How do we treat those on the losing side of history?
Hamilton is remarkable. Last week, the Broadway show that has captured international attention received sixteen Tony Award nominations—more than any other production in history. Heap onto these a Grammy Award and a Pulitzer Prize (as well as the MacArthur Genius grant awarded to creator Lin-Manuel Miranda), and it seems set to be the most awarded show ever created.
To paraphrase the presumptive Republican nominee, its cast may get bored of all the winning.
One of the most fascinating things about the show is how it treats those on the losing side of the argument. Musical theatre is rarely known for the subtlety of its characters (particularly its villains) but Hamilton paints a different picture. Alexander Hamilton’s political opponents in the second act, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr (played by Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, and Leslie Odom Jr. respectively) are not portrayed as moustache-twirling villains. They engage in the same rough-and-tumble politics that Hamilton does. Hamilton gives as good as he gets, and is just as arrogant, manipulative and Machiavellian as they are.
Even Aaron Burr, “the damn fool” who shot Alexander is humanized. His grudge against Hamilton is justified: Hamilton really did fight to torpedo his career. And in the moment of his cardinal sin—pulling the trigger that made him “the villain in your history”—we are made to understand his perspective. His voice breaks with emotion as he raps:
“I had only one thought before the slaughter: / This man will not make an orphan of my daughter!”
After Hamilton’s death, his former rivals—each, except Burr, having become Presidents—line up to give him the respect they did not give him in life. Madison sums it up well: “I hate to admit it, but he doesn’t get enough credit for all the credit he gave us.”
This respect given to Hamilton’s political opponents in the show is fitting. The musical is fixated—as many of the Founding Fathers were—with history-making and personal legacy. And, as the adage goes, since history is often written by the winners, Alexander Hamilton’s legacy had previously suffered when compared to those of his political rivals. Instead of simply repeating previous narratives, where those on the winning side are touted and those opposing are dissed (or perhaps worse, forgotten), Hamilton instead uplifts the legacy of all of its characters by showing them as complicated and imperfect people—if no less impressive.
The first act of the show details Alexander Hamilton’s life during the American Revolution, and so, to be expected, the British play the villains. At the beginning of the show we are introduced to the one character who represents the British on American soil: Samuel Seabury.
The historical Samuel Seabury wrote a series loyalist essays which were published anonymously in New England newspapers in 1774 and 1775. Hamilton’s (also anonymous) responses to Seabury were his first entry into public political discourse, and Seabury’s song in Hamilton, “Farmer Refuted,” becomes a debate between Hamilton and Seabury—singing in intricate counterpoint.
When Seabury sings his condemnation of Congress in the show, it is with an over-the-top plum-pudding English accent with a simpering tenor. His vocals are backed by a delicate baroque accompaniment on solo harpsichord. When Hamilton joins in, rapping a complex lyrical rebuttal over Seabury’s warbling (on his own soapbox on the other side of the stage), the harpsichord immediately abates, replaced by deeper strings.
All of this combines to leave the audience with an impression that Seabury was an aristocratic, weak, sycophantic, Englishman—well-deserving of the epic takedown delivered by the young Hamilton.
But Samuel Seabury was born in Connecticut. He was the son of a minister, not an aristocrat. He was a loyalist, to be sure, but his writing style was far less florid and aristocratic than Hamilton’s. In short: he was just as American as Hamilton.
Painting Seabury as British implies that dissent like Seabury’s is in itself a traitorous act, and literally un-American. It reflects a “you’re either with us, or against us” mentality that has led to some of the worst episodes in American history, and threatens to erase those who voice views that clash with the mainstream. This is even worse considering that Seabury’s part in the show is happening at a time of crisis and war, which are the very moments in the American past that those in power have tried to crush dissent through the use of toxic “us versus them” narratives.
And as is often the case in historical fiction, the character of Seabury in the show represents something wider—as the only loyalist shown, he represents the loyalist faction in the American Revolution, all of whom are tarred (as their historical counterparts literally were) with the same brush of un-Americanism.
Americans today who value their right to protest the tide of public opinion should give Seabury and the loyalists at least grudging respect. In 1775, just after his anonymous newspaper-dueling with Hamilton, Seabury was arrested by American revolutionaries and thrown in jail for six weeks for his views. He stuck by his convictions, and became a chaplain to the British forces in America. But after the war, he stayed in the new United States and was loyal to the new government, eventually becoming America’s first Anglican Bishop.
Seabury ended up on the wrong side of history, and supported the losing side of the debate and the war. But his views were not repugnant. The argument of the revolution was about political autonomy and tax policy— He was no more wrong than Jefferson, Madison or Burr. But instead of the sophisticated depiction given to those men, he, and the entirety of the loyalist faction of Americans who opposed revolution, are flattened to just another cardboard cut-out—a cheap prop to show how cool, how pugilistic, how clever Hamilton is.
The good thing is that it doesn’t need to be like this. Live theatre, unlike novels or films, is a constant work in progress. It wouldn’t take a rewrite: replacement casting choices can be made, as can directorial redirects. Seabury’s accent could drop overnight, he could be played with a more commanding presence, a more operatic voice. A more impressive Seabury only makes Hamilton’s smackdown look even better.
How we depict the villains in popular culture matters. Doubly so for popular culture that stands, as Hamilton does, as part of the ongoing part of what our nation is and what it means to be a part of it. Dissent and debate are integral parts of the American experiment celebrated in the show. It is a shame that it is not as celebrated in the first act as it is in the second.© Copyright 2016 Paul B. Sturtevant, All rights Reserved. Written For: The Public Medievalist