Last week, I intended to post on Hamilton’s 1782-1783 term in Congress, but got distracted by Hamilton’s role in the Newburgh Conspiracy (March 1783), which could have led to a military coup by Washington’s officers.
This week, I intended to post on the Newburgh Conspiracy, but decided I don’t know the context well enough. I’ve read the letters Hamilton and Washington exchanged at this period, but … What other delegates to Congress did Washington correspond with from February to April 1783? What do James Madison notes say regarding Congress’s debates about pay for the army? What did Hamilton write to others besides Washington during that period? Who were the leaders in Congress at that time, especially the nationalists?
All of which will help me judge the accuracy of Knott and Williams’s statement that “Hamilton played a sordid role in the Newburgh conspiracy” (Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America).
While I tackle that, this week’s post is a rough transcription of the intro to the talk I gave last week, “Hamilton: Man and Musical.”
History vs. art
I write on both art and history, so I’ll start with a question too few people ask: what’s the difference between art and history?
History starts with the whole world, past and present, almost up to this moment. As a historian, I choose a topic and search out the relevant facts. I look for actions and motivation, cause and effect, long-term consequences. My job is not to collect and then regurgitate the facts – it’s to make a coherent narrative out of them. If I find facts that seem to conflict, I must seek a way to reconcile them. At the very least, if there are inconsistencies in the record, I have to mention them.
As a historian, I’m part of a dialogue. When I uncover new information or when others do, the narrative has to be revised to include it. That’s why history – even when it deals with events 200 or 2,000 years ago – is never finished, sealed, and locked away for safekeeping. There’s always the chance that new evidence will pop up, or that we can make a more precise integration of the known facts, or that we’ll find a new way to to apply a lesson from history to our own life and times.
On the other hand, an artwork such as a musical is a self-contained world, complete in itself. Whatever the influences the artist had in music, whatever references he used for his story … when the curtain rises, the work has to stand on its own. Why? Because art has a different purpose from history.
Art doesn’t teach us facts or lessons. It shows us the artist’s point of view about life: what matters, what’s important, how the world can and ought to be. The artist shows us that by his choice of characters, by their actions and words, and by who’s smiling when the curtain drops. If you’re addicted to Hamilton: An American Musical and/or have its soundtrack on a repeating loop, then some aspect of it is showing you the world as you think it is or ought to be.
The medium of any artwork imposes certain restrictions. For a musical, the artist has to tell the story within two or three hours. In a musical based on someone’s life, that will require eliminating many events: no song about the Newburgh Conspiracy! It may also mean shifting the timeline. Hamilton didn’t actually meet all three of his best buds at once, in a bar.
So: history is an ongoing attempt to find the truth about the past, to make sense of it, and to learn from it. An artwork is a self-contained world that shows you what the artist thinks is important.
I consider Hamilton: An American Musical a brilliant work of art. I love Hamilton’s character (his energy, drive, and self-confidence) and the way he creates his own destiny. I love the supplementary characters, the pacing, and the words words words words. (I’m a writer. Whaddaya expect?)
As a historian, I’m amazed by the number of accurate details and important historical issues Lin-Manuel Miranda managed to work into 2 3/4 hours. Yes, there are changes in Hamilton’s life that I’d come down on like a ton of bricks (a very polite ton of bricks) if I saw them in a scholarly work. In a musical, such changes are completely acceptable.
But I didn’t write this talk because I fell in love with the musical. My niche in art history is outdoor sculpture in New York City. My original talk on Hamilton, back in 2004, was provoked by the fact that there are four outdoor sculptures of Hamilton in New York – more than of anyone else except George Washington.
My goal in writing the talk was to find out what Hamilton did, what ideas drove him to those actions, and why his actions mattered. The most important part of that talk was twenty or so substantial quotes that let Hamilton speak for himself about what he thought and valued. For the current version of the talk, I’ve kept the quotes (I’ll be delighted to have volunteers to read these), added pictures, and worked in lines from the musical. Please feel free to sing when I give you a cue!
- I’ll be giving “Hamilton: Man and Musical” again, possibly online. Contact me if you’re interested (DuranteDianne@gmail.com).
- Two of the Hamilton sculptures (nos. 2 and 4 above) are discussed in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide.
- My take on art is based on Ayn Rand’s. For her definition, see here. I’ve discussed the nature of art in the introduction to Innovators in Sculpture, and in many of the essays in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide.
- I’ve started adding comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical: a fantastic resource. Follow me @DianneDurante.
- The usual disclaimer: This is the forty-third in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical. My intro to this series is here. Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. If you’ve read this far and enjoyed it, why not sign up to hear about future installments? Follow me on Twitter @NYCsculpture, friend the Forgotten Delights page on Facebook, or ask to be added to my mailing list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com), which will get you a weekly email with some bonus comments. Bottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.