Ron Chernow Kills It at the White House Correspondents Dinner

As many of you know, the White House Correspondents Association chose historian Ronald Chernow to be the keynote speaker at this year’s annual dinner, a responsibility that normally falls to a comedian.

Whatever you think about Chernow or his work, the celebrity historian who wrote the book that inspired the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton” was excellent.

Watch:

Who says historians can’t be funny?

I lived tweeted the talk.  Here are some of my tweets:

Saving the Humanities

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Humanities related subjects–history, English, art history, philosophy–seems to be in decline in the academy.  But these humanities subjects also seem to be thriving outside the academy.   Broadway shows, television, Netflix, movies, museums, music, and podcasts all turn to the humanities for content.

Over at the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing argues that the humanities will survive as long as they adapt to our “brave new world.”  Here is a taste of his piece:

Overall, arts and culture contribute more than $760 billion a year to the US economy—4.2 percent of GDP. Compared to the tech industry, that may seem modest—Apple’s revenue alone totaled $265 billion last year, and its market capitalization is about $900 billion—but arts and culture employ nearly 5 million people in communities across the country. Moreover, the value of the liberal arts to society extends far beyond the numbers. They incubate ideas, provide ethical standards, and raise questions about the status quo—functions that are becoming ever more important as the tech world, ridden by scandal and crisis, faces a moment of reckoning.

A good place to begin in chronicling the material benefits of the humanities is the musical Hamilton. It began as a 900-page biography by Ron Chernow (who studied English at both Yale and Cambridge). At an airport while on vacation, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who studied theater at Wesleyan) bought a copy. Several chapters in, he got the idea for a stage adaptation. After a two-and-a-half-month sold-out run at the Public, the show moved to the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, and its vision of America as a nation of hard-working, striving immigrants has been playing to packed houses ever since. Ten months in, The New York Times offered a breakdown of its finances headlined “‘Hamilton’ Inc.: The Path to the Billion-dollar Broadway Show.” The Hamilton album had by then sold 428,000 copies, and a companion book sold more than 100,000 copies in less than two months. In 2017, the show began a national tour that took it to more than a dozen cities, creating jobs for thousands of actors, dancers, choreographers, costume providers, set designers, stage managers, lighting and sound engineers, and agents. Chernow’s book, meanwhile, has sold more than a million copies—a bonanza for his publisher, Penguin.

Thanks in part to Hamilton, the 2018 season was Broadway’s best ever, with more than $1.8 billion in revenue and 14.37 million attendees. Other fixtures include The Lion King, now in its twenty-second year, which was created by Julie Taymor (who studied mythology and folklore at Oberlin); Wicked, now in its sixteenth year, which is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire (who studied literature at the State University of New York and Tufts); and Frozen, which is based on the 2013 Disney film whose screenplay was written by Jennifer Lee (who studied English at the University of New Hampshire and got an MFA from Columbia). No algorithms were used in the making of these shows.

Read the entire piece here.  (Thanks to Scot McKnight for passing this piece along).

“Hamilton” Finds Its Way into My U.S. Survey Course

As I posted earlier this week, I am teaching a course on the “Age of Hamilton” in the Fall.  We will be discussing the history behind the Broadway musical “Hamilton” and I will be making extensive use of the soundtrack.

As I prepare the course, I have tried-out a few Hamilton songs in my United States Survey to 1865 course this semester (Spring 2019).  For example, I used the song “You’ll Be Back” to introduce my students to the deeply embedded royal culture in the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution:

We are now covering the 1790s in the course.  On Wednesday I used the soundtrack to help my students make sense of Hamilton’s debt assumption plan and the Jefferson/Madison opposition to it.  These two songs were very helpful:

I will probably use one more Hamilton song next week when I lecture about U.S. foreign policy in the late 1780s and 1790s:

Not all the “Hamilton” songs work well in a U.S. Survey course (largely because many of them are historically inaccurate), but I have found that several songs bring to life the debates between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans and help my students make sense of this material.

I Think I Have Hamilaria

On Friday, in a discussion of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography in my U.S. Survey course, I told my students that Philadelphia, not New York, was really the place where “you can be a new man.”

Yesterday, in a lecture on the end of the French and Indian War, I told the same class that the Anglicization approach to early British America serves as a counter to the “when are these colonies gonna RISE UP” view of American history that they learned in school.

Last week in my Pennsylvania History class, while talking about the Philadelphia’s role as the United States capitol between 1790 and 1800,  I could not help but mention that the capital would eventually move to Washington D.C. because Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton struck a secret deal in the “room where it happened.”

In a recent lecture in Greenville, South Carolina, I was talking about how Anglican clergy who were Loyalists used Romans 13 to oppose the American Revolution.  I quoted Samuel Seabury and actually said “For Shame, For Shame!

Yes, I think I have a bad case of Hamilaria:

I am afraid this is only going to get worse once my survey class moves into the age of the American Revolution.  I need to call the Weehawken Institute.

Trinity Church’s $6 Billion Portfolio

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Trinity Church in New York City was formed in 1697 by a small group of Anglicans. Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler, three of the stars of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” are all buried in New York City’s Trinity Church.  Alexander and Eliza baptized five of their children at Trinity.  John Jay was also a parishioner.

Today, Trinity Church is very wealthy.  Over at The New York Times, Jane Margolies writes about the church’s real estate investments in the city and its own construction of a $350 million glass tower.  Here is a taste:

While many places of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their congregations and buildings, Trinity is a big-time developer itself.

The church has always been land-rich. And it has long had its own real estate arm, which controls ground leases and office space rentals in the buildings it owns. But now it finds itself with a newly diversified portfolio worth $6 billion, according to the current rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer.

After being instrumental in changing the zoning laws in Hudson Square, a neighborhood between West Houston and Canal Streets, Trinity Real Estate has entered into a joint venture that gives it a majority stake in 12 buildings that contain six million square feet of commercial space. A lucrative deal with the Walt Disney Company, valued at $650 million, was signed just last year.

And as it builds its glass tower — which will house administrative offices, public gathering spaces and, yes, commercial tenants — Trinity is also renovating the interior of its historic church, which is expected to cost $110 million.

Trinity has been able to do all this because it’s been a savvy manager of its resources. It is also, as a church, exempt from taxes.

But some wonder about the ethics of a religious institution being such a power player in the world of New York real estate.

Read the entire piece here.

I Knew It! The British are Behind the Mueller Probe!

If Christian Right radio and television host Rick Wiles is correct, this song from the Broadway musical Hamilton explains everything:

That’s right. The British let the colonies go and they are still angry about it.  They are SO angry that they are secretly working to undermine Donald Trump.  (HT: Kyle Mantyla).

By the way, the 1960s “British invasion” is also part of this.

Here’s Wiles:

Do I Feel a Revival of the Virtual Office Hours Coming On?

Maybe it is time to revisit our old You Tube series the Virtual Office Hours.  After watching Seth Rudetsky’s deconstruction of “The Schuyler Sisters” I thought we might be able to revive this series to correspond with my “Age of Hamilton” class in the Fall.  (Of course our videos would be mostly historical rather than musical–I don’t have Rudetsky’s skill).

I should also add that my Pez dispenser collection has grown.

Here are our most watched episodes:

“Age of Hamilton” Course

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My department chair has assigned me an upper-level “topics” course for the Fall 2019 semester.  I am seriously considering taking advantage of the popularity of the Lin Manuel-Miranda musical by offering a class titled “The Age of Hamilton.”

If you have taught a similar class that draws upon the musical or the soundtrack, I would love to hear from you!

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton Exhibit Will Open in Chicago

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It is scheduled for November.  Here is a taste from Chris Jones’s reporting in the Chicago Tribune:

“Hamilton,” the phenomenally successful musical written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, brought so much posthumous celebrity to Alexander Hamilton that America’s first secretary of the treasury kept his fragile spot on the front of the 10-dollar bill. But Miranda and his producer, Jeffrey Seller, are not yet done giving their man his shot after shot after shot.

Bowing this fall on Chicago’s Northerly Island: “Hamilton: The Exhibition,” an interactive, immersive, one-of-a-kind, only-in-Chicago attraction designed to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton and the founding of America.

“People want to learn more,” said Miranda in an interview Sunday at Tribune Tower. “It seems that two hours and 45 minutes of a musical were just not enough for them. I know from my Twitter account.”

Read the rest here.

OAH Dispatch: Historians on “Hamilton”

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The editors of Historians on Hamilton sign books! (From Rutgers University Press Twitter feed)

We are happy to have Julianne Johnson writing for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento.  Julianne is a Ph.D student at Claremont Graduate University and Assistant Professor of History at College of the Canyons in San Clarita, California.  Enjoy!  –JF

Friday morning’s 8am session Historians on Hamilton at the OAH conference was uncharacteristically full.  Scholars Patricia Herrera of the University of Richmond, Claire Bond Potter of The New School and Renee Romano of Oberlin College led a panel discussion surrounding their contributions to a new book from Rutgers University Press titled Historians on Hamilton; How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s PastRomano and Potter are both editors of, and contributors to, the book.  The panel discussion approached the phenomenon of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton The Musical by interrogating how the show has been received, how the show is revolutionary, and what historians can learn from the show about how to communicate the past to popular audiences.

All three panelists challenged the audience to consider how Hamilton The Musical does history.  Renee Romano, Professor of History, Comparative American Studies, and Africana Studies at Oberlin, considered Hamilton in the context of historical memory and what she describes as a “new civic myth.”  Romano questioned whether Hamilton The Musical is expanding the circle of “we” for Americans by offering young people of color a sense of belonging and challenging white audiences to accept minorities in the roles of our founding generation.

Patricia Herrera, Professor of Theater at the University of Richmond, told a heartwarming story of her experience listening to Hamilton The Musical with her children while taking a road trip throughout our nation’s national parks.  Her young daughter’s desire to be Angelica Schuyler for Halloween pushed Herrera to interrogate how Hamilton The Musical conflates the historical figure of Angelica the slave owner with the beautiful African American actress playing her on stage.   For Herrera, the national parks and the musical perform a similar function.  The parks represent beautiful democratic vistas and leisure for white Americans on the backs of a tragic narrative for Native Americans.

Finally, Claire Bond Potter, Professor of History at the New School, discussed her interest in Hamilton The Musical and Miranda from a social media perspective.  Her chapter in the book, “Safe in the Nation We’ve Made,” looks at how the musical reaches a large audience on social media, allowing for a more authentic connection and turning fans into cultural investors.

Palpable throughout the panel discussion was the historians’ respect for Miranda’s work and a hope that other historians will use the musical as an entry into teaching and talking about history. At the end of the session, the line in the exhibit hall to purchase the book had the Rutgers staff sweating.  I secured my copy and am happily reading it now.

Ron Chernow’s Latest Biography

GrantHe became famous by writing the book on which the smash-hit musical “Hamilton” was based.  Now Ron Chernow‘s latest book is a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  The Washington Post has the story covered.  Here is a taste of Karen Heller’s piece:

Ron Chernow’s timing is exquisite, even if it took six years and 25,000 index cards to get to this moment.

As Americans debate the continued reverence for Confederate general Robert E. Lee in the wake of the Charlottesville protests, the biographer of Hamilton — the “Hamilton” who inspired the theatrical juggernaut — delivers his latest brick of a book, “Grant” (publishing Oct. 10), to help rescue the Union commander and 18th president from the ash heap of history.

Ulysses S. Grant, you may recall, won the Civil War. He was the military architect who triumphed on multiple battlefields and vanquished Lee in Virginia after six other Union generals failed.

Yet after the South’s defeat, “Lee was puffed up to almost godlike proportions, not only as a great general, but as a perfect Christian gentleman, this noble and exemplary figure and an aristocratic example,” says Chernow, 68, sitting in his sun-splashed kitchen on the top floor of the 19th-century Brooklyn Heights brownstone where he rents two stories. “The glorification of Lee and the denigration of Grant are two sides of the same coin. We’ve created our own mythology of what happened.”

Read the entire piece here.

How to Build a History Course Around “Hamilton: An American Musical”

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Reeve Hutson of Duke University explains how to do it.  Here is a taste from his piece at Panorama:

To my surprise, Hamilton proved a wonderful foil for studying the Revolutionary era—because the students love it; because it’s so good as a musical; and not least because it’s so bad as an interpretation of the Revolution. Those of you who have heard or seen the musical know just how many problems are contained in it: the belief in American exceptionalism; the assumption of a natural, already-existing American nation that pre-dated the Revolution; the faith in American national innocence (with the prominent exception of slavery and the subordination of women); the association of American-ness with upward social mobility; the notion that the Revolutionary movement was singular and united; the assumption that the story of the Revolution was the story of the “founding fathers”; the belief that the Federalists embraced what we twenty-first-century audiences would recognize as “democracy” (again, except for the disenfranchisement of women and people of color).

Read the entire piece here.

“A suit of tar and turkey-buzzard feathers”

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Samuel Seabury

The Monmouth County, New Jersey Committee of Observation and Inspection REALLY didn’t like the pamphlet Free Thoughts on the Resolves of the Congress.  The author of the pamphlet was listed as “A.W. Farmer,” a pen name for Westchester, New York Anglican minister Samuel Seabury.  Some of you recognize Seabury from the musical “Hamilton.”

Here is a taste of the Committee’s minutes from March 1775:

At an early meeting of said Committee, a pamphlet entitled Free Thoughts on the Resolves of the Congress by A.W. Farmer, was handed in to them and their opinion of it asked by a number of their constituents then present.  Said pamphlet was then read, and upon mature deliberation unanimously declared to be a performance of the most pernicious and malignant tendency; replete with the most specious sophistry but void of any solid or rational argument; calculated to deceive and mislead the unwary, the ignorant, and the credulous; and designed no doubt by the detestable author to damp that noble spirit of union, which he sees prevailing all over the Continent, and if possible to sap the foundations of American freedom.  The pamphlet was afterwards handed back to the people, who immediately bestowed upon it a suit of tar and turkey-buzzard’s feathers; one of the persons concerned in the operation justly observing that although the feathers were plucked from the most stinking fowl in the creation he though they felt far short of being a proper emblem of the author’s odiousness to every advocate for true freedom.  The same person wished, however, he had the pleasure of fitting him with a suit of the same materials.  The pamphlet was then in its gorgeous attire, nailed up firmly to the pillory post, there to remain as a monument of the indignation of a free and loyal people against the author and vendor of a publication so evidently tending both to subvert the liberties of America and the Constitution of the British Empire.

Apparently violence was not only directed toward other human beings during the American Revolution.  It was also directed to pamphlets!