Historian talks about impact of ‘Hamilton,’ details of figure’s real life


A report by Alexandra Kukulka for the Chicago Tribune.

Historian Barry Bradford says most Americans know only two things about Alexander Hamilton: He’s on the $10 bill and he was killed in a duel.

But, he said, composer-playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and his creation, the hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” have been responsible for creating an entirely new audience hungry for information about Hamilton’s life, the founding fathers and the Revolutionary War.

“‘Hamilton’ is a ground-breaking achievement in my estimation,” Bradford said. “‘Hamilton’ is important because it has entered into the public debate about what our politics should look like.”

Bradford gave a presentation last week at the Glenview Park District on Hamilton’s life and how the musical depicted what historians know about him. About 50 people attended.

Bradford said other important information about Hamilton includes that he served as an aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, was a “major author” of the Federalist Papers, was the first secretary of the Treasury and was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s vice president.

He said Hamilton was born on the Caribbean Island of Nevis and “has a fuzzy personal background,” though historians know who his mother was, they don’t know her race or who his father was. Historians say Hamilton’s mother believed his father was a Scottish trader, he said.

After a hurricane hits the island, the people of Nevis “take up a collection” to send Hamilton to America so that he can get an education. Hamilton spoke multiple languages and had “a rapid-fire mind,” but also talked a lot, “was endlessly self-promoting” and “sometimes needed to lighten up,” Bradford said.

“There’s a line that repeats again and again in ‘Hamilton’ where people say to him, ‘Talk less, smile more,'” Bradford said.

Bradford said Miranda, whose parents emigrated to America from Puerto Rico, was inspired to write the musical after reading Hamilton’s biography while on vacation.

Miranda first created an “Alexander Hamilton mix tape,” and performed a piece during a poetry conference at the White House during former President Barack Obama’s administration, Bradford said. The former president and first lady encouraged him to keep working on the songs, and Miranda turned it into a full musical, Bradford said.

The musical first came to Broadway in August 2015, and Miranda played Hamilton, Bradford said. The rest of the cast is multiracial because, Bradford said, it was important to Miranda for children to see people of different races on stage.

Nancy Cooke, a Northbrook resident, said she enjoyed the presentation and was surprised to learn that Miranda wrote and starred in the musical.

Glenview resident Paula Drues, a former Chicago Public Schools music teacher, said that she enjoyed the presentation because she enjoys listening to the “Hamilton” soundtrack.

“It’s outstanding … how (Miranda) explained a colonial history in a rap style and how it can reach our youth this way,” Drues said.

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