Homewood hosts Alexander Hamilton exhibit

By EMILY MCDONALD | February 8, 2018

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FILE PHOTO Research assistant Jim Ashton discussed the significance of modern depictions of Hamilton.

The travelling collection Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America is currently on display at the Homewood Museum. 

The exhibit contains items from Hopkins Special Collections, as well as some on loan from the New-York Historical Society, including a bust of Hamilton and a series of his handwritten letters. 

Research assistant Jim Ashton gave a talk titled “Hamilton and the Revolution: Patriotic Songs New, Old, and Rebellious” on Thursday, Feb. 1 at the Homewood Museum. The talk was the first of a two-part lecture series meant to complement the exhibit.

Ashton earned his Ph.D. in history from Hopkins in 2015 and wrote his dissertation on the link between patriotism and nationalist ideologies with the culture and practice of music in 19th century America. 

He first became interested in the subject when he decided to analyze Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical from the standpoint of a musical historian.

“This musical that has taken American culture by storm,” Ashton said, “What links this to Hamilton himself, and what makes all of this significant in terms of patriotism and nationalism in America?” 

To demonstrate the importance of music in American patriotism, Ashton told the story of a band in Baltimore which decided to play the French national anthem during the French Revolution. Although the song had been popular in the U.S. in earlier decades, the audience began booing and calling for more patriotic tunes, such as “Yankee Doodle” and “The President’s March.” 

According to Ashton, this incident highlighted the effect of historical context on popular music.

“As tensions mounted, patriotic songs signalled where the local support lay,” he said. “The French anthem had become evidence of subversion, of un-Americanness.”

Ashton noted that Hamilton understood and appreciated the role of music in patriotic sentiment.

“For one, he admired people who were able to... signal their gentlemanly refinement, their status as a gentleman, through musical knowledge,” he said. “This was, in the minds of Alexander Hamilton and other federalists, crucial to claiming a leadership role in the legal American republic. This was a way to prove your patriotism.”

Ashton argued that the backdrop of the American Revolution allowed for new expressions of patriotism and nationalism.

“This was a period when Americans were creating a national identity,” he said. “Americans were writing the terms of how they defined and celebrated their nation on a largely blank slate in 1798, and Hamilton himself was engaged in this project.”

According to Ashton, moments in history such as the American Revolution caused an increase in patriotism in popular culture. 

“In moments of crisis, nationalist flux and creative nationalism, Americans engage in what I think of as a popularizing kind of patriotism,” he said. 

Ashton believes that Hamilton is a modern and important example of this kind of popular patriotism.

Hamilton is such a refreshing wind that is blowing through the dusty old house of patriotic sentiment,” he said. “It’s not that it teaches us anything new about the ideological elements of American identity through its words. In fact, lyrically, Hamilton bears resemblance to previous patriotic music in that it’s a child of its time.” 

Ashton noted the difference between Hamilton, which expresses patriotic ideals through pop music, and typical patriotic music, which is only listened to in specific settings. 

Hamilton the musical is the first example that we’ve had in a long time in America of popularizing patriotism, where it is a new and not yet ritualized kind of patriotic performance that happens outside of the excepted canon of patriotic rituals,” he said. “You can go see it yourself in a setting that has nothing to do with July Fourth or with a sporting event.”

Julie Rose, the director and curator of the Homewood Museum, discussed the newfound interest in American history that came with the premiere of Hamilton

“Today, the public is eager to learn about these marginalized American histories, as Miranda has been able to show through performance. And this kind of historical storytelling is an amazing tool,” she said. “Through music and through dance and through stage performing we have — we meaning our American consciousness — this new interest in American history.”

Rose also noted that the musical depicts Hamilton differently from most history textbooks. 

“This is an amazing opportunity to think about how history is complicated, history is messy. As to that, Miranda writes a musical that really offers us alternative narratives about what we think of the Founding Fathers’ stories,” she said.

Christopher Consolino, a history graduate student whose focus is in early modern British and Dutch Atlantic worlds, history of political economy and intellectual and cultural history, teaches an intersession course on Alexander Hamilton. He said that the inspiration for the course came from listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. 

“I wanted to teach a course about early America, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to think about early America through the lens of a founder who’s really unusual compared to a lot of his colleagues,” he said. “We look at his depiction in the popular imagination.”

Consolino believes that the recent emergence of Hamilton as a figure in popular culture is due to the differences between him and other Founding Fathers. 

“Hamilton is not even born in the 13 colonies. He comes up from the Caribbean,” he said. “Compared to Thomas Jefferson... he comes from relative obscurity, has a stain of illegitimacy on his record and his fortunes really rise with the American Revolution.”

According to Consolino, these differences between Hamilton and other Founding Fathers lend themselves to an atypical retelling of the traditional narrative.

“When you have someone whose story seems very different from the individuals we normally remember as being the leading lights of the Revolution, it offers an opportunity to challenge that narrative and explore different aspects of the American Revolution,” he said.

Consolino addressed differing depictions of Hamilton in recent pop culture. 

“Sometimes I think our desire to cast individuals in these sort of fairly flat, un-nuanced roles lends itself to two competing depictions of a person,” he said. “From a civics perspective, based on the questions we ask, we can go back and see these founders in a different light.”

Consolino also noted that in an interview about the making of Hamilton, Miranda mentioned that he identified with Hamilton’s story as one of a young immigrant. He believes that this impacted Hamilton’s success. 

“It’s interesting to get Hamilton in a time when questions of immigration and community and even the cultural and demographic makeup of the U.S. are at the forefront,” he said. “We’re able to reach back into the lives of these historical figures and discover parts of the narrative that maybe existed in the shadows.” 

Senior Maria Moncaliano attended Ashton’s talk because she was interested in learning more about the historical background of Alexander Hamilton. 

“I love Hamilton the musical, and I’m very interested in the history of Alexander Hamilton as a Founding Father,” she said. 

Overall, Moncaliano said that she enjoyed the talk.

“The speaker was very knowledgeable, and it was very intersectional,” she said. “They talked about music and history and theater and patriotism.” 

Moncaliano also appreciated the items on display in the exhibit.

“I really enjoyed seeing some of the handwritten letters from Alexander Hamilton and reading about his history,” she said. “I liked seeing his bust.” 

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