Starting Points Journal: “The Art of Biography: Wisdom from the Hamilton Musical”
By Andrew Porwancher
“With the long-awaited return of Broadway, audiences are once again gazing in awe at its crown jewel: Hamilton. The blockbuster musical introduced to the world, as no biography ever had, the unlikely story of the Caribbean orphan-turned-American founder. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda takes all the artistic liberties one would expect in a theatrical rendering of the American founding. It would be tempting—and not terribly difficult—for tsk-tsking historians to criticize the musical’s departure from the historical record. But perhaps we could pose a different question, one at once less obvious and more fruitful for future scholarship: in what ways might the musical be more insightful than many of the biographies that have appeared on Hamilton in the two centuries since his fatal duel?
One answer lies in the musical’s treatment of Hamilton’s upbringing, a topic given relatively scant attention by most Hamilton scholars. In a 1977 biography of Hamilton, author Holmes Alexander was strikingly dismissive of his subject’s early years. ‘Hamilton’s mother and father—whoever they really were—had little importance in his life . . . he had no real childhood, no real home, a strong desire to get away from his beginnings, and no inclination to return,’ Alexander insisted. With this, the author justified a large erasure of Hamilton’s boyhood: ‘It seems a biographical act of kindness to take him out of the West Indies as soon as possible, which I shall do, and establish him in New York City, where he chose to live.’ Although few Hamilton biographers are so overtly cavalier in their neglect of his roots, many implicitly share with Holmes Alexander a relative lack of interest in Hamilton’s origin story. A typical Hamilton biography offers cursory discussion of his early years before turning to the high drama of his American adulthood, without deep interest in how the former might have molded the latter…”
Andrew Porwancher is the Wick Cary Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Oklahoma. From 2020–2022, he is serving as the Ernest May Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. Aside from The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton, Porwancher is the author of The Devil Himself: A Tale of Honor, Insanity, and the Birth of Modern America (Oxford, 2016), which was adapted into a theatrical presentation in Dublin, and John Henry Wigmore and the Rules of Evidence: The Hidden Origins of Modern Law (Missouri, 2016), an inaugural volume in the series “Studies in Constitutional Democracy.”
Porwancher previously served as the Horne Fellow at Oxford and the Garwood Fellow at Princeton, and held senior research fellowships at the Straus Center (Yeshiva) and Clements Center (Texas). In 2017, he won the Longmire Prize for innovation in teaching. He is now at work on his fourth book, Theodore Roosevelt and the Jews (under contract with Princeton), and his fifth, The Legal Legacy of James Bradley Thayer (under review).
Professor Porwancher is a JMC fellow.
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