historical personage who should have been conscripted into the culture wars on behalf of Miranda's multicultural revisionism. It’s not just a bad fit. It’s 180 degrees of bad fit. It would be one thing if Miranda was trying to use the contradiction for artistic effect, work it into some kind of counterfactual or the like. But he’s not. He’s just using the character to make a righteous statement, hang the actual facts. It’s an inappropriate historical appropriation--- and not a little manipulative.
You can almost see the eyeballs rolling and hear the groans: Yet another complaint about “political correctness,” from yet another privileged white man. Maybe they are right. Maybe we shouldn’t be all that concerned with the historical license Lin Miranda took. The show is, after all, art and entertainment, not scholarship.