Hamilton: The History, Controversy and Legacy

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Over the July 4th weekend, Hamilton: An American Musical, the hit Broadway show that took the world by storm was released on Disney+, a subscription video streaming service operated by the Walt Disney Company. The musical follows the life and legacy left behind by Alexander Hamilton. Despite the raving reviews and overall positive feedback, the musical-turned-movie is facing some controversy over how it allegedly glorifies the Founding Fathers.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical, picked up the biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow as a beach read, leading to the rebirth of Hamilton in a musical form. In 2009, Miranda first unveiled his idea for the new project, The Hamilton Mixtape. In front of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, Miranda performed the premiere song, Alexander Hamilton at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word. From there, Hamilton took off and was first seen in the public theater in 2014. It continued to Broadway in 2015.


#MrowbackMonday In 2008 I bought Chernow's Hamilton bio to read on vacation.@HamiltonMusical rehearsal starts today. pic.twitter.com/C1CK2Xjdxw — Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) June 15, 2015

Despite the positive feedback from the theater community, historians were shaken by the inaccuracies within the play. Long time activist, writer, and playwright Ishmael Reed even went as far as to make the play The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda to showcase the underrepresented issues with the foundations of the U.S. that he believed Miranda glossed over to glorify the actions of the founders. Characters including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington were important to the storyline of the musical and history, but they were also well-known for owning many slaves. Critics of Hamilton claim that slavery and the part that these men took in it was not discussed enough within the play, as well as other issues.

In the show, Hamilton speaks on his opposition to slavery in the song: “Cabinet Batlle #1” and also through his support of his good friend John Laurens, an abolitionist. but was complicit to the system that enabled it. With the show now more readily available to the public, speculation has occurred over Hamilton’s involvement in slave trading. As a child born out of wedlock on the island of Nevis and an orphan, Hamilton was a social and financial outcast, labeled as a bastard. At age 12, Hamilton and his brother lost their mother, but they were not given any inheritance due to the illegitimacy of their birth.

At some point before his mother’s death, Hamilton moved to St. Croix where he spent the majority of his childhood surrounded by slaves on sugar plantations. To stay afloat, Hamilton worked for Nicholas Cruger at the St. Croix branch of Beekman and Cruger, a merchant company. After Cruger fell ill in 1771, Hamilton was put in charge of all operations of the branch at the age of 14. The company did partake in the African slave trade, putting Hamilton at a young age in the midst of what many call the U.S.’s greatest shame.

Along with his past involvement in the slave trade, Hamilton, while never owning enslaved people himself, did buy and sell slaves for his in-laws, the Schuylers, and never brought abolition to the front of his agenda, leaving him complicit to slavery. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who has been vocal about Hamilton’s inaccuracies and glorification of these “problematic founders” does acknowledge that above all else, the musical is an artistic interpretation. Miranda himself also spoke to the controversy in multiple interviews saying that the musical is bordering historical fiction and is not a documentary.

Some major historical inaccuracies, besides the founders’ stance on slavery, have added to this fictitious story. The Schuyler sisters introduced to the musical in a feminist sequence were a side focus in the narrative. Angelica, Eliza and Peggy are introduced as the talk of the town, young, and eligible with a lot of family money. While only three sisters are mentioned, there were actually 15 Schuyler siblings, with seven dying before their first birthday or being miscarried. For sake of clarity, only three were included in the musical.

As a small subplot, after Eliza is married, Angelica sings about her love for Hamilton, who is now her sister’s husband. In reality, in 1777, Angelica eloped with John Baker Church to Europe and did not reunite with the Schuylers until 1797. It was not until three years after Angelica’s departure in early 1780 when Eliza and Hamilton finally met and were married that same year in December. There was no overlap between the courtship and Hamilton’s interaction with Angelica before she was married to Church. But flirtatious letters and a close friendship between Hamilton and Angelica caused speculation, though there was no confirmation of any romantic entanglement.

Just as the musical claimed, Hamilton was young, scrappy and hungry, looking for every instance to prove himself. Hamilton wrote his way off the small island of his childhood and attended King’s College, now known as Columbia University. He fought in the Revolution, leading to his contact with his future wife, Eliza and mentor, George Washington. He was an avid believer in a strong central government, founder of the Treasury Department, had a well-known affair with Maria Reynolds that he published a pamphlet about, could be blamed for his part in a two-party system, and wrote 51 of the 85 Federalists papers, which defended the U.S. Constitution. Hamilton’s most notable qualities were his drive, ambition, pride and need to speak his mind. While this did benefit his journey to success, it ultimately led to his downfall in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr after Hamilton refused to retract an insult.

One of the most notable so-called inaccuracies throughout the show is who plays the founders of the United States. The cast is entirely made up of people of color, with the exception of the actor who plays King George III. Miranda has addressed the casting many times, including in the documentary Hamilton’s America which describes the creation of the musical and the history behind it.

Miranda is Puerto Rican and realized early on that he could only play limited roles, unlike his white peers. He then wrote the show In the Heights to create roles for himself and other people like him, who often had a harder time finding them. He did this again in Hamilton to bring actors and actresses that would not have received a role if the production had committed to matching race to character. Not only this, but Miranda also emphasizes that the story of America is not a white one. While the founders may have been white, Hamilton makes the argument that the immigrants and enslaved people are part of America just as much as their white counterparts.

One of the major points that Miranda incorporated into the show and even spent a whole song establishing is that “you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Not even two days after Hamilton’s release to Disney+, #CancelHamilton was trending on multiple platforms because of Alexander Hamilton’s involvement with slavery. This came after a string of other call-outs toward other Founding Fathers.

Because the founders are long dead, it is the living who decide how to interpret their lives and the dead have no control over how their story is told. While some back the ten-dollar Founding Father, others believe that he does not deserve the positive recognition he is receiving through the musical. “If there’s anything political about the show Hamilton, its thesis is everything good or bad that was present at the founding, at the roots of the birth of this country are still present. The fights we had then are the fights we are having now,” Miranda said in a recent Wired interview.

In the end, Hamilton is a show about the messy imperfections of revolution for entertainment purposes and, according to its creator, not to be used as a historical resource.

Through Teen Lenses: Do you think the musical Hamilton should be “cancelled” because of its inaccurate representations of the Founding Fathers and U.S. history?

“Nothing that the Founding Fathers did wrong should be glorified and the show should have spent more time addressing these problems. But, the core history shouldn’t be taught through the musical alone and it should not be someone’s main source of information. Hamilton is simply meant to be about Alexander’s uprising into America and his impact on the country. Maybe Lin [Manuel Miranda] didn’t want to spend time going through the hard parts and instead he made it more fun and lovable. His versions of the figures tried to be correct to their history without bringing down their reputations. I love the show. I understand that it is flawed but I also understand that it is entertainment.” Morgan Stolker, 15, Rising Junior at Winston Churchill High School, Potomac, Maryland
“I don’t think Hamilton should be cancelled because frankly without Hamilton people wouldn’t care about history. Even though it has some inaccuracies, it is mostly accurate and helps people realize that history is cool and that people should pay more attention to it. When I was taking AP U.S. History, I think Hamilton really helped because it is catchy. It’s just a really good show so no, I don’t think it should be cancelled.” Laura See, 17, Rising Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
“I don’t know a ton about the historical inaccuracy stuff because I still haven’t watched it because of summer school things but my feelings on cancel culture are that we really need to put thought into why we need to “cancel” things and people especially because ignoring and trying to erase the history we’ve made is similar to not teaching history accurately. When we ignore our mistakes, we repeat them. This is a unique situation because Hamilton actually highlights our inaccurate recounting of history. It’s important that we don’t pretend it never existed because that would actually perpetuate the issue it creates. Whether or not we like Hamilton, the musical has become a huge part of musical theater and popular culture and pretending it never was sets a dangerous precedent that encourages ignoring mistakes rather than learning from them.” Abby Horowitz, 16, Rising Junior at Walt Whitman High School, Potomac, Maryland