In Conversation

Joanne Freeman on Alexander Hamilton the man and ‘Hamilton’ the musical

Freeman discusses the life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton, why he’s fascinated her for decades, and what the play gets right — and gets wrong — about him.
Joanne B. Freeman (Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Joanne B. Freeman (Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Sitting in the audience of the critically acclaimed Broadway play “Hamilton,” Yale historian Joanne Freeman was impressed by the ways that its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, melded hip-hop music with early American history. Freeman realized she was watching “revolutionary theater.”

Then she heard “10 Duel Commandments,” a song about the rules of dueling, and her “jaw hit the floor,” she says. In the lyrics to the song, Freeman recognized words in a document that she had uncovered decades before at the bottom of a box at the New-York Historical Society, and had discussed in a chapter of her book, “Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic.”

It was a “surreal” moment for the scholar, who has been studying Alexander Hamilton for decades.

During a recent conversation with YaleNews, Freeman spoke about the role that Alexander Hamilton has played in her life, how she hopes that interest in the play inspires future generations of students to study early America, and why the legendary founder has continued to pique her interest for almost 40 years.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What led you to start researching Hamilton?

It was around the time of the bicentennial. I was 14 years old and I started reading biographies of founders. When I came across a biography of Alexander Hamilton, I didn’t like it. I didn’t believe it. So I went back to the library, asked what the author of the book had read, and the librarian sent me off to read Hamilton’s papers. They fascinated me–because they were the “real history” of Hamilton, not an interpretation. From that time on, I have never stopped reading Hamilton’s papers. And that research led me to want to learn about other topics, like the period’s politics and dueling.  Basically, Hamilton drew me into my career as a historian. One strange coincidence: I have worked with the National Park Service over the years and oddly enough, Hamilton’s house in Harlem became a national memorial on the day I was born: April 27, 1962. A few years back, the Hamilton Grange National Memorial and I turned 50 years old together, and I celebrated my birthday in Hamilton’s home.

With all of the hype surrounding the play, this is such a surreal time for me. The incredible fact is that for the past 40 years I have been studying Hamilton, writing about him, and lecturing all over the country about him, but very few people knew who he was.  And now, this play has brought his history into the limelight. I mean, there are Hamilton socks!

What was your initial reaction to the play?

My initial thought was that the play is entertaining and contains quite a bit of history. There is a Cabinet meeting rap battle in the play; Washington’s Farewell Address is sung in the play. I saw the play with a friend who is a historian and our jaws were on the floor. And in its form and style, the play is so different. It’s clearly revolutionary theater. Then I heard the song titled “10 Duel Commandments.” As it went on, I heard words from a document that I had discovered at the New-York Historical Society in the bottom of a box, and I realized the song was based on that document — and more broadly, on the chapter of my book about the Burr-Hamilton duel. I loved that I had something to do with the play!

The document was a set of notes from the trial of Aaron Burr’s second in the duel, William Van Ness, who took notes on what testifying witnesses were saying. Amazingly, I had discovered new eyewitness accounts of the Burr-Hamilton duel. And its details were fascinating. The two boatmen who rowed Hamilton and Burr to the location of the duel, and the doctor who was present, all testified that they had stood with their backs to the dueling ground, so during the trial, when asked what they had seen, they could honestly say that they heard gunshots but saw no duel. The document reveals lots of customs of this sort — customs that gave people taking part in a duel a kind of deniability. You can see this play out in the courtroom. It was mind-blowing to hear these details in a song.

How accurate is the Broadway play’s depiction of Alexander Hamilton?

It’s almost comical: now that everyone is excited about Hamilton, it is not the real Hamilton that they’re excited about. I can detail a lot of things that are not discussed or included in the play, or that are outright wrong with it, but it is important to remember that this is a hip-hop musical. The play captures aspects of Hamilton’s personality, but ultimately it is a play about one person’s rise and fall. I would not want my students to think it’s an authentic version of history. But my students — who are very excited about the play — are more sophisticated than that. They come to class and ask, ‘what really happened?’ This play has become a teaching avenue, a door opener. So, if there are more students in my history classes because of it, then that’s a bonus. And if the play gets kids thinking that early American history is interesting and relevant to the present day, and moves them to study it, then that’s great too.

Why did you remain interested in Alexander Hamilton for so many years?

I’ve stayed interested in Hamilton not because he was a standard-issue hero, but because of his complications; he was self-destructive, had a highly problematic personality, and was often extreme in his politics. I don’t like hero history. It does the study of history a disservice on a thousand different levels. It’s far more interesting to study complicated people and the history they helped to shape.

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