The dark side of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton played a major part in making the United States that we know today and, largely thanks to Lin Manuel-Miranda's eponymous musical, the founding father is remembered as a scrappy revolutionary immigrant, a hero of the American dream. But is the musical a realistic portrayal of Alexander Hamilton? Tom Cutterham argues that the real Alexander Hamilton was an elitist anti-democrat, who used violence to crush dissent...

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806. (Photo by IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo)

Two middle-aged men in decline, embittered by political defeat, driven by passionate rivalry and trapped by an ideology of personal honour, stand to face each other with their pistols drawn. It is the summer of 1804, on the west bank of the Hudson river across from New York City. By the next day, one of these men will be dead. More than 200 years later, he will also be the hero of a wildly popular musical, an icon with a dedicated fan-base. One duellist was an advocate of women’s rights, voted for slavery’s immediate abolition, and helped create the Democratic party. The other was Alexander Hamilton – and this is his story.

Hamilton, it must be admitted, is having a bit of a moment. As the star of the eponymous West End musical, which transferred from an award-winning Broadway run last winter, he has been transformed into a pop-culture sensation, and (if my students at the University of Birmingham are any guide) an inspiration for new interest in late 18th-century America. That makes it all the more important, then, to shine a spotlight on the side of Hamilton the musical tends to avoid.

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