Bringing Hamilton Home: A Conversation about Context

On September 27, thirty-five students gathered together in the Shepard Hall Engagement Center. Some came in groups and others came one by one, but they were all there for the same reason: to have a conversation about Hamilton: An American Musical.

Aptly titled, “You wanna be in ‘The Room Where It Happens’” (referencing one of the musical’s numbers), the event was meant to help place Hamilton in both a historical and musical context before the students go see the musical themselves in Chicago. Melissa Foster, senior lecturer for the department of theater and Faculty-in-Residence of the Shepard-1838 Chicago Residential Community, provided a look from a theater perspective while Caitlin Fitz, assistant professor of early American history, examined songs from a historical perspective. Nearly half of the students in attendance had already seen Hamilton, but both faculty members agreed that one had to see or hear it several times to absorb all of it. What resulted was an engaging forum that was eye-opening and provoked thought from the students in attendance as they listened to each song.

Students watch a recording of  Hamilton's  opening number

Students watch a recording of Hamilton's opening number

As soon as the first notes of Alexander Hamilton began playing, students eschewed the provided boxed lunches to mouth along to the lyrics. Their enthusiasm grew as the song continued, several students breaking into grins and bobbing their heads to the beat. When the song ended, however, Professor Fitz posed a question that caused many students to pause: “If we see this song and the musical more broadly as an origin story for the country, what does that tell us about how we want to see ourselves?”

The question immediately spurred discussion as students discussed the musical painting America as an equal opportunity country. “You don’t need to be born into royalty or any special class,” one student said. “Anyone can be anything.”

Professor Foster immediately followed that with the observation, “Hamilton is about our founding fathers and the people who influenced them but they are not portrayed as all-white men. Why are African Americans, LatinX, and people of color in the cast?”

Students were staunch with their answers as one said, “Hamilton isn’t just limited to one race, and it’s applicable to everything. It’s trying to take us back to the value of this country. We can’t change history and that they were white but we can take some artistic license and try to portray that in any way we can.”

Another student added, “While minorities weren’t the ones writing the documents, America was still founded on the hard work of minorities. It’s the story of then told by the people of now.”

With that in mind, Professor Fitz chimed in from a historical perspective, saying, “When I view Hamilton as a work of art, I’m blown away by the lyricism and style of it, but when the historian in me views it, it’s actually kind of problematic. To talk about the Founding Fathers without talking about people with fewer resources, enslaved people, women... that might give insight into why many historians view it skeptically.”

Professor Foster and Fitz discuss the musical numbers from  Hamilton

Professor Foster and Fitz discuss the musical numbers from Hamilton

This led into another point about the musical number The Room Where It Happens. A key point in the song is that Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s rival, is jealous that Hamilton secretly negotiates a political deal. Professor Foster noted that, “It drives him insane that Hamilton keeps getting what he wants and it just shouldn’t be. If you follow the rules, Burr is the one doing everything right, so why isn’t he in the room?”

Throughout the song, Burr notes that no one other than Hamilton and the opposing party were in the room where the negotiations happened, thus adding to his desire to enter that room. But here, Professor Fitz jumped in with a key observation. “I have one really annoying fact and observation,” she said. “But historically speaking, there would have been someone else in the room where it happened… and it would have been the enslaved person in the room serving food.”

She continued amidst the gasps from the students as they realized the crucial fact that most everyone had overlooked. “Could there have been another angle this story could be told from?” Professor Fitz asked.

And that was really the question of the night. Many other songs and topics were discussed, such as The Schuyler Sisters and feminists in the 18th century, You’ll Be Back and historical inaccuracy, and My Shot and gender portrayal. Though there was a great diversity of themes pointed out, professors Fitz and Foster never stopped pushing students to look deeper and to examine the story from different angles.

The event left the students with a deeper sense of what it means to watch Hamilton live. Though most are already somewhat familiar with the storyline behind the acclaimed musical, there is always more to learn when we consider how it connects with history, how we view our own history, what it means to accept retellings of history.

This Residential Services sponsored event is part of a series of programs offered with One Book One Northwestern for this year’s book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen. For a calendar of upcoming events, visit the One Book website for more details.