Van Ens: History in hip-hop musical ‘Hamilton’ sloppy when it comes to Jefferson (column)
The hip-hop musical “Hamilton” stays on historical pitch during the show’s first half. However, after intermission, its historical accuracy falls flat when Thomas Jefferson appears on stage. His intellectual reputation is pulled down to puff up competitor Alexander Hamilton.
Before intermission, Hamilton’s blazing intellect, precocious temperament and tenacity to rebound from setbacks stand as tall as his erect figure.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow, who wrote the Hamilton biography that inspired this show, writes: “I think he (the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda) has plucked out the dramatic essence of the character — his vaulting ambition, his obsession with his legacy, his driven nature, his roving eye, his brilliant mind, his faulty judgment” (Applause: The Denver Center for the Performing Arts magazine, February to April 2018, p. 22).
After intermission, however, historical inaccuracies about Jefferson abound in this musical. At the head of stairs, he cascades down, full of manic energy. Jefferson is garishly dressed in a color as loud as his rants. His scarlet greatcoat and breeches suggests he’s showy and slippery.
This Jefferson is short, flanked by confidante James Madison, who packs as much heft and height as an NFL tackle. In real life, a lean Jefferson towered at 6-foot-2; he dwarfed his colleague Madison, who was only 5-foot-4. Critics snickered he wasn’t as tall “as a half-bar of soap.”
Unfortunately, Jefferson’s gait on stage, swaying like a camel, makes him appear gimpy and cocky. Such body language gives a false impression Jefferson was unsteady debating sure-footed Hamilton, who’s portrayed as clever and articulate.
Hamilton stands his ground and displays strong debating skills. In contrast, Jefferson’s jumpy demeanor is a combination of Little Richard pounding the keyboard and stand-up comedian Kevin Hart’s zany yakking in the movie “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” Jefferson’s favorite color for clothing was tan. He disliked British preference for loud colors, such as red or scarlet. He walking pace wasn’t jerky. Unlike the musical’s portrayal, he shied from public forums, preferring to let the power of his quill convince opponents.
Both Jefferson and Madison lacked Hamilton’s bombast. Some critics misinterpreted Jefferson’s shyness at first meeting as being stand-offish. Once a bond was established, he flashed humor and scintillating conversation around a dinner table.
Why did Jefferson and Hamilton despise each other? Jefferson rejected Hamilton’s self-aggrandizement, brash grabs for power, lack of confidence in voters to wisely cast ballots and for not purging Wall Street financiers from governing.
Serving George Washington as our nation’s first secretary of state, “Jefferson’s constant battles within the cabinet convinced him that the treasury secretary (Hamilton) was at the head of a faction (political party) bent on overthrowing the Constitution, instituting monarchy, and consolidating power in the hands of a small cabal of wealthy financiers,” writes historian Francis D. Cogliano from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
“This was the main theme of Jefferson’s conversation with Washington when he tendered his [cabinet] resignation in the summer of 1793” (“Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy,” Yale University Press, 2014, p. 114).
Gordon Wood, the top 18th-century American historian, says Hamilton had ambitions for monarchical control that the musical sidesteps. “Hamilton is full of visions of what he’s going to do with the (colonial) army,” Wood reports.
“In a swipe at popular history, Mr. Wood says the ‘Hamilton’ musical offers a ‘distorted’ picture of a man who was really an anti-liberal, ‘Napoleonic figure’” (The Wall Street Journal, “Polarization is an old American story,” Feb. 3-4, 2016, p. A-11).
In 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr assassinated Alexander Hamilton in a duel. But Hamilton had fatally self-inflicted political wounds before this shoot-out. He alienated many Federalists in his party by picking silly fights, building barriers instead of bridges. Hamilton operated as a party of one who brashly exercised brutal political power.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.