I love movies, as I’m sure you do. But I also love history, there is just something about stories set in times long past that fascinate me. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and 1917 spring to mind, both are made-up stories set during real events. The directors of these movies went to extraordinary lengths to ensure historical accuracy and are loved because of it. The idea to write this column came to me when I was watching Hamilton, a musical you can see on Disney+ that centres around one of the United States’ founding fathers: Alexander Hamilton. I loved it as a musical and I think it supports a great political message (the actual message isn’t important to this article, but I’ll briefly explain it in the comments for those interested), however the way Hamilton’s director Lin-Manuel Miranda conveys that message utterly alters and ignores true historic events. It shocked me at first, but it also made me think about my own stance on historical accuracy. I believe historical accuracy matters, here’s why:
Why is Hamilton so bad?
When we are introduced to the character of Alexander Hamilton he is portrayed as a poor immigrant trying to study at Columbia College. However, he wasn’t an immigrant. His father was a businessman in the West-Indies. Therefore he was British, so when he went to Columbia to study it was no different than if a New Yorkers to study at Columbia.
Later on we meet Marquis De Lafayette. Lafayette was the most important foreign ally to the United States, he fought and won many battles with his French battalion. He and Hamilton recite perhaps the show’s most famous line: “Immigrants, we get the job done” regarding their famous victory at the Battle of Yorktown. While it is true that Lafayette and Hamilton were crucial in this battle, it is not true that Lafayette was an immigrant. He was a Frenchmen, serving in the United States and after the war he went back to his home country.
This, as bad as it is, isn’t the worst offence this musical makes. Hamilton is portrayed as an abolitionist who would do anything to free the slaves still present in the newly-freed United States of America. There is even a line in the musical where he is referred to as such. However, Hamilton married into the rich, slave-owning Schuyler family, he helped trade slaves for the family and he and his wife even owned slaves herself. This is such blatant hero-worship of someone who evidently doesn’t deserve it.
My opinion on Hamilton
In fairness the musical gets a lot right, they even cite some of their sources in the musical itself which is great. The diverse casting also sends a great message about the influence of immigrants and other ethnicities on American culture. (the Americans are all of non-Caucasian origin, whereas the British king is portrayed by a white actor). However, in my opinion, there is no amount of diverse casting that can wipe away the stain left by the complete disregard for slavery in Hamilton. Furthermore, I am not a fan of the fact that Hamilton and Lafayette are portrayed as immigrants when they simply weren’t. Knowing the actual history makes lines like “immigrants, we get the job done” sound like the shows producers included it solely to send a political message, which it probably was.
I love the art of filmmaking and storytelling, in which artistic freedom is allowed. However, I also love and respect history. On the one hand I really enjoyed Hamilton as a musical, the songs are great and the overall story is good. On the other hand I can’t help but shake the thought that this musical distorts history in the public eye for the sake of a political message. Small changes like the date when Hamilton’s wife became pregnant don’t effect the narrative, so they are open to artist interpretation in my opinion. However, changing the story of early American history so significantly that it’s basically unrecognizable is unacceptable. It villainizes people like Thomas Jefferson and worships Hamilton. Many people who don’t care as much about history will walk away from this show thinking this is what happened.
Hamilton is a fun musical that is sure to get a lot of people excited about history. But its major historical flaws distort true history in such a way that it would have been better to invent a fictional character who can do all the things Hamilton did in the musical without naming him as such, this way it can still be inspired by Hamilton, but by not naming him the writers have greater creative freedom. To fully fictionalize a story is to allow oneself the freedom to tell the story as you see fit. If you wish to tell a story about an actual historic figure it is your job as a writer to write a compelling story while preserving historic facts. If you feel the need to change an event of person beyond recognition you haven’t done a good enough job telling their story. Small changes are fine, as long as you don’t effect the narrative you want to tell.
I hope to have opened your eyes to the importance of historical accuracy. Maybe when you write something in the future you think about this column. If you do, I’ll have succeeded. After all those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.