Wait a Minute! Is “Founders Chic” Okay Now?

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Many historians who are fascinated with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton seem to be saying “yes.”  Others, like Ken Owen of The Junto, say “no.”

For the last thirty years, social historians of the American experience have been ragging on something they call “Founders Chic.”  The practitioners of Founders Chic–David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Ron Chernow, Richard Brookhiser, etc.–have sold a lot of books by writing about the Founding Fathers in a way that appeals to the reading sensibilities of mostly older white men.  Publishers, of course, love Founders Chic.

Since the release of the Broadway musical Hamilton (which I have yet to see–can’t get tickets), Ron Chernow‘s biography of the first Secretary of Treasury has been selling like crazy again. When I walked into my local Barnes & Noble today I was met with a display featuring paperback copies of Chernow’s book alongside the Hamilton soundtrack.  As I write, Alexander Hamilton is #21 at Amazon.com.

Critics say that Founders Chic privileges white wealthy men and places them at the center of late 18th-century life in a way that ignores people living in America at the time that were not white, wealthy, or men.  No argument here. (Although I don’t see why historians can’t write about the Founding Fathers if these historical figures interest them.  Why can’t writing about the Founders co-exist with scholarly work on the lower and middle sort, women, the enslaved, native Americans, and others?)

But according to Owen, many liberal academics seem to have no problem with Founder’s Chic when it is portrayed in the hip-hop style of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical. He writes at the Junto: “…much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine.”

Here is more of Owen’s piece:

Hamilton represents the apotheosis of Founders Chic. While I have a deep appreciation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s artistic talent, his creativity and novelty in presenting historical vignettes does not mask the fundamental dangers of the musical’s historical interpretation.[1] In the same way that the heroism of the HBO series John Adamspromotes a certain kind of hero-worship, so Hamilton will work against developing a complex, nuanced understanding of the American founding.

As the initial shock and excitement of seeing early American history at the forefront of popular culture has receded, historians have started to question some of the underlying assumptions of Miranda’s narrative. The Junto’s own Tom Cutterham got in on the act early, looking at the absence of ‘the inconvenient 1780s’ from the stage. Lyra Monteiro andAnnette Gordon-Reed have astutely taken aim at Hamilton’s racial politics, while Nancy Isenberg has once again taken to print to defend the reputation of Aaron Burr. These particular critiques all point to a deep interpretive problem

Hamilton portrays all of Hamilton’s failings as failings of personality or of character. While he is recognized as a divisive figure—after all, what else would provide the dramatic tension?—the substantive grounds of disagreement get subsumed by personality clashes. When Hamilton’s opponents celebrate the fact “he will never be President now!” it is because of his sexual impropriety, and not the deep national unpopularity of his elitist and crony capitalist economic scheming. Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist are praised not for their quality, but only for their quantity. And in crafting a “scrappy immigrant” story, Miranda makes Hamilton’s rough edges those of a pushy up-and-comer, rather than the product of a man who was deeply anti-democratic, and owed most of his political power and prestige to patronage and nepotism rather than the approbation of the public.

Read it all here.

Owen’s critique is a fair one.  I largely agree with it and I am glad that Hamilton is triggering these kinds of posts and conversations.

At the same time, this musical has reinvigorated interest in early American history at a time when politicians and pundits are telling us that history and other humanities subjects are not useful.  People are talking about American history and some of them are even looking for resources to learn more about this era. Earlier this week I was talking to a history buff who is reading Chernow.  When he asked me to recommend some other good biographies of the era I suggested that he go out and get Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf’s new book on Thomas Jefferson and Nancy Isenberg’s biography of Aaron Burr. Whatever the scholarly critics might say about Hamiilton, Chernow, or Founders Chic,  we shouldn’t forget the upside of all of this.

2 thoughts on “Wait a Minute! Is “Founders Chic” Okay Now?

  1. I agree, Ann. That was my point in the last couple of paragraphs. I’m not convinced we can just surrender the public sphere to the screenwriters, even if that means the stories told on the screen will not always hold muster on an AHA or OAH panel.

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  2. John, thanks for your comments here & for quoting Ken’s blog post. (I need to go check that out, esp. because I sent out a Tweet earlier supportive of “Hamilton!”)

    This also seems relevant to your previous post on Jamestown. Although I think I’m locally famous for criticizing Founders’ Chic and the “so-called ‘Founding Fathers,'” I’m highly supportive of fictionalized or “enhanced” storytelling in media outside of history books, esp. books by professional historians. Briefly put, I think it’s totally fair game to hold professional historians to a standard that demands archival research and the production of new knowledge, not the retelling of comforting stories we’ve already heard before.

    At the same time, I applaud “Hamilton,” “Jamestowne,” and these re-tellings of moments in early American history in mass entertainment. Why this and not the other? Because getting people to think that there are dramatic, colorful stories in early American history can be a way into deeper study and learning for people. The worst possible outcome is for historians to lecture screenwriters and stage and film directors and novelists, telling them to get off our lawns, and also refusing to go out and find new stories for us all to tell–historians and perhaps entertainment folks as well.

    The fact remains that we’re the people with the skills and the knowledge to find new stories and lost tales in hidden archives. If we don’t do this work, who will? The screenwriters, novelists, and stage and film directors need our help.

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