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Hip-hop history: Wash U professor uses 'Hamilton' as teaching tool

Washington University history professor Peter Kastor uses the musical "Hamilton" as a jumping-off point to teach about the Founding Fathers.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Washington University history professor Peter Kastor uses the musical "Hamilton" as a jumping-off point to teach about the Founding Fathers.

It’s no secret that there’s a renewed interest in the role Alexander Hamilton played in founding the United States.

Portrayed in the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” the nation’s first treasury secretary and many of the Founding Fathers are brought to life by the show’s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

In advance of the musical’s sold-out run in April at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh talked with Peter Kastor, history professor at Washington University, about the historical accuracy of “Hamilton.”

“The musical is actually very faithful to history, and there are certain things that it does well; there are certain things it doesn't do as well, but the things it does well, it does really well,” said Kastor, who has given a series of talks about the musical and even used it as a jumping-off point for an undergraduate course called “Hamilton’s America.”

In addition to faithfully capturing the personalities of Hamilton and George Washington, Kastor said the musical helps people understand key political arguments. 

“They come out knowing about the great financial arguments of the early 1790s,” Kastor said of people who have seen the musical.

The song “Cabinet Battle #1” is one example of how the musical relays a somewhat accurate historical portrayal.

“In 1790, there was a big argument about whether Hamilton's financial plan was not only good for the country, but whether it would have political support,” Kastor said. “Not only was Jefferson opposed to it, but so was James Madison, who was a very powerful congressman at that time from Virginia, and this argument went on and on — and eventually Washington brokered a meeting that resolved this — but the way the musical does it is to treat it like it's somewhere between a boxing match and a public debate.”

It’s the dichotomous relationship between Hamilton and Jefferson that Kastor said the musical gets right.

“[Hamilton and Jefferson] disagreed on domestic policy, foreign policy and also what form the nation should take,” Kastor said.

“Hamilton's vision for the United States started from this sense of urban economic development. He really wanted to see the U.S. grow and remain unified that way. Jefferson was just as committed to union, but he believed the basis for that should come mostly from rural America, from farmers, and the disagreements just flowed from there and eventually took form in the two political parties that they led.

“Hamilton became the leader, eventually, of the Federalist Party, and Jefferson became leader of what was eventually known as the Republican Party.”

Another song, “The Room Where It Happens,” imagines what might have happened at a dinner meeting with scant historical information.

“There was this dinner that Washington helped broker between Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison where they developed this compromise,” Kastor said.

“In the musical, one of the principal characters is Aaron Burr, the man who will eventually kill Alexander Hamilton, and for the song ... Burr sees this meeting happen, he's excluded from it and he desperately wants to be this mover and shaker who is, as they say, is in the room where it happens.”

One of the points the musical plays up is Hamilton’s status as an immigrant from Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean. While Hamilton’s journey to what would become the United States no doubt influenced who he became, his “immigrant” status, historically speaking, wasn’t as big a deal as the musical portends.

“In his own time he would have been understood as a migrant who had moved from one British colony to another one,” Kastor said. “He had moved from Nevis to New York, and there was a lot of movement within the British imperial system.

“I think what mattered to the people around him was less the fact that he wasn't from the North American mainland and more the fact that he came from these very modest circumstances, and a lot of the other Founding Fathers had been born to wealth.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.