Hamilton, recently released for streaming on Disney Plus, is the Obama Administration’s Aeneid: a national epic for cosmopolitan liberals, in an age of rising right wing populism. Blurring the line between art and propaganda, Miranda’s Hamilton speaks to the aspirations and anxieties of the United States under neoliberalism, just as Virgil’s Aeneid spoke to the condition of Rome under Emperor Augustus.
I recently started leading undergraduate seminars in early U.S. history via Zoom, which means I’ve been hearing a lot about Hamilton again. Marketed as “the streaming event of the summer”, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s intricate hip-hopera about the first U.S. treasury secretary was released last month on Disney Plus to millions of new viewers who couldn’t afford Broadway tickets back in 2015, including many of my students. One incoming freshman even showed the class a set of Hamilton posters on the wall of her recently decorated dorm room. Every student who had seen the show described themselves as an enthusiastic fan.
Hamilton, trailer (2020), Disney Plus
I was lucky enough to see Hamilton on Broadway (and twice off-Broadway), and like a lot of historians, I have complicated feelings about it. At this point, countless articles have been devoted to the show’s meaning and cultural impact, its “color-blind casting”, its blend of musical genres, its depiction of early American history, and its treatment of such themes as politics, religion, sex, war, slavery, and immigration. But what has always stood out to me about the show is something I haven’t really seen discussed. In its somewhat paradoxical attempt to provide a national epic for cosmopolitan liberals, Hamilton belongs to that rare and revealing category of politicized spectacle that fails as propaganda in direct proportion to how well it succeeds as a work of art.
The Epic that wasn’t
When I was an undergraduate, I was obsessed with the works of the ancient Roman poet Virgil. In particular, I was obsessed with Adam Parry’s 1963 journal article The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid (1) which kicked off a half-century of scholarly debate about Virgil’s authorial intentions. Commissioned by Emperor Augustus after his final victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C., the Aeneid is generally regarded as a work of Augustan propaganda. The fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire called for a new founding myth that would bring Rome’s origins into ideological alignment with the new imperial regime, so Augustus hired Rome’s greatest poet to write one. So far, so good. The problem with this standard interpretation, according to Parry, is that the actual text of the Aeneid is utterly at odds with its jingoistic mission. Virgil seems to go out of his way to complicate Rome’s imperial glory, to humanize Rome’s enemies, and to eulogize the once-unique cultures assimilated under Roman hegemony.
The Aeneid tells the story of the founding of Rome by the Trojan refugee Aeneas. A work of unauthorized Homer fanfiction: it picks up right where the Iliad left off, with Aeneas and his men wandering the Mediterranean after the destruction of their home city of Troy. The Trojans are shipwrecked on the coast of Africa, where they are received with hospitality by Queen Dido, founder and ruler of the African city of Carthage. She and Aeneas fall in love, only to be tragically torn apart by an epic plot device: the gods tell Aeneas he must sail to Italy, subdue the native Italians, and found the city of Rome, whether he likes it or not. Aeneas leaves Carthage to fulfil his destiny, Dido commits suicide by setting herself on fire, and the Roman imperial project is off to a great start. The poem teaches the value of pietas, which often translates as “piety”, but which means something closer to “patriotism”. Aeneas sacrifices his personal happiness and abandons his love for the sake of a glorious imperial future which he will never even live to witness, because that is what it means to be a patriotic Roman.
The “two voices” of Parry’s title are the booming voice of Roman imperialism, and the quieter voice of mourning for all that was lost in the Roman Empire’s march towards world domination. For what, asked Parry, “on the simple glorification of Rome interpretation, do we make of some of the finest passages of the Aeneid? What we find, again and again, is not a sense of triumph, but a sense of loss” (1). Why is the African Queen Dido such a sympathetic, well-drawn character, when Augustus wanted nothing more than to vilify her real-life counterpart, Cleopatra? Why are the Carthaginians, whose city the Romans obliterated, portrayed not as enemies, but as gracious hosts? Why is Aeneas so neurotic and tortured, in contrast with the Homeric heroes whose epic shoes he is meant to be filling? Why does the poem end so abruptly, with Aeneas slaying the native Italian Turnus in a sudden, uncharacteristic fit of rage? In fulfilling his epic destiny, Aeneas loses his humanity, subjugating the native Italians as his own people were once subjugated, and becoming just like the bloodthirsty Achilles who drove him from his home city of Troy in the first place.
Many scholars rejected Parry’s interpretation, for obvious reasons. The idea that one of the greatest works of Roman literature, commissioned by the Emperor himself, was actually intended as a covert critique of Roman imperialism strains credulity. “After all”, Parry winked, “what was Augustus giving Virgil all those gold pieces for?” (2). Even so, it’s hard to shake the sense that there is something going on in the text of the Aeneid. The ambivalence, the melancholy, the sense of doom which Parry points to are all right there in the poem, and you don’t have to be a 1960s radical to notice it; according to classicist Craig Kallendorf’s book The Other Virgil, early modern readers noticed it, too (2).
So, what’s going on here? Why does the Aeneid seem to “fail” as propaganda? I spent my entire undergraduate career obsessed with this mystery, and in the end, I came to a pretty basic conclusion: Virgil probably wasn’t a secret anti-Augustan dissident, but he also wasn’t a hack. The Aeneid was commissioned as a work of propaganda, but it’s also a great work of literature that captures, whether consciously or unconsciously, something of the contradictions of the age in which it was written. It can tell us a great deal about who the Romans thought they were, what they aspired to, and what they were afraid of. Parry may not have succeeded in demonstrating that Virgil was being deliberately subversive, but his work still shows us that ancient people were psychologically complex and politically sophisticated. The Romans thought about what it meant to be Roman – even agonized over it. And following the period of intense political violence and upheaval which resulted in the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire under Augustus, the Aeneid provided the Romans with a new founding myth which spoke to these ambivalent feelings.
A neoliberal Aeneid
I want to put forth the following proposition: Lin-Manuel Miranda is to President Obama as Virgil was to Emperor Augustus. Hamilton is best understood as the Obama Administration’s Aeneid.
The play represents an attempt to re-mythologize the founding of the United States by bringing the American Revolution into ideological alignment with the liberal cosmopolitan values of the Obama Administration. While President Obama obviously didn’t commission Miranda to write it, he was indirectly involved in the show’s development. Back in 2009, when it was still just a concept album, Miranda’s first track received a standing ovation from the president and first lady at a White House poetry slam event (see video below).
In 2016, at the end of Obama’s term in office, the cast of Hamilton publicly confronted vice-presidential elect Mike Pence during a showing. The production has been associated with the Obama Administration from its very inception and is widely understood as an affirmation of Obama’s legacy, and a repudiation of his political opponents. “Miranda’s Hamilton so perfectly matches the sensibilities of mainstream Obama-era Democrats”, Matt Yglesias noted in 2016, “that the Democratic National Committee turned an early November Hamilton performance into a fundraiser”.
It hardly seems like a coincidence that the greatest work of art associated with the Obama Administration is about the American Revolution, when the most significant popular opposition to that Administration called itself the Tea Party, and draped itself in the iconography of the American Revolution almost to the point of parody. As a cultural phenomenon, Hamilton was the anti-Tea Party. The Tea Party was garish, kitschy and embarrassing, while Hamilton was hip, trendy, and chic. The Tea Party was xenophobic, ignorant, and backward, while Hamilton was diverse, sophisticated, and forward-looking. The show provided a way for liberals to symbolically reclaim the “founding fathers” after suffering through eight years of birtherist conspiracy theorists in Party City tricornered hats whipping out their pocket Constitutions, and Glenn Beck crying on television in a powdered wig. It reimagines the first U.S. treasury secretary as a sort of neoliberal technocrat, whose inspiring biography is obviously supposed to remind us of Barack Obama himself.
Hamilton tells the story of the founding of the United States of America by the scrappy Caribbean immigrant Alexander Hamilton. Marginalized and underestimated because of his illegitimacy, the young orphan Hamilton is recognized for his brilliance and sent for education to New York, where he becomes involved in the Revolutionary War and marries into one of New York’s wealthiest families. As the “right hand man” of George Washington, Hamilton becomes the genius policy wonk of the first president’s administration, and must battle the obstructionist Democratic-Republicans in order to pass his agenda through Congress. Hamilton and his son Philip both die tragically, and somewhat inexplicably, in a series of bizarre, ritualized duels to the death, and America’s diverse, inclusive meritocracy is off to a great start. The play teaches the value of self-actualization, and being smarter than everybody else – but not so smart that you’re not also a flawed, interesting character.
The parallels within the text to the events of the Obama era are numerous and obvious, but the best examples are in Miranda’s depiction of the legislative process. Hamilton’s financial agenda stands in for the Affordable Care Act, and the opposition to both policies is shown to be the result of stubbornness and ignorance. “They don’t have a plan, they just hate mine!” says Miranda’s Hamilton of his Democratic-Republican foes, giving voice to the frustration of Obama and his supporters. “It’s too many damn pages for any man to understand!” Miranda’s Jefferson complains of the bill, sounding a lot like Republican Congressman Richard Hudson in 2013. In a bit of Democratic wish-fulfilment, an entire musical number is devoted to Hamilton and his opponents solving congressional gridlock in a literal backroom deal. A reasonable, bipartisan compromise is reached, and the forces of policy wonkery and expertise prevail over the forces of ignorance and populist hysteria.
Miranda’s Hamilton is a celebration of meritocracy, technocracy, and cosmopolitanism as embodied by the Obama Administration. The production explicitly positioned itself in opposition to the rise of populism, isolationism, and economic nationalism as preached – though hardly ever practiced – by the Trump Administration. The play’s message is somewhat complicated by the fact that the historical Hamilton was an economic nationalist, a self-taught dilettante, rather than a credentialed expert, an ideologue, rather than a deal-maker, and a proponent of traditional hierarchy rather than liberal meritocracy. But only somewhat. What’s really confounding about Hamilton is that it’s a stirring national epic beloved by millions of young people that, rather than summoning them to any sort of patriotic action, essentially tells them: history sure was exciting while it was happening. Too bad it’s over.
The End of History has its eyes on you
Hamilton is extremely well-made, highly researched, and incredibly dense, which is part of why critics have had so much to say about it. In comparison with Les Misérables, another popular musical set during the Age of Revolution, Hamilton has far more complex characters (in part because they are based on real people) and engages far more substantively with the time period. The plot follows Alexander Hamilton’s biography fairly closely, and many lines of dialogue are quotations from primary sources. It has been called “Shakespearean” in its linguistic virtuosity and dramatic sophistication, and indeed, the show has the structure of an actual Greek tragedy. It’s the story of a larger-than-life hero who reaches the heights of greatness, only to be brought down by his own hubris, in a perfect Sophoclean circle.
This is what has always interested me about Hamilton. I have referred to it as propaganda because of its obvious ideological orientation and its close association with those in power, but much like Virgil’s Aeneid, I think it arguably undermines its own message by being as good as it is. There are, perhaps, two voices in Miranda’s Hamilton: the voice of neoliberal hegemony, of limited political horizons, of blandly non-threatening cultural “diversity”, of a life devoted to professional-managerial credentialing and individualist achievement – and the voice of that long lost Age of Revolution, of the romanticism and irrationalism of the nation, of the nobility of public life and the possibilities of collective action, of a life devoted to honour and glory, and other such dark, and beautiful, and ancient notions.
The play spends a great deal of time explaining, in surprisingly accurate detail, the logic of 18th-century honour culture, which drives its titular hero into a fatal confrontation with his lifelong frenemy Aaron Burr. There are three separate duelling sequences, in which the audience learns, contrary to modern expectations, that the purpose of duelling is not to kill one’s opponent, but rather to demonstrate one’s own willingness to die. As historian Joanne B. Freeman has written, “duels were demonstrations of manner, not marksmanship; they were intricate games of dare and counter dare, ritualized displays of bravery, military prowess, and – above all – willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s honour” (3). Undergraduates are often surprised to learn that, according to the thinking of the time, Hamilton actually won the duel by martyring himself, while Burr was driven out of town in disgrace.
The code of ritualized violence by which the characters in Hamilton live and die is something deeply foreign to modern sensibilities, and the way Miranda dwells on themes of honour, glory, and historical legacy is somewhat at odds with the show’s otherwise milquetoast neoliberal morality. In the end, the audience is invited to fully identify with Hamilton’s willingness to die for the Republic in what is, from a modern perspective, an utterly barbaric and senseless ritual of 18th-century machismo. We are momentarily immersed in a world where a duel to the death is a logical extension of politics. We are invited to experience Hamilton’s sense of his own heroic destiny, his conviction that he has achieved a kind of secular immortality by becoming a part of something greater than himself.
This profound sense of honour represents a kind of public selfhood that is hard for modern Americans to understand. As Freeman writes, “Honour was the core of a man’s identity, his sense of self, his manhood. A man without honour was no man at all. Honour was also entirely other-directed, determined before the eyes of the world; it did not exist unless bestowed by others” (3). In this respect, Miranda’s Hamilton is not a self-made neoliberal subject at all, but an 18th-century man of honour, deeply embedded in a world of traditional hierarchies and social obligations. He is also a patriot and revolutionary, at a time when traditional hierarchies were being thrown into question, and when the future seemed radically open-ended. “To get a feeling for what it was like to think about politics in the late 18th century”, Freeman said in a 2010 lecture at Yale (see video below), “think about how we now experience technology. Technology, for us, is this realm where anything can happen and where things are happening all the time… And that kind of spirit – transport that back to the late 18th century, and that’s the way people were feeling about politics”.
The other day, I asked my students what they liked about Hamilton, and how it might have influenced their view of early American history. One young woman compared being a fan of Hamilton to being a fan of Star Wars. “It’s just a classic story”, she said. “I guess young people like to see themselves as part of a rebellion”. For these students, the American Revolution is an escapist fantasy. Hamilton is another thing to stream while you’re stuck in your dorm room, taking online courses and waiting out the pandemic. There is no dropping out of college, as the historical Hamilton did, to join a revolutionary movement. There is nothing to do but keep your head down, earn your credentials, and try to secure one of the vanishing number of spots in the higher ranks of the meritocracy.
What, on the simple ‘glorification of Obama’ interpretation, do we make of some of the finest passages of Hamilton? Like Virgil’s Aeneid, it aims for affirmation of the present, but its depiction of the past is so compelling that it leaves us with a sense not of triumph, but of loss. We are left to ask ourselves: did people like Miranda’s Hamilton really use to exist? People for whom politics was a noble way of life, and even death? People who believed in the future? One thing the popularity of Hamilton shows us is that even at the end of history, Americans are still asking themselves what it means to be an American. Hamilton may be a work of propaganda, but it’s also an extraordinary work of art that captures, whether consciously or unconsciously, something of the anxieties and contradictions of the age in which it was created.
- Parry, A., “The Two Voices of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid,’” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 1963.
- Kallendorf, C., “The Other Virgil: ‘Pessimistic’ Readings of the Aeneid in Early Modern Culture”, 2007.
- Freeman, J.B., “Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic“, 2001.