Alexander Hamilton: From ‘mushroom gentleman’ to American hero

Historian Joanne Freeman discusses Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and the exhibition about him that recently opened in Chicago.
The exterior of the building that houses “Hamilton: The Exhibition.”

The exterior of the building that houses “Hamilton: The Exhibition.” (Photo by Justin Barbin Photography)

Long before there was a play that made Founding Father Alexander Hamilton a household name and an American hero of sorts, a 14-year-old girl took an interest in Hamilton as a hobby. That hobby led to a scholarly interest that has spanned the better part of 40 years now for Yale’s Joanne Freeman.

For a long time Freeman, professor of history and of American studies, was the only person she knew of who had much of an interest in Hamilton. “I spent many decades lecturing about Hamilton and essentially saying, ‘I know you’ve never heard of this person but you should, because he actually played an important role in the founding of our country,’” says Freeman. “Now, with everyone adoring Hamilton due to the play, I spend a lot of time saying: ‘You know, he’s not as great as you think he is. He was a flawed figure with problematic politics.’ In my work, I want to show Hamilton in all of his complexity.”

Now that everyone is intrigued with Hamilton she says, it is a “phenomenal” teaching opportunity — and on a personal level, an experience that she can only describe as surreal. “It began as surreal and has continued to be surreal. It basically never stops,” says Freeman.

Freeman served as the historical adviser for “Hamilton: The Exhibition,” which recently opened in Chicago. Freeman says that the organizers of the exhibition — all of whom were part of the creative theatrical team for the play — wanted to fill in some of the gaps in the play, and, says Freeman, to “complicate the story and offer some deeper context.” The organizers, she adds, wanted the history that they presented to be accurate.

The Yale historian, who also narrated aspects of the exhibition, recently spoke with YaleNews about the mystery behind Alexander Hamilton — what people don’t know about him but should; what she learned about the man through the process of serving as historical adviser for the exhibition; why she chose to spend her birthday immersed in the exhibition; and why, on that day, Alexander Hamilton brought tears to her eyes.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What is so unusual about Hamilton? What don’t we know about him but should?

Hamilton’s beginnings — and ending — were a bit unusual. He was born in the Caribbean, illegitimate and relatively poor. Sent to North America on charity and making a name for himself by using his sponsor’s social connections, he was able to impress and influence. But to many people at the time, he seemingly came out of nowhere. He was what people would have deemed a “mushroom gentleman” — someone who seemingly sprouts up overnight without any roots. Mushroom gentlemen were seen as dubious characters, and even at that time there were things about Hamilton that seemed dubious.

Right now, we are living in an age of “hero” Hamilton. The real Hamilton was far more complex. Yes, he did some great things with an eye towards posterity, but his politics and personality could be problematic — even extreme. For example, Hamilton wasn’t entirely comfortable with democracy; he fundamentally didn’t trust a democratic mode of politics. Hamilton understood that America’s form of government was grounded on public opinion to an extreme degree. Although Hamilton did what he thought fell within the bounds of republican governance, he pushed to make the national government as centralized and powerful as he could. Hamilton was not comfortable with things like popular protest in the streets; he thought people should vote and then get out of the way and let their betters rule.

What are some examples of inaccuracies in the musical that are corrected in the exhibition?

One major lapse in the show concerns the institution of slavery. It isn’t discussed for more than a line or two in “Hamilton” — yet the United States and the early modern world were grounded on the institution of slavery, so that had to be in the foreground of the exhibition. When you enter the first room of the exhibition (after the introductory film), you see shackles; the institution of slavery is the first thing you confront. It was at the center of Hamilton’s world.

The exhibit adds a lot of context along those lines — concerning slavery and any number of other topics: the role of women, the contributions of non-elite folk, and more. There are also more specific corrections that are almost like Easter eggs in the exhibit, such as a plaque that explains that Jefferson didn’t win the election of 1800 “in a landslide,” as the play suggests, or another one that notes (in a more comical vein) that Martha Washington did not name her feral tomcat Hamilton.

The creative team for “Hamilton: The Exhibition.”
The creative team for “Hamilton: The Exhibition.” From left to right: Alex Lacamoire, executive music producer and arranger; David Korins, creative director and designer; Joanne B. Freeman, Yale professor of history and American studies, and historical adviser; Lin-Manuel Miranda, artistic advisor; Jeffrey Seller, producer; and Thomas Kail, artistic advisor. (Photo by Justin Barbin Photography)

What was the process of making this exhibition like for you?

The organizers of the exhibition looked to me to guide them in presenting history to the public. The whole process was fascinating. It was theater and history trying — and sometimes struggling — to find a common language to create this exhibition. The organizers would ask me: “Today, Joanne, we are talking about the Battle of Yorktown. What’s important to know about the battle of Yorktown?” And I would talk for two or three hours, while they asked questions.

Some topics were difficult to figure out how to put into physical form. One of them was Hamilton’s financial plan, which – to be honest — doesn’t sound inherently interesting to most people. We spent quite a long time trying to figure out how to make it compelling to the average person walking through the exhibit. At one point, I said: ‘Here’s the thing. The entire government was an experiment, no one knew if it was going to function, and certainly no one knew if Hamilton’s financial plan was going to work. His plan proposed some radical ideas that a lot of people disagreed with, so there was a lot of uncertainty.’ And then there was a pause – and then David Korins [set designer for “Hamilton” the play] said, “What if when you enter the financial plan section, the floor is uneven so people feel a bit thrown off?” A fascinating suggestion — something that never would have occurred to me in a thousand years; making a historical concept concrete through set design. That was what the experience of working on this exhibit was like for me — throwing out ideas and then the creative team would come up with innovative ways to bring them to life in ways that were concrete, visual, and graphically beautiful.

The day that the exhibition opened to the public, I watched people walk through the part of the exhibit that deals with Hamilton’s financial plan and sure enough when people crossed over into that room they immediately paused, and looked down at the floor. Point accomplished!

How has this Hamilton-mania driven more people to be interested in the study of early American history?

I think that both the exhibition and the musical have shown people that early American history is more interesting than they previously thought. For many people, the Founding period now seems more human and more contingent. I’ve seen it during the public speaking that I’ve been doing this past year— some of it about Hamilton and some of it about the book that I just published [“The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War”]. Almost without fail, everywhere I go there are young people in the audience, full of questions about early American history. At one recent talk at the Museum of the American Revolution, I was told that there were more young people in the audience than the museum had ever had for a public lecture. Along similar lines, a lot of young women who have become interested in history have come up to me and thanked me for being a female presence as a historian because it shows them that they can do the same — for me, one of the more moving and unexpected things that came out of my work. I dedicate a lot of time and energy to public-minded history, and feel very fervently that historians have a responsibility to present the public with good, responsible, contextualized history.

What have you learned about Alexander Hamilton through the musical and now the exhibition?

When I first encountered Hamilton as a teenager, I saw him as someone who deserved more attention than he’d gotten. Over time, as I got to know him better and became more sophisticated in my thinking, I understood him as a flawed but fascinating thinker and person. Such have been my thoughts for quite some time. As a historian I’m always ready to acknowledge and explore the negative, and to look at the positive with a grain of salt.

Working on the exhibition, I had to allow for the fact that the public was going to enter it loving Hamilton — and focus on getting people to have a more realistic and complex point of view. It was a difficult balancing act. I didn’t want the message to be that you have to hate Hamilton; that’s not any more valid than loving him unconditionally. He did some things that were admirable, and other things that were not so commendable. Working on the exhibit forced me to reckon with my thoughts about both sides of that equation.

What was it like for you to walk through the exhibition as a spectator?

The exhibition is an immersive experience that takes people a few hours to walk through. It opened on my birthday, so I spent the day — close to eight hours — watching people have that experience. I treated the exhibit almost like a Disneyland ride where you get off and then get right back on again. I sat in different rooms watching children and adults explore the exhibit and enjoying the diverse array of people listening to the audio guide and talking to each other about what they were seeing. It was phenomenal.

It was also strange and wonderful to hear my voice on the audio tour. When you enter the exhibition, you hear me explain that American history is complicated and often very ugly — and that to understand the present you have to understand the ugly aspects of the past. At the close of the exhibit, I explain that it’s important to remember that Alexander Hamilton was an important voice in the nation’s founding, but that he was one among many, and that American politics is grounded on a conversation — sometimes an angry conversation and often an intense one or even a one-sided one, but most importantly a conversation between many voices.  I have to confess that when I got to that point of the exhibit — after seeing my insights about Hamilton along the way — I got teary. I’ve been studying Alexander Hamilton for 40 years; it’s hard to explain what it felt like to see some of that work on the exhibit’s walls to share with others. It was a far more intense experience than I imagined it would be. It was also a distinctive kind of teaching moment for me.

All told, working on this exhibition for the past two years has been emotional, powerful, daunting, challenging, and sometimes confusing. In the end, though, it gives people a chance to delve into the history of America’s founding period in a far more complex way than the play allows. I’m thrilled to have had a chance to take part in it.

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