Who Tells Your Story: The Literary Politics of Hamilton The Musical’s Curious Online Afterlife

So here’s the deal: they let the slave rapist out on bail and now he’s eating lunch with the theatre kids. When he gets done with lunch, he rubs his friend’s feet down with baby oil and tickles them with a feather. If the tickling gets tired, he might head back to his Stanford University dorm room and watch political documentaries on Netflix until he gets bored, at which point he might tease out a melody on his beloved violin or engage in filthy Skype sex with his boyfriend and fellow Founding Father.

If you’re not surprised that the third president of the United States could be engaged in the activities listed above, you might have a very active imagination. More likely, you have some literacy in Hamilton fanfiction, a sub-genre of writing developed in response to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster 2015 musical Hamilton: An American Musical. Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, through the lens of the background he and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda share: both were immigrants from the Caribbean. The musical, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016, was met with overwhelming critical acclaim. Besides the Pulitzers and Tonys and visits from Obama, however, there’s another rave audience for Hamilton, if you know where to look: self-proclaimed “Hamiltrash,” a unique subsect of theatre kids and tumblr users who have flocked online to obsess over the musical via fanfiction, comics, roleplay, and more.

 Between fanfiction.net and Wattpad (a similar site publishing user-generated stories), there are more than 40,000 stories tagged “Hamilton,” a considerable number of which feature founding father and Hamilton character Thomas Jefferson. Many of these works of historical fiction feature scenarios even more outlandish than those already described, and often pair Jefferson with James Madison in the popular “ship” (short for relationship pairing) JeffMads. In one fanfiction by “artemisartsandreads,” Thomas Jefferson survives the attacks on 9/11 and greets Hamilton’s son, whose dreams of working in the World Trade Center are crushed, from his hospital bed. Another fanfiction written by “ImCringeyTrash” takes place in the OmegaVerse, a fandom world in which Omegas, or “bitch males,” can get impregnated by alpha males: in this story, Alexander Hamilton goes into heat and pines for his alpha roommate, Thomas Jefferson. Given the extensive imaginative scenarios that Hamiltrash writers dream up for our Founding Fathers, it might come as a surprise that relatively few fan creations opt to engage with historical conditions of Jefferson’s life: among them, his enslavement of and sexual engagement with 16 year old Sally Hemings. 

Hemings, who is thought to have mothered six of Jefferson’s children, was just one of the more than 600 persons Thomas Jefferson in his lifetime. But in recent years, Hemings has taken center stage in conversations about Jefferson’s life and legacy with the publication of books like Annette Gordon-Reed’s “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” and Stephen O’Connor’s controversial but well-reviewed novel “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings.” O’Connor’s novel, which explores, in his own words, “the spectrum between love and Stockholm Syndrome” existing in Jefferson and Hemings’ relationship, prompted writer Roxane Gay to tweet “Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. Why can’t y’all just accept that? He’s been dead for a minute. It’s okay to admit the truth” (notably, this tweet has since been taken removed from Gay’s profile).

Tumblr users who tag their posts “anti Hamilton” have offered similar critiques targeted towards obsessive Hamilton fans. It’s not as if Hamilton fans don’t know that the Founding Fathers enslaved people, however: the musical explicitly mentions slavery, though the lyrical references to the peculiar institution are few and far between. Jefferson’s status as a slave owner is presented as a diss in “Cabinet Battle #1” as Hamilton calls out Jefferson’s hypocrisy with the line: ““We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting” (a line which, Annette Gordon-Reed notes in a critique of the musical, is itself hypocritical; Hamilton bought and sold slaves for the Schuyler family). Hemings even gets a mention, though very superficially (in “What’d I Miss,” Jefferson’s introductory number, Jefferson sings “There’s a letter on my desk from the President / Haven’t even put my bags down yet / Sally be a lamb, darlin, won’tcha open it?”).  The lack of historicity in fanfictions can’t be attributed to ignorance then, but to a quality of the musical itself which renders the historical backgrounds of its characters irrelevant. This seems paradoxical: for a musical entirely about American history, why does history matter so little to its fans?

If at this point you’re thinking, “Because it’s fanfiction, for the love of God, when has historical detail ever governed poorly written online smut?”, then I regret to inform you that the issue is not localized to fanfiction. Any historical narrative in a broad sense leaves out certain details: the historical erasure of Sally Hemings from Jefferson’s story is proof of that. It’s not that the facts of Hamilton are historically inaccurate; the team behind the musical employed Ron Chernow, who wrote the hefty biography on which the musical is based, as a historical consultant. Hamilton, however, approaches history in a way most closely described by a concept called “Founders Chic,” a term coined in a 2003 Atlantic piece of the same name by historian H.W. Brands. “Founders Chic ” refers to the phenomenon in which Americans project onto the Founding Fathers intellect, virtue, and savvy in spades. Brands interrogates whether renewed popular interest in the Founding Fathers (since the early 2000s and beyond) is due to anti-liberal sentiment and a desire to canonize the individual rather than to negotiate multiple broad historical processes. Hamilton very clearly embraces “Founders Chic,” even from the first lines: within the first 30 seconds of Hamilton, John Laurens asserts: “The ten-dollar founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” And it is dramatically useful to do so — “Founders Chic,” which, in the words of Ken Owens, plac[es] the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era,” is essentially history as a character study, which, of course, is jackpot for a composer looking to write a historical musical.

The twist? Hamilton’s Founding Fathers are not the white stuffy elders of AP U.S. History textbooks, but rather lively young men of color who sing and rap their way through Cabinet meetings and political treatises. While the choice to cast nonwhite men and women in these roles was originally described by critics as “colorblind casting,” director Thomas Kail doubled back on that phrase for the British production, saying “We never imagined casting the show in any other way – never for one second,” he said. “We are very conscious of what we are doing here. This is not colour-blind casting.” Hamilton’s race-conscious casting has been widely praised by critics who believe the multicultural cast makes American history newly accessible to and claimable by racial and ethnic minorities. On the opposite side, some view Hamilton’s casting as a glossing over of its historical issues: Annette Gordon-Reed wonders whether the casting helped “submerge” the issue of slavery, while history scholar Lyra Monteiro questions why historically black characters are absent from Hamilton though the musical features many black cast members.  In his review of the musical, critic Hilton Als addresses the irony head-on:

Part of what the audience members delight in—what makes them feel so high and intelligent as they watch the show—is the fact that they’re in on this fabulous joke. Here is a boricua actor—whose Puerto Rican brethren, with their Spanish, African, white, and Carib Indian roots, are American citizens but cannot vote in national elections—playing a white slave inspector turned abolitionist and politician…  Who could be better for the role?

For all the focus on the multi-ethnic casting, however, most critics don’t address the most obvious and basic tenet of the play: the racial subversion inherent in Hamilton’s casting is first and foremost implied in its language. The songs of Hamilton are written primarily as rap, which began (Als does note this) as a black-male art form. To hear an entirely white cast rap the tracks of Hamilton would be cringe-inducing at best. The implication of this is that a multi-ethnic cast is necessary to fulfill the audience’s expectations for who should and can deliver its language, which, of course, came before the casting itself. Scholar Lyra Montiero writes 

“The racialized musical forms that each of the characters sings makes [the fact that casting is not colorblind] particularly clear. For example, among the actors playing the three Schuyler sisters, the one who sings the ‘‘white’’ music of traditional Broadway (Philippa Soo as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza), reads as white (she is actually Chinese American), while the eldest sister Angelica who sings in the more ‘‘black’’ genres of R&B and rap, is black (Renee Elise Goldsberry). Similarly, King George III, who sings ‘‘white’’ ’60s Britpop is performed by a white actor… while the hip-hop-spouting revolutionaries are all black and Latino.”

The racial connotations of the language they use designates the Founding Fathers of Hamilton as black and Latino, regardless of their casting. Which creates a remarkable situation: even without the visual image of black and Latino men portraying the Founding Fathers, through language, Miranda has enabled these characters to be understood and written about after the fact as black and Latino men. This becomes notable in fanfiction, where the name “Thomas Jefferson” no longer simply references the historical plantation owner. Rather, when the character name “Thomas Jefferson” is used in fanfiction, it connotes and conflates both the slave owner and the actor Daveed Diggs (who portrays Jefferson) in costume as the slave owner. Fanfiction about Jefferson references his “black curly hair… dark skin and… light stubble.” Fanart about Jefferson portrays him as Diggs.

The real strangeness of Hamilton fanfiction, then, is not that obsessive writers are penning fanfiction about slave owners going to Stanford together or tickling each other’s feet. It’s that the same proper name — Thomas Jefferson — now connotes both a bevy of historical associations, and the total subversion of those associations, which Miranda has achieved by gifting Jefferson a racialized style of communication. In Stephen O’Connor’s novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings plays with this idea; Jefferson is solely described as “Thomas Jefferson” throughout the novel when O’Connor narrates in the third person, rather than “Jefferson” or “Thomas.” But in fanfiction, the third president is both of these, as well as “Tommy;” he is not bound not by name, sexual orientation, association or time period. 

In making Thomas Jefferson a character, Miranda thus liberates him somewhat from the burden of his own history, a liberation that occurs by putting black language in a historically white mouth. And observing the fandom’s willingness to embrace and envision these characters as people of color, Miranda’s musical is not just an award-winning Broadway sensation: it is also a radical act of historiography. In his review, Hilton Als comments that “Miranda introduces his characters with a child’s wonder but a father’s authority; you can feel him standing at the edge of the game he’s created, a historical world he has remade in his image.” It’s no surprise then, that when Miranda shows up in Hamilton fanfiction, it’s as a foster dad who adopts and cares for the struggling Founding Fathers, who have notably faced abuses in numerous homes and orphanages. Whether “DemiGodGirl517” realizes it in “Alex and Foster dad Lin”, she is confirming with her scenario what critics of the musical have begun to uncover: Hamilton is not just re-envisioning and reclaiming American history, but redeeming it.

Works Referenced

Als, Hilton. “Boys in the Band.” The New Yorker. March 2, 2015 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/09/boys-in-the-band

Brands, H.W. “Founders Chic.” The Atlantic. September 2003. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/09/founders-chic/302773/

DemiGodGirl517. “Hamilton One Shots. Chapter 6: Alex and Foster dad Lin.” August 31, 2019.  https://www.fanfiction.net/s/13377051/6/Hamilton-One-Shots

Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “This isn’t colour-blind casting’: Hamilton makes its politically charged West End debut.” The Guardian. December 20, 2017.  https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/dec/20/colourblind-casting-hamilton-west-end-debut

Grady, Constance.“Thomas Jefferson spent years raping his slave Sally Hemings. A new novel treats their relationship as a love story,” Vox Media. April 8, 2016. https://www.vox.com/2016/4/8/11389556/thomas-jefferson-sally-hemings-book

Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Appendix H: Sally Hemings and her Children.” January, 2000. https://www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-a-brief-account/research-report-on-jefferson-and-hemings/appendix-h-sally-hemings-and-her-children/

Meneo, Liz. “Correcting Hamilton.” The Harvard Gazette. October 7, 2016. 

Miranda, L. (2015). Hamilton: an American Musical [MP3]. New York: Atlantic Records.

Montiero, Lyra D. “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.” The Public Historian, Vol. 38 No. 1, February 2016 (pp. 89-98).

O’Connor, Stephen. Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings. (New York: Penguin Books, 2016). 

Owen, Ken. “Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality.” The Junto. 

April 21, 2016. https://earlyamericanists.com/2016/04/21/historians-and-hamilton-founders-chic-and-the-cult-of-personality/

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