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1776 and Hamilton: Comparing “Founding” Histories in Musical Theatre

Anne Melissa Potter


This article analyzes how Hamilton and 1776 address a similar historical moment to engage history about the “founding” of the United States, and how their different engagements with that history reflect the specific cultural moments in which they occur. This article asks how these musicals use the affordances of the musical to comment on controversial aspects of the “founding” that carry contemporary resonances, both in 1969 and 2015: slavery and the future of the country. The two musicals examine these key problems in American history through differences in “who” interacts with and tells these stories in the musicals. Their responses to these issues are also shaped by the political administrations and contexts in place when they were written. 1776 is more critical of the current political system than Hamilton, but both musicals disrupt traditional historical narratives through music.

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  • 1 Mary Bracken Phillips performed in several Broadway shows. She is also a Tony nominated lyricist an (...)
  • 2 The musicals also both address war in meaningful ways, but that is beyond the scope of this article (...)

1In 1970, 1776, a musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Second Continental Congress was the first full length Broadway production ever performed at the White House. Mary Bracken Phillips, who had replaced Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson, was allowed to wander the White House in her eighteenth-century costume and appeared like a ghost through the walls to a tour group.1 Almost forty years later, Lin-Manuel Miranda debuted the opening number from his concept album about the life of Alexander Hamilton at a poetry and spoken word night at the Obama White House. Seven years after that, Miranda returned with the cast of his Pulitzer and Tony award-winning musical to perform the show. Both of these musicals are of particular interest to presidents of the United States because they tell the story of the founding of the nation and seek to contribute to a collective understanding of the nation’s history. However, they were performed at the White House under very different circumstances. In this article, I examine the differences in historiography, in how history is told, in Hamilton and 1776 by addressing how each uses the affordances of the musical to comment on controversial aspects of the “founding of the nation” that carry contemporary resonances, both in 1969, when 1776 opened on Broadway, and 2015, when Hamilton opened. Specifically, I look at how each addresses slavery and looks ahead to the future of the country.2 Through my analysis, it becomes clear that 1776 is, perhaps surprisingly, more critical of its contemporary political system than Hamilton, and as a result, more critical of traditional historical narratives. However, these musicals disrupt traditional historical narratives both through which stories are told on stage and the musical choices made to tell these stories.

  • 3 For more information see Donatella Galella’s “Being in ‘The Room Where It Happens’: Hamilton, Obama (...)

2Both Hamilton and 1776 are guided by popular modes of thinking about history at the time they were written, such as “Founders Chic” which seeks a nostalgic authenticity in the “Founding Fathers.” The term, coined in 2001, responded to a resurgence of emphasis on the leadership and greatness of those who “founded” the country and are presented as real statesmen not driven solely by polls (Waldstreicher and Pasley 141; Thomas). Critics often refer to Ron Chernow’s popular 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton as taking part in Founders Chic, and the biographical structure of the musical has something in common with Great Man theories of history (Schocket 57). Alexander Hamilton is central to the musical in a way that no single character is in 1776. Hamilton is about one man’s history, while 1776 details the history of an event. Scholars critical of Hamilton have argued that it celebrates “bootstraps success” rather than critiquing or altering systemic problems of inequality, similar to the criticisms leveled at the Obama administration.3 While Miranda does imagine Hamilton’s life as a rags to riches story, to reduce it in such a way diminishes what Miranda has brought to the story, as the narrative Miranda wished to evoke is a narrative that is often seen in the lives of hip-hop artists (Kajikawa 472). While reading Chernow’s biography, Miranda connected Alexander Hamilton to Jay-Z, Eminem, or Lil Wayne. Once he had pictured the “founding fathers” that way, he “never pictured the literal founding fathers again” (Binelli). Miranda’s decision to reframe Alexander Hamilton as a non-white immigrant alters the meaning of the history depicted. Hip-hop “continues to be coded as a black genre,” but one of Miranda’s achievements was showing the “shared struggle of black and brown people” (Kajikawa 474). The concept of “writing their way out” of their circumstances is applied by Miranda to both hip-hop biographies and immigrants to the United States (Kajikawa 480). Miranda describes Hamilton’s life as a hip-hop narrative, which allows the performers and musical styles evoked to add an important racial dimension to the musical (474).

  • 4 For more information on previous scholarship about 1776, see Elissa Harbert’s “‘Ever to the Right’? (...)

3While 1776 tells the political story of a group of elite white men, it also disseminates the action of the musical among the ensemble, to demonstrate that there is not a single figure who is entirely central to the historical process. This musical seeks to humanize the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, but it also endeavors to knock them off a pedestal. It thus counters ideas of “Founders Chic.” 1776 was written and originally performed during a period of greater investment in American history “from below,” in contrast to the more traditional histories from earlier in the century, and this investment is also apparent in certain aspects of the musical. New Left historian Jesse Lemisch published an essay in 1967 about the need to include more sympathy for the powerless and inarticulate in the study of the American Revolution and claimed that this new history “will continue to examine the elite, but instead of using them as surrogates for the society beneath them, it will ask how their beliefs and conduct impinged on that society” (6). This essay was published in a collection that was intended to bridge the gap between popular and academic history writing which had begun to break down the conservative consensus of the 1950s, and re-examine American history in light of poverty, racism, Civil Rights, and U.S. interventions in Cuba and Vietnam (Bernstein i–x). While Sherman Edwards, the man who conceived of 1776, drew on sources published before 1960 in his research, it seems the same factors that began to influence historians to re-examine the history of the Revolution altered Edwards’ perception of the history and how to address it.4

1. “Who stinketh the most?”: Slavery, Civil Rights, and a Colorblind Country

  • 5 Sherman Edwards originally placed “Molasses to Rum” much earlier in the musical, but once Stuart Os (...)
  • 6 Sally Hemings is referred to in a single line, and an ensemble member plays her for that moment.
  • 7 Authors who discuss Hamilton’s abolitionist reputation include Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (210 (...)

4Representations of the American Revolution increasingly must deal with the issue of slavery: can the “founding fathers” claim they are founding a new nation based on liberty while slavery exists? 1776 addresses slavery head on, but not until the climax of the show. By contrast, Hamilton weaves Alexander Hamilton’s own contested abolitionist views through the musical but does not make slavery its central part.5 Consequently, 1776 seems more critical of traditional histories of the Revolution than Hamilton, even though the cast and musical styles of Hamilton critique those traditional histories. Hamilton has received criticism for casting actors of color, but not depicting any characters of color.6 1776, written by white men and performed by a cast of white men during the Civil Rights era, tackles the question of slavery directly, while Hamilton, written and performed by non-white men in a time when some argued the United States had become a “post racial society,” sprinkles mentions of slavery throughout. Debates about slavery remain peripheral to its main interests. In Hamilton, the music and the casting carry the weight of racial difference, rather than the content of the show, but there are subtle musical and historical gestures toward the practice. Alexander Hamilton’s relationship with slavery has also been the subject of controversy and debate. Chernow and others have framed him as an abolitionist who traded enslaved people, but new evidence suggests that there were enslaved people in his household who have been overlooked.7

5The slavery debate dominates the climax of 1776 in a manner that rewrites the historical reality of the Congressmen’s views on slavery and the historical chronology. The musical suggests that northerners were primarily abolitionists who chose to appease the South, rather than depicting them as equally alarmed as southerners by Thomas Jefferson’s clause in The Declaration of Independence which blamed George III for slavery (Jefferson 33). 1776 depicts the removal of the slavery clause as a bitterly difficult compromise that the proponents of independence must make to appease the South, when historically the Declaration was not debated until after the vote. The timing of this entire sequence has been altered to center the discussion of slavery (Stone and Edwards 158). This chronological alteration makes slavery central to everyone in the Second Continental Congress. This change ties together the issue of states’ rights and slavery in a way that speaks directly to the contemporary moment of the 1960s to imagine a past where the founders were more troubled by slavery than they actually were. Edwards and Stone have created dramatic conflict to mirror the discussions of the 1960s. These chronological modifications connect Edward Rutledge’s insistence that South Carolina wishes to be their “own country” to his unwillingness to sign the Declaration if the slavery clause is included. This characterization draws on a contemporary conversation about how states in the South responded to expanding Civil Rights for Black people. While Rutledge is depicted as the most invested in slavery, he is not a singular villain. Not only does the entire South walk out with him at the end of his song “Molasses to Rum,” but he also accuses the entire ensemble of complicity in slavery.

  • 8 See also House 328–74; Senate 79–18; May 167.

6Discussions of slavery in 1776 evoke contemporary political Civil Rights issues. Rutledge is the only delegate from South Carolina in the musical and is motivated by a different political issue, that of state autonomy, in contrast to John Dickinson who is depicted as a loyalist. Initially, Rutledge’s key focus seems to be individual states’ rights. When the delegates finally vote to open debate on independence, Rutledge informs John Adams that he misunderstands the position of South Carolina. South Carolina is not opposed to independence, as he remarks that, “we desire independence, yes—for South Carolina. That is our country. And as such we don’t wish it to belong to anyone—Not to England, and not to you” (Stone and Edwards 43). Rutledge’s view of sovereignty, especially as a delegate from the “deep south,” may have reminded audiences of the battles over the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Rutledge would have been connected to those who saw the Voting Rights Act (VRA) as leading to “despotism and tyranny” as Strom Thurmond, another representative from South Carolina, wrote (May 154). The VRA in section 4(b) included a formula to determine if racial discrimination was at work in certain parts of the country, including any jurisdiction where a test or device was used to register voters and where less than 50% of persons residing in said jurisdiction of voting age were registered to vote (“Transcript of Voting Rights Act”). In 1966, South Carolina brought the first challenge to the VRA in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, so it is not surprising that in 1969 the main proponent of individual states’ rights and slavery in 1776 would be the sole delegate from South Carolina. In Justice Black’s dissenting opinion in 1966, one of his objections to the VRA was that “Section 5, by providing that some of the States cannot pass state laws or adopt state constitutional amendments without first being compelled to beg federal authorities to approve their policies, so distorts our constitutional structure of government as to render any distinction drawn in the Constitution between state and federal power almost meaningless” (United States Supreme Court 358). Justice Black’s description of the VRA as federal overreach is echoed in Rutledge’s skepticism toward the new nation. The VRA passed with a significant majority, and President Johnson acknowledged the VRA as his most important piece of legislation (Berman 63–64).8

7The VRA was seen by many in the South as a violation of state sovereignty. When this view is read alongside Rutledge’s complaints in 1776, it becomes clear that the musical links this contemporary Civil Rights movement to the history of slavery but does not leave this conversation in the South. Rutledge’s song about slavery, “Molasses to Rum,” powerfully attacks Northern hypocrisy regarding slavery but does so in a musically complex fashion. Rutledge reminds everyone in Congress repeatedly that all of the colonies are involved in the triangle trade from “molasses to rum to slaves” in a song which begins as a waltz and utilizes the three beats in a measure to highlight the three major stops on the triangle trade: the Caribbean, the Colonies, and the West Coast of Africa. He sings: “Molasses to/ Rum to / Slaves! / Oh, what a beautiful waltz! / You dance with us, / We dance with you, in / Molasses and Rum and Slaves!” (Stone and Edwards 115). When he shifts tone to describe the various roles in the trade, the music shifts from the 3/4 time of the waltz to a more driving 6/4 time, and the congas begin an “afro-rhythm” (115). The use of the conga is meant to evoke the geographical regions described through the Afro-Cuban musical styles. Six beats in a measure appears to be common in Afro-Cuban rhythms, but 6/8 is the more common time signature, so the 6/4 heard in the second section of “Molasses to Rum” indicates a twisting of this more common rhythmic type (Tomita 136). While this song was written by a white man, Edwards’ musical choices perform their own intervention into the space occupied by the men of the Continental Congress by summoning a racialized musical stylization which would otherwise not be present. The music serves as a kind of gateway to the outside world—forcibly inserting these African associated rhythms into the entirely white Congress.

  • 9 I have seen at least eight different productions of this musical.
  • 10 In earlier drafts of “Molasses to Rum,” a New England delegate (it does not seem to matter who) int (...)

8In addition to the musical choices that evoke enslaved people, Rutledge embodies the figure of a slave auctioneer, which brings another specter of the slave trade onto the stage. After his description of the early parts of the slave trade, Rutledge begins to describe a slave auction in detail and through song. Rutledge gives voice to someone who is not present, but who is not a disenfranchised voice. In the 1776 film and in every production of 1776 I have seen, Rutledge stands on his chair during the “auction,” with one foot on his chair and one even higher up on the table striking a pose of dominance over the Congress.9 He then bangs his cane repeatedly on the table throughout the auction sequence. His actions are meant to physically bring the role of the auctioneer into the room as a kind of embodied memory. Rutledge sings, “Ya-ha... / Ya-ha... / ha ma ha cundahhh!” and then exclaims, “Gentlemen, do you y’hear? That’s the cry of the auctioneer!” (Stone and Edwards 117). He continues in the voice of the auctioneer to chant the origins of the enslaved people who have been kidnapped from Angola, Guinea, and Ashanti. He then sings, “Handle them! / Fondle them! / But don’t finger them! / They’re prime, they’re prime” (117). Rutledge is then cut off by Josiah Bartlett, the only delegate from New Hampshire on stage who shouts: “For the love of God, Mr. Rutledge, please!” (117).10 Rutledge’s description of the terrors of the middle passage and the slave auction appear to leave many members of Congress shaken, not because they are ignorant of the figures Rutledge evokes, but because they cannot stomach the reminder, especially in a room where discussions of “independence” and “freedom” circulate so strongly. In Cities of the Dead, Joseph Roach argues that Circum-Atlantic societies defined themselves by “performing their pasts in the presence of others” and in opposition to others (5). Rutledge must be cut off from performing the auction because in the altered historical world of 1776, some members of Congress imagine their past as in opposition to the practice of slavery and the slave trade, and Rutledge reminds them through his surrogation of the slave auctioneer that the opposition between “member of Congress” and “Slave auctioneer” is perhaps more porous than they would like. Bringing in the voice of the auctioneer is the embodiment of extreme racialized violence that the musical only touches on before this moment.

9Rutledge continually evokes Boston’s role in the slave trade to complicate Boston’s moral position. After he returns to the waltz time at the end of the song, Rutledge breaks away from it a final time to ask: “Whose fortunes are made / In the triangle trade? / Hail, Slavery, the New England / Dream. / Mr. Adams, I give you a toast! / Hail Boston! / Hail Charleston! / Who stinketh the most?! (Stone and Edwards 117–118). He poses a question that remains unanswered in the musical; that is, who does “stinketh the most?” Rutledge never shows any remorse for or horror at the events he describes. His final line acknowledges the manner in which both Charleston and Boston, and consequently the entire thirteen colonies, smell with their complicity in the violence and exploitation of slavery. 1776 could go much farther in how it depicts the horrors of slavery and, as Elissa Harbert points out, no actual Black people or characters appear in the musical, rather we hear musical echoes of their existence (160). Stuart Ostrow, the producer, also admitted that they should have done more to expose the hypocrisy of the time, especially that of Thomas Jefferson, who remains conspicuously quiet through the exchanges about slavery (53). The perspectives of enslaved people are missing. Instead, 1776 nods musically at enslaved people, but only as a part of the slave trade.

  • 11 In his essay on restored behavior, “Collective Reflexivity: Restoration of Behavior,” Richard Schec (...)

10Hamilton does not dwell on the issue of slavery. The history of racial injustice bubbles below the surface of the musical, which mirrors the attitude of the Obama era that somehow by electing Obama the country had become colorblind (Daniel 20). Even though Obama did not suggest that his presidency ended racism in the country, scholars have argued that the race-neutrality he employed was “purposefully designed to downplay, if not ignore questions of race and racial inequality” (Daniel 27). While some critics argue that Hamilton simply side-steps issues of slavery by telling a white story with actors of color, I would like to suggest that Hamilton is somewhat contradictory in how it addresses slavery. By casting people of color, the musical appears to depict a partially utopian and fictional past, where men of color did control the direction of the nation, but the musical also allows for dissonance between that past and our present. Hamilton’s history explicitly engages with encoded and transmitted views of “revolutionaries.”11 Racial discrimination and violence are both played down and entirely central to the musical. The musical echoes the rampant racism toward Obama in the form of birtherism, as well as racism and violence toward Black people during the Obama administration.

11Hamilton sidelines slavery much more than 1776, but it is still evoked. In direct response to the Voting Rights Act legislation of 1965 that seemed to shape the Civil Rights interventions of 1776, Section 4(b) and subsequently Section 5 of the VRA were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. In the majority opinion declaring Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, Chief Justice Roberts stated that the Nation “has made great strides,” and that the racial disparity which had been compelling evidence in 1965 to justify the preclearance remedy and coverage formula were out of date, as the disparity no longer existed (“Supreme Court Rules on Voting Rights Act” 290, 29). Justice Roberts’ views echo the myth of a newly colorblind country (Daniel 20). In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg noted that the preclearance requirement in section 4(b) had been very effective in blocking discriminatory legislation, citing 700 proposed voting changes that were deemed discriminatory by the Justice Department between 1982 and 2006 (286). Justice Roberts’ argument implies that the Voting Rights Act fixed discrimination in America and does not acknowledge the work it was still doing to keep those rights intact (Newkirk). This reasoning implies that racial discrimination and violence has somehow been fixed since 1965, and Hamilton very subtly addresses both the implication that problems of racism have been remedied while also suggesting that there is still space to improve.

12The only real debate about slavery in the musical does not occur until the second act, when Thomas Jefferson appears as a foil to the abolitionist sentiment of Alexander without ever mentioning slavery himself. The top of Act Two number shifts focus away from Alexander to center on the introduction and homecoming of Thomas Jefferson with the song “What’d I Miss?” Jefferson has a letter from the President waiting when he arrives at Monticello and sings “be a lamb, Sally, won’t you open it” to establish Jefferson’s nonchalant relationship with slavery. The character of Jefferson in Hamilton is a far cry from the conflicted one in 1776. Between the writing of 1776 and the writing of Hamilton, Jefferson has lost much of his cultural capital. Annette Gordon-Reed and DNA tests have substantiated rumors about Jefferson’s rape of Sally Hemings. The casual invocation of Sally Hemings is entirely purposeful. Daveed Diggs, who played Thomas Jefferson in the original cast, notes that when thinking about Jefferson it is true that he wrote this incredible document “and he sucks” (Hamilton’s America 00:59:30–00:59:50). Diggs’ interpretation is similar to that of Gordon-Reed who writes that Jefferson has been “a continuing item of fascination to me—magnificent and horrifying” (xxi).

13While Jefferson does not sing about slavery at all in this song, during Burr’s introduction the ensemble puts on white gloves and takes on the roles of enslaved people in Jefferson’s home. Initially, it seems that the gloves indicate the different era of Jefferson’s music as Miranda imagines Jefferson singing music of another generation, since he was older than Hamilton and had been out of the country during much of the war. Miranda wrote him a “sort of a Lambert/Hendricks/Ross/Gil Scott-Heron” song (McCarter and Miranda 152). From the earlier musical era it is easy to imagine the more ubiquitous use of gloves, but it soon becomes clear that these gloves are for cleaning. The ensemble scrubs the floors and moves Jefferson’s luggage during the song. Miranda calls this staging choice by choreographer Andy Blankenbeuler and director Tommy Kail “the paradox of Jefferson made flesh: The writer who articulated liberty so clearly was an active participant in the brutal system of slavery” (152). While slavery is not sung about in this song, the staging of the song keeps the paradox of Jefferson in our mind and shows the implicit way that slavery exists beneath the surface. This practice happens often when Hamilton is not centered in the narrative, giving some distance to the biographical narrative. These moments where the biographical focus is less intense leave more space for considering whose histories matter.

14Later in Act Two, the song “The Room Where It Happens” dramatizes Aaron Burr’s decision to become a part of the historical narrative after sitting on the sidelines as narrator, but it also links the problems of historiography to questions of race and slavery in an understated manner. The song depicts the Compromise of 1790, when the South agreed to the assumption of states’ debts if Congress agreed to move the capital to the Potomac. The placement of the capital was in part to appease pro-slavery states (“How Philadelphia Lost the Nation’s Capital to Washington”). Placing the nation’s capital in the middle of Maryland and Virginia, two major slave states, served as a signal that the new United States would continue the practice of slavery. Donatella Galella points out that part of the deal of the Compromise of 1790 was to ignore the Quaker abolitionists who did not want the capital in a slave state (376). Southerners were particularly concerned about the placement of the capital anywhere in the north, but especially near Philadelphia, in 1790. Congress had been presented with a set of petitions first by Quakers and then by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society demanding the abolition of the slave trade and asking Congress to encourage an end to slavery (Asch and Musgrove 23).

15Hamilton does not explicitly connect slavery and the Compromise of 1790, but this connection is hinted at throughout “The Room Where It Happens.” Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove state that, through his role in the compromise, “Hamilton, one of the nation’s leading antislavery advocates, in effect had sacrificed his principles on slavery to pursue his national economic agenda” (24). The Compromise of 1790 in Hamilton could have been framed as the same kind of compromise Congress makes in 1776 regarding slavery. Instead, Hamilton uses the Compromise of 1790 to continue its historiographic project about who can be “in the room” of history and government, by distancing from the main biographical man at the center of the narrative. The musical makes its focus on the individual here very explicit: the focus is on “who” is in the room rather than what happens in the room. Although the audience does not hear what is said as part of the compromise, they know who was present and that “no one else was in the room where it happened,” as the chorus of the song repeats (McCarter and Miranda 186–87).

16 The discussion of compromise in American history evokes the many compromises surrounding slavery that are a part of U.S. history, not only the somewhat fictional compromise made in 1776. Jacob E. Cooke describes the Compromise of 1790 as one of the most important bargains in American history, ranking just below the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, both of which address slavery and territorial expansion (523). The specter of slavery is indicated overtly when Burr questions Hamilton about the meeting. He sings: “[w]hat did they say to you to get you to sell New York City down the river?” (McCarter and Miranda 188). While the Capital did very literally move “down the river,” the use of an expression so explicitly about the slave trade in a musical addressing the beginnings of a nation built on slavery must be purposeful (Galella 376). Miranda must have used this phrase on purpose, to draw our focus to the history of slavery. The presence of the cast of actors who look like America now is the embodiment of Miranda’s claim that “this is a story about America then, told by America now” (Miranda qtd. in Delman) and reminds audiences throughout the show that Black people in the American past were often enslaved. While this line references slavery, it does not mention the betrayal of the Quaker abolitionists at all and, instead, frames Alexander Hamilton as betraying New York City, not the entire abolitionist movement in the North.

17Musically, this song also evokes slavery through the use of instrumentation that has its roots in American slavery. Most of the musical is orchestrated for a rock band with a string section, but when trying to decide what the guitar should do in “The Room Where It Happens,” Alex Lacamoire thought the guitar could play banjo instead (Jones). Lacamoire states that this moment is his favorite instrumentation in the show because it is unexpected. Furthermore, it adds an extra layer of meaning to the song on the whole when one traces the history of the banjo, as it has its roots in West Africa, and in the late eighteenth century it was “irrefutably seen as a symbol of slavery” and was “outside the musical interests of the majority of the population” (Jones-Bamman 22). As minstrel shows became more and more popular in the 1830s and 1840s, banjos were altered by white craftsmen to be sturdier and louder on the stage and were played by white musicians in blackface (27). By the 1850s, the popularity of minstrel shows had made banjos more popular in middle class amateur settings. During the 1920s, the banjo began to be associated with the white rural south of Appalachia even though there were many Black jazz banjo players (42). Orchestrating the banjo into the hip-hop rock band might sound as though the music meshes together an image of nostalgic Americana with hip-hop, or maybe even recalls the history of banjo in minstrelsy—an important precursor to the contemporary American musical. The banjo’s association with West African music and slavery sneaks into the room similarly to the drums heard in “Molasses to Rum” in 1776. The banjo forms a connection to Black people in the United States in the late eighteenth century and draws attention to the presence of the Black actors on stage. Its use can be viewed as both appropriative and authentic, just like this song can be both downplaying the history of race relations but also subtly acknowledging their presence.

18Miranda had considered a stronger take toward race relations in the third cabinet battle he wrote for Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson explicitly about slavery, but it was cut from the musical because it “didn’t shed new light on the characters” (McCarter and Miranda 223). While it may seem disappointing that a Cabinet Battle about slavery was cut because it does not tell us more about the characters, this reasoning verifies that Hamilton is much more interested in the lives of individual characters than 1776. However, as Miranda and McCarter write in Hamilton: The Revolution, “the point, after all, is that none of the Founding Fathers did anything to stop [slavery]—so the song had to go” (223). Primarily avoiding the issue in the musical does two important things: it does not fabricate more abolitionist sentiment than really existed among these men, but it also further investigates the logic of a newly “colorblind” nation.

2. “Go Ring the Bell”—The Stakes of Ending a Historical Musical

19Both endings of these musicals look to the future of the United States, but what they see in the future is entirely different and is dictated by their relationship to the administrations in power when they opened, and those administrations’ relationship to the legacies of slavery. They both make use of the affordances of the musical, but 1776 offers an unusual end for a musical: it ends with the increasingly dissonant ringing of the liberty bell, played by the entire orchestra. Hamilton ends with a more traditional musical theatre finale, but even Hamilton’s closing number resists musical theatre formulas. It focuses on Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, who narrates history. Miranda ended the show centered on her because it is the way that Chernow ends his biography. Although both 1776 and Hamilton depict the beginning of the country and their perception of the future with high stakes to reflect the country in the moment the show was written, in 1776 the contemporary moment is marked by discord, while in Hamilton it is marked by the empowered voices of people of color, especially women.

20In 1776, the climax of the show follows closely on the heels of the slavery debate. While Franklin and Adams discuss the removal of the slavery clause, the musical becomes more critical and aware of what it means to write history, highlighting the slavery debate as the most important debate of the Continental Congress. Historically, it was unlikely to have been so central, as the Declaration was not discussed until after it was signed (Stone and Edwards 158). John Adams and Franklin discuss it during the final vote for independence:

JOHN ADAMS. If we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN. That’s probably true. But we won’t hear a thing, John—we’ll be long gone. And besides, what will posterity think we were—demigods? We’re men—no more, no less. . .” (132).

  • 12 For all of its focus on slavery, 1776 never discusses the colonists’ genocide of the indigenous pop (...)

21Edwards and Stone sought to present the founding fathers as “fallible” and not as “heroes” (Stone 2–41; Coe 183). Edwards and Stone’s depiction of Franklin’s attempt to humanize himself could be seen as an attempt to excuse himself for his inaction regarding slavery. But it seems the musical depicts the compromise as a failure. It is unlikely that the “founders” were as concerned about abolishing slavery as the musical suggests, but in 1969 it is conceived as a failure that they did not abolish it.12 The authors chose to present a history that has already been rearranged and reassembled to center the conversation about slavery.

22The musical concludes not with a big musical number but with a bell that rings out the discord of the future. As the signing of the Declaration begins, McNair, the congressional custodian, leaves the hall to ring the liberty bell even though it is never explicitly referred to as such. The bell begins to ring as John Adams signs the Declaration and continues to ring until the end of the musical. The ringing of the bell is orchestrated so that it becomes increasingly discordant and “almost deafening” until the final delegate signs the Declaration (Stone and Edwards 140). The discord of the repeated chord indicates the uncertainty of the future. Eddie Sauter, who orchestrated 1776, is often celebrated for his work at the end of the show. Stuart Ostrow stated that:

We had a problem with the ending. We had the members of the cast signing the Declaration, a tableau. I thought, what do we do about the goddam Liberty Bell? I said to Eddie, ‘Is there any way to foreshadow what is going to happen to this country?’ ‘Dissonance,’ he said. So I said, ‘Go listen to Wozzeck.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ He got a copy, went crazy when he heard it. And he came in with the ending, one chord played over and over and over again, with dissonance. It foreshadowed what was going to happen, that the future would not be all patriotic and full of hope. (Suskin 532)

23The sound becomes more than the bell. It is the entire orchestra, including violins, violas, an English Horn, the flute, the bassoon, an organ patch for the keyboard, the harp, the cello, the bass, two trombones, and a trumpet. By the time the last delegate signs the declaration, there is almost a cacophony of sound. Ostrow and Sauter, represent the dissonance that would be central to the nation through the dissonance in the music. By avoiding a large finale with everyone singing together, 1776 avoids any harmony or even unison singing of the actors. As a result, 1776 depicts the beginning of an institution, and that institution is first and foremost discordant.

24The ending of 1776 further pushes against classical narratives as described by Mike Wayne in his work on Marxist film narratives (160). While classical narratives always work to uncover and discover plot, the audience already knows how 1776 will end, therefore, any concern about uncovering the plot is mitigated and the audience is allowed to focus on other aspects of the story rather than concluding any further thought (Wayne 154). The dissonant ringing of the bell that ends the musical depicts a national project that is nowhere near concluded and, echoing Lemisch’s description of history from below, maybe even asks these elite men “how their beliefs and conduct impinged on that society” (6). The orchestrations imply that discord and dissonance are ahead for the country, which makes rosy images of patriotism difficult to conjure.

25The biographical nature of Hamilton drives the history throughout, and in the end, it is Eliza who finally becomes the center of the musical, in an ending that puts historiographic questions at the story’s culmination. Eliza’s own biographical work is all about Alexander, but the character of Alexander is offstage most of this song, and when he does appear, he is silent to foreground Eliza. While the focus on Eliza may seem “too little, too late” by placing it in the finale of the show, Miranda foregrounds it by making it the closing of the musical number (Wolf 177). Eliza’s voice is finally dominant and looks toward a more hopeful future. After Alexander’s death, Washington arrives on stage to repeat his words from Act One: “[l]et me tell you what I’d wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory, you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story” (McCarter and Miranda 280). Continuing to highlight the question of historiography, Burr eventually sings, “And when you’re gone, who remembers your name / who keeps your flame,” and then he and the ensemble sing “Who tells your story?” until Eliza reenters the stage unobtrusively from stage right, to put herself “back in the narrative” (280). Eliza then sings about all the things that she does to recover and share Hamilton’s story, even after “erasing” herself from the narrative after Hamilton’s extramarital affair. Even here though, Miranda follows Chernow’s conclusion. The choice to center Eliza is not unique to Miranda’s interpretation of history. In an epilogue entitled “Eliza,” Chernow describes what happened to her and how she was long at work on an “immense biographical project” which would not be completed until seven years after her death (727). The musical still focuses on Alexander Hamilton, but since Eliza was at work on a biography when she died, there is a feeling that a biography, and a biographical musical, are perhaps honoring Eliza as much as Alexander.

26It is in the finale that the audience is shown the importance of bodies of color on stage, and a hopeful future that moves forward and away from the legacy of slavery is presented through a metatheatrical realization for the audience. As the finale draws to a close, Eliza sings: “And when my time is up? / Have I done enough? / Will they tell my story? / Oh I can’t wait to see you again. / It’s only a matter of time” (McCarter and Miranda 281). Alexander enters just before “Oh I can’t wait to see you again” and walks past her, looking at the cast of actors. As the ensemble echoes the question, “Will they tell your story?” Eliza and Alexander see each other. Eliza sees Alexander as though she has now died. They walk downstage, and as Alexander nudges her forward, he gets out of her way as she stands downstage center in a spotlight. She looks out into the audience and gasps. There is debate about what this moment means, but I would argue that Eliza has just died, and Alexander shows her that she is standing center stage in a Broadway theatre. Her gasp at the end is in response to seeing that not only did she succeed in telling her husband’s story, but that now it is being presented in a way that makes her a central figure and places non-white people such as herself, the actress, in that story.

27The writers’ focus on women as historians at the end of the musical explores a future where women will have a principal role in writing history, which is a bit paradoxical at the end of a show written entirely by men. Hamilton engages with Obama’s administration and presidency, and following that line of thought, it is possible Miranda imagined that handing the story to Eliza at the end was a way of passing the political torch to Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. Miranda and his father campaigned for Clinton, and she held a fundraising event at a performance of Hamilton (Gajanan). In “The Schuyler Sisters,” Angelica sings the words of the Declaration of Independence stating that when she meets Thomas Jefferson, “I’m ’a compel him to include women in the sequel” (McCarter and Miranda 44). Miranda imagines handing the reins of political power and history writing over to women, both in the musical and in reality, through Hillary Clinton. In re-imagining the past with a cast of color, and, specifically, a Black George Washington who has connections to Obama, Hamilton sheds light on a world where men, whose ancestors could have been enslaved, have become the leaders of the country seeking to move further forward offering these possibilities to the descendants of enslaved women. Of course, passing the torch to Clinton ignores the concerns about intersectionality that are present in the musical, but Miranda’s background in the Democratic party may have played a part in this vision of the future.

28Hamilton attempts to rectify history through telling Alexander Hamilton’s story using the lens of non-white actors and passing the torch of history to a woman, Eliza. The end of Hamilton is hopeful. The man is dead, but the story continues forward with new people filling the shoes of the dead and offering a fresh perspective. In a sharp contrast to 1776, on the last line of Hamilton the ensemble sings a capella and in harmony until the final note when all the harmonies converge on the same note in unison: E♭. In the end, Hamilton suggests a unity among all the personalities and characters on stage in their final question to the audience about who tells “your story.”

3. Conclusion

  • 13 After the first workshop of the show, Diggs stated that “the dollar bill looked wrong” and the imag (...)

29The epilogue of Hamilton: The Revolution includes a picture of Barack Obama standing on stage at a podium at a Democratic Party fundraiser in 2015. The section begins: “[t]he black first president exited; the first black president appeared” (McCarter and Miranda 284). The alteration of the order of the adjectives changes the meaning, but the symmetry of the sentences underlines the surrogation of Obama and Washington. It almost echoes the performative phrasing of “The King is dead, long live the King.” Chris Jackson is not just playing Obama as Washington—in an uncanny way he almost becomes Washington, or the creators wish that he had become Washington. It appears to be a wish that the history and legacy of slavery in the United States could be overturned or altered in some way.13

30While 1776 and Hamilton both approach their contemporary moment from different political standpoints, in the end the surrogation they perform does something quite similar: they both seek to replace, in some way, the historical figures. Joseph Roach suggests that “circum-Atlantic societies, confronted with revolutionary circumstances for which few precedents existed, have invented themselves by performing their pasts in the presence of others” (5). Roach writes that these cultures defining themselves “in opposition to others” create a “climate of heightened anxiety that outsiders will somehow succeed in replacing the original peoples” (6). In both of these instances of surrogation, there is not only a heightened anxiety that the people out of time will replace the original people, but a suggestion that it perhaps has already happened. When these musicals create breaks to comment on the contemporary moment, they work to reshape the past in such a way that the past is part of the contemporary moment as well.

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Daniel, G. Reginald. “Race and Multiraciality: From Barack Obama to Trayvon Martin.” Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union, edited by Daniel G. Reginald and Hettie V. Williams, U P of Mississippi, 2014, pp. 3–33.

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---. Remembering the Revolution: Music in Stage and Screen Representations of Early America during the Bicentennial Years. 2013. Northwestern U, PhD dissertation.

Herrera, Patricia. “Reckoning with America’s Racial Past, Present, and Future in Hamilton.” Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America, edited by Renee Christine Romano and Claire Bond Potter, Rutgers U P, 2018, pp. 260–276.

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1 Mary Bracken Phillips performed in several Broadway shows. She is also a Tony nominated lyricist and has written many historical musicals.

2 The musicals also both address war in meaningful ways, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

3 For more information see Donatella Galella’s “Being in ‘The Room Where It Happens’: Hamilton, Obama, and Nationalist Neoliberal Multicultural Inclusion.” For other key scholarship on Hamilton, see Lyra D. Monteiro’s “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton”; Patricia Herrera’s “Reckoning with America’s Racial Past, Present, and Future in Hamilton”; Waldstreicher’s and Pasley’s “Hamilton as Founders Chic”; and Brian Eugenio Herrera’s “Miranda’s Manifesto.”

4 For more information on previous scholarship about 1776, see Elissa Harbert’s “‘Ever to the Right’? The Political Life of 1776 in the Nixon Era” and Remembering the Revolution: Music in Stage and Screen Representations of Early America during the Bicentennial Years, as well as Geoffrey William Stephenson’s Singing History: The Musical Construction of Patriotic Identity in 1776 and Assassins.

5 Sherman Edwards originally placed “Molasses to Rum” much earlier in the musical, but once Stuart Ostrow brought Peter Stone to rewrite the book, the song moved to the second half of the show.

6 Sally Hemings is referred to in a single line, and an ensemble member plays her for that moment.

7 Authors who discuss Hamilton’s abolitionist reputation include Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (210–211); Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital (22). For work on the overlooked enslaved people in his household, see Jessie Serfilippi, “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver” (2).

8 See also House 328–74; Senate 79–18; May 167.

9 I have seen at least eight different productions of this musical.

10 In earlier drafts of “Molasses to Rum,” a New England delegate (it does not seem to matter who) interrupts Rutledge by shouting “I’ll invest 3000 pounds!” instead. This earlier draft condemns the New Englanders even more strongly, as they are “carried away” by Rutledge’s slave auction, and rather than closing their eyes to the horror, want to invest in it. More variations on this line can be found in the Sherman Edwards Papers in the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center: “Molasses to Rum” music manuscript, 1962–69, Box 6, Collection # 9242, Sherman Edwards Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

11 In his essay on restored behavior, “Collective Reflexivity: Restoration of Behavior,” Richard Schechner shows that even a performance that claims to be based on an “original event” is actually based on a previous performance. Schechner claims that in this form of restored behavior what is actually recalled are “earlier performances: history not being what happened, but what is encoded and transmitted” (43).

12 For all of its focus on slavery, 1776 never discusses the colonists’ genocide of the indigenous population, or the fact that the British tried to stop colonists moving further West (Grandin 20). Some of Edwards’ early notes include Chief White Eyes, a “high Chief of the Six Nations.” “Cast Outline,” no date, Box 10, Subject File 1967–72: 1776 Casting and Production, 1 of 2 folders. Collection # 9242, Sherman Edwards Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

13 After the first workshop of the show, Diggs stated that “the dollar bill looked wrong” and the image should “really be Chris Jackson” (Weinert-Kendt). Miranda says that he calls the George Washington Bridge the Chris Jackson Bridge instead (Weinert-Kendt). Similarly, in an ad Stuart Ostrow took out in The New York Times to support the Amendment to end the war in Vietnam, the text reads: “the producer, the authors, the director and the original cast shown below of the American musical 1776 urge you to support the amendment to end the war.” “Shown below,” however, is not “the original cast” of the musical, rather it is the famous John Trumbull painting “Declaration of Independence.” For a moment while the bell rings onstage, the cast recreates the Pine-Savage engraving, not the Trumbull painting. The presence of the historical men conflated with the men on stage makes the same point made by Miranda and McCarter in Hamilton: The Revolution. There is something about the cast playing these people that makes the actors into the historical figures.

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Electronic reference

Anne Melissa Potter, 1776 and Hamilton: Comparing “Founding” Histories in Musical TheatreEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-1 | 2023, Online since 19 February 2023, connection on 29 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Anne Melissa Potter

Anne Potter is a Ph.D. candidate in theater and performance at Columbia University. Her research focuses on historical representation in American musicals. Anne has been published in Studies in Musical Theatre and American Theatre.

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