Rhetoric, Politics, and Hamilton: An American Musical

by Jeffrey P. Mehltretter Drury (Volume editor) Sara A. Mehltretter Drury (Volume editor)
©2021 Textbook X, 210 Pages


This book approaches Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking cultural production of Hamilton: An American Musical as a rhetorical text with implications for contemporary U.S. politics. The contributors to this volume utilize training in rhetorical criticism and performance studies to analyze the musical in relation to three broad themes: national public memory, social and cultural identity, and democracy and social change. Each chapter offers unique insights on its own accord while the volume as a whole explores multiple facets of the musical, from the theater performance and the soundtrack to the musical’s circulation in public discourse and the Chicago exhibition. The diversity of topics and methods means that the volume is suitable for students of rhetoric and U.S. politics and even the "HamilFans" will learn something new.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One Introduction: Hamilton as Cultural and Rhetorical Phenomenon
  • Part One: Hamilton and Public Memory
  • Chapter Two The I/Eye of History: Performing Public Memory, Utopia, and Critical Nostalgia in Hamilton
  • Chapter Three Hamilton and the Entelechy of the American Dream
  • Chapter Four Exhibiting Hamilton: History, Memory, and Musical Theater
  • Part Two: Hamilton and Rhetoric of Social Identity
  • Chapter Five Hamilton as Cosmogonic Myth
  • Chapter Six Hamilton and Public Memory of the Founding Era: Myth, Humanization, and Comforting Whiteness in “Post-Racial” America
  • Chapter Seven Patriarchy and Power: A Feminist Critique of Hamilton
  • Part Three: Hamilton and Rhetoric of Democracy and Social Change
  • Chapter Eight Bondage and Circulation
  • Chapter Nine Political Niceties and Rap in Hamilton
  • Chapter Ten Diverse Offerings for Understanding U.S. Politics: Analyzing the Invitational Rhetoric of Hamilton and President Barack Obama
  • Chapter Eleven The Rhetorical Significance of Hamilton in Public Protests
  • Note on Contributors
  • Index

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Our work as editors on this volume has been supported and aided by the genius and graciousness of all the authors involved. Reading their work has deepened our understanding and critical evaluation of Hamilton. We are especially grateful for the authors’ patience and diligence during the spring and summer of 2020. Faced with a pandemic that forced much of our lives into a digital medium, these authors continued to write (non-stop), respond to changes in timelines with grace, and provide their quality rhetorical, communication scholarship. To each of you, thank you; it has been our privilege to serve as your editors on this volume.

We also are appreciative of those who helped bring the volume into fruition. We thank Ryan Neville-Shepard for sparking the project when at a conference he encouraged Jeff to edit a book about Hamilton. We are grateful to the editorial team at Peter Lang for their support of the project, specifically to acquisitions editor Erika Hendrix for her guidance and patience and to series editors Mary Stuckey and Mitchell McKinney for their enthusiasm and support, especially for Mary’s lightning-fast responses to email inquiries. Our editorial process was aided by Henry Egan, an undergraduate summer intern supported by Wabash College. Wabash College also supported our intellectual and pedagogical development on this project: first, by providing an opportunity for Jeff to teach a first year tutorial on Hamilton and the liberal arts, and then generously supporting a trip for Jeff, Sara, their first year students, and Anthony Williams to travel to Chicago to see the musical live.

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We applaud Lin-Manuel Miranda for creating a musical that produces so much conversation about our nation’s past and how to reflect, critique, and consider what matters most today. We thank the cast and creative teams of Hamilton, past and present, who brought and will continue to bring this story to life, fostering renewed appreciation for and debate about U.S. history.

Finally, this book would not have come into being without those who experienced the musical on stage with us, especially Jason L. S. Raia; Joseph and Kathleen Mehltretter; Walter, Kathleen, James, Katherine, and Caroline Novak; Rana Yared, Mark Weaver, Jana Checa Chong, and Philip Ng; and Bridgit Hayes. Thank you for sharing this journey with us.

Jeffrey P. Mehltretter Drury and
Sara A. Mehltretter Drury
December 2020

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Introduction: Hamilton as Cultural and Rhetorical Phenomenon


Hamilton: An American Musical has become a cultural phenomenon since its debut in 2015, amassing both popular and critical fame. The show was nominated for 16 Tony Awards and won 11 of them. On top of that, the musical took home a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize. The same year Hamilton debuted, the musical’s 35-year-old writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, won the MacArthur Genius Grant, which is awarded “to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.”2 The cast album for the musical was not only the bestselling cast album in fifty years but also shot to number one on the Billboard Rap charts.3 Hamilton’s ticket sales blew away many of the standing records at the time. At its Broadway debut venue, the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Hamilton broke the record for highest ever one-week gross (roughly two million dollars in one week). The show also boasts fifty-seven million dollars in advance ticket sales.4

Critics have raved about the show as well. In his early review of Hamilton on Broadway, famed New York Times theater reviewer Ben Brantley began his assessment by saying, “Yes, it really is that good,” and later explained that the show’s dialogue is a “fervid mix of contemporary street talk, wild and florid declarations of ambition, and, oh yes, elegant phrases from momentous political documents you studied in school, like Washington’s Farewell Address.”5 Five years later, Hamilton boasted productions in Chicago (ending a three-year run in January 2020), Los Angeles, and London, three U.S. tours, and at the time of this writing, planned to begin a run in Sydney in 2021.6 The Hamilton cast album was the most streamed cast album in the 2010s—with more than four billion listens.7 On July 3, 2020, the ←1 | 2→streaming platform Disney+ released Hamilton: An American Musical, a recording of the Broadway production with the original cast, bringing the musical into the headlines once more.8

A show does not end up with this much press and popularity without amassing a dedicated fanbase. Hamilton managed to go beyond typical Broadway fandom to reach people across generational, political, and racial boundaries. Outside of the theater stages, Hamilton prompted a phenomenon through public engagement and popular culture, as cast members connected with “HamFans”/“Hamilfans” through social media.9 When the show’s popularity surged on Broadway, Miranda and the cast created #HAM4HAM, a short public show outside the stage doors that ran each day simultaneously with the limited ticket lottery and was filmed and shared through social media by adoring fans.

A fandom such as this is bound to infuse other aspects of people’s lives. The show’s historical context paired with its intergenerational appeal made it a powerful tool for educators to get their students excited about learning history. As historian Benjamin L. Carp has argued, “It would be too dismissive to argue … that Hamilton is merely entertainment and thereby beneath highbrow criticism; popular culture does matter, and it influences popular audiences, including students.”10 In the United States, Hamilton has a particularly strong following among youth and has been integrated into the K-12 curriculum in some school districts.11 The musical tried to deliberately reach beyond the Broadway demographic through the Hamilton Education Program, which greatly discounted midweek ticket prices for public school students taking history classes. Many of these students had never seen a Broadway show before. However, because Hamilton offers a more inclusive musical at the level of sound and racial representation, the students became enthusiastically invested.12

Hamilton has been connected to politics since its inception. In February 2009, Miranda debuted the opening number from what he was then calling “a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton” at the Obama White House arts event, “An Evening of Poetry, Spoken Word, and Music.”13 President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama praised Hamilton for its creativity and attention to history, inviting the cast back to the White House for a concert performance of the musical in March 2016. In his introductory remarks, Obama shared that the musical was “a favorite in the Obama household,” and joked that their love of Hamilton was “the only thing Dick Cheney and I agree upon.”14

Thrust into the spotlight for their work, the cast of the musical has engendered political notice and controversy. For example, after a performance of the show on November 18, 2016, Bryan Victor Dixon, the actor who played Aaron Burr at the time, addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence who was in the audience that evening. Dixon read a pre-planned speech critiquing the Trump administration’s ←2 | 3→policies towards immigration and race, concluding that “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”15 This act of public protest was spread across social media and stirred up much political controversy on the role of entertainment in public political discourse, as evidenced by numerous chapters in this volume. The 2017 Hamilton Mixtape album also served as political commentary, including a variety of remixes of songs and lyrics from the show, including “Immigrants: We Get the Job Done,” featuring K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente, which expanded a single Hamilton lyric into a critique of President Donald Trump’s immigration policy.16 Four years later, in early 2020, Hamilton was in the political news once more when former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton titled his memoir of his time in President Trump’s administration The Room Where It Happened, an homage to a song from the musical.17


Hamilton is a powerful example of how rhetoric might use history to speak to the conflicts of today, in this case through themes connected to public memory, national and cultural identity, and democracy and social change. The symbolic significance and resonance of this musical is enhanced because of how it addresses civic themes through theatrical entertainment and reaches a broader audience than more traditional forms of political discourse. The show addresses these themes by blending a very canonical musical theatre structure with hip-hop, rap, and R&B composition. Part of Hamilton’s vernacular appeal is that it takes the genre of biography and jazzes it up, literally and figuratively. As the musical’s dramaturg, Oskar Eustis, explained, “Lin does exactly what Shakespeare does … he takes the language of the people, and heightens it by making it verse.”18

The result is that Hamilton speaks to national, social, and personal identity in the United States—historically and in the nation’s political present.19 In 2016, President Obama praised Hamilton’s relevance, calling it “a quintessentially American story. In the character of Hamilton—a striving immigrant who escaped poverty, made his way to the New World, climbed to the top by sheer force of will and pluck and determination—Lin-Manuel saw something of his own family and every immigrant family.”20 Furthermore, Hamilton emerged at a time when there is widespread dispute about historical meaning (e.g., the value of confederate statues, the teaching of Columbus). When Hamilton was released on Disney+ in July of 2020, the debate began anew about the historical representation/revisionism in the musical, and particularly whether the musical took seriously the history of slavery in the United States.21 The summer of 2020 was marked by the intense public response to videos of the murder of George Floyd by police officers in ←3 | 4→Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a subsequent surge in public activism with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The musical, which focuses heavily on the narrative force of history, has a unique relevance to the BLM movement, especially given the importance these protests placed on the toppling of monuments that stood for the United States’ racist and imperialistic past.

The foregoing discussion has illustrated how Hamilton is a rhetorical text that both reflects and influences culture. With multiple tours bringing the live show to new audiences, its reach continues to grow. This relationality urges scholars to consider the messages within it. No text is beyond the reach of academic criticism even if it has risen to this level of ubiquity. The historic nature of Hamilton makes it especially important to critique how it represents or erases aspects of the country’s history, politics, and identity. Much of the musical’s praise comes from its unconventional and revolutionary juxtaposition of the white founding story with “non-white”22 bodies on stage and traditionally Black23 musical motifs. Despite its praises, the show is not immune to academic and political critique. As much as Hamilton has been rightly praised for pushing boundaries within musical theater, many people still desire more from it.

This book enters the ongoing conversation about Hamilton as a cultural, political, historical, and rhetorical artifact. The chapters in this volume recognize Hamilton’s multifaceted nature: as a groundbreaking moment in musical theater history and also a living artifact whose meaning continues to expand and evolve; as a biographical narrative about a historical person and also a contemporary narrative about national culture; as a story about a white male founder but also a story by and about minority cultures; as a production inspired by the past but also a production that inspires the future. Hamilton’s numerous layers provide the rich foundation for the chapters that follow.

Communication and rhetorical scholars can provide unique insights into the meaning, function, and implications of Hamilton in today’s political climate. The chapters in this volume employ rhetorical criticism, a method of research involving textual analysis that probes a rhetorical text’s meaning and implications. Through rhetorical criticism, critics argue their own interpretation of the text, often exploring its possible meanings and invitations rather than its effects. The process of rhetorical analysis can take many forms, with a “diversity in results” of interpretation, because rhetorical critics look at the various ways the text or artifact interacts with “time, space, context, the specific audience assembled, and other factors.”24 The interpretive nature of criticism means that critics will often arrive at different conclusions about the same text, as the reader may find in their exploration of this volume. Rhetorical scholar David Zarefsky explains that this is not a flaw in the method of rhetorical criticism but rather each perspective “may offer valuable insight on the case, enabling criticism to proceed additively rather than only by substituting one explanation for another.”25 Moreover, we note that rhetorical ←4 | 5→criticism considers “text” to be a broad category. The reader will discover that the contributors in this work address a variety of rhetorical texts—from the lyrics, staging, and costumes of the musical itself to the circulation of the lyrics in public discourse to the Exhibition accompanying the musical in Chicago. In all cases, the authors probe the deeper meaning and significance of the musical for public and political life in the United States.


The volume is divided into three parts. The first part, “Hamilton and Public Memory,” considers how Hamilton characterizes history. Public memories permeate and are created by the musical, evident in the veneration of the nation’s founders to the treatment of slavery, the founding narrative embedded in Act I to the historical dispute between Hamilton and Adams in Act II. Moreover, Hamilton explicitly references “narrative” as an agent and driving force of history, recognizing the implications of these narratives for how the audience uses history to make sense of the present world.

In Chapter Two, Jade C. Huell and Lindsay A. Jenkins fixate on a central idea to Hamilton: Who tells your story? They utilize the concept of “critical nostalgia” to consider how the musical represents History. By examining the intersection of the audience’s assumed previous knowledge of history and Hamilton’s representation of history, Huell and Jenkins address how the musical’s use of public memory intersects with the Black and Brown bodies on stage as well as the current U.S. immigration crisis.

In Chapter Three, Michaelah Reynolds and Ryan Neville-Shepard explore how Hamilton speaks to the myth of the American Dream. Specifically, the authors build on the enduring conflict between two aspects of the American Dream—moralistic and materialistic—to contend that Hamilton serves as a cautionary tale for today’s polarized political climate because the musical represents the tragic entelechial nature of the materialistic myth.

Sara A. Mehltretter Drury and James Anthony Williams Jr. move beyond the musical in Chapter Four to address Hamilton: The Exhibition, a large, museum-style exhibition built in 2019 and accompanying the Chicago run of Hamilton. Drury and Williams argue that the exhibition’s dynamic, immersive sets articulate a historical narrative that was designed to include diverse audiences but struggled to transcend public memories of the Founding Fathers, generally, and Hamilton specifically.

The second unit of the volume, “Hamilton and Rhetoric of Social Identity,” emphasizes the implications of Hamilton for understanding group identities. Hamilton’s acclaim derives in part from its anachronistic portrayals of racial, gender, ←5 | 6→class, and national identities. Moreover, Hamilton draws attention to these elements at various points, inviting the audience to more critically engage “the story of America then, told by America now.”26

In Chapter Five, Christopher Bell discusses how founding myths function in Hamilton to elevate its titular character to the same mythic level as his fellow Founders. Bell draws parallels between the origin stories of Miranda’s Hamilton and superheroes such as Spider-Man. Through this analysis, Bell explains how the musical makes the nation’s cosmogonic myth more accessible to all people in the United States, particularly audience members of historically marginalized races.

John Clyde Russell also discusses Hamilton and race in Chapter Six, specifically how the musical’s portrayal of the nation’s white founders through Black and Brown bodies (dis)comforts whiteness. The chapter considers the powerful ways that whiteness influenced and continues to influence the founding myth of the United States, and how that myth is reified in Hamilton. Russell contends that Hamilton’s multiracial performance humanizes the characters in ways that reinforce the myth of a “post-racial” United States for sympathetic audiences.

Chapter Seven turns from race to gender, as Emily Berg Paup presents a feminist critique of Hamilton. She outlines how the musical portrays women of the era in a subservient role to men, with particular attention to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton as a model of republican motherhood. Paup contends that this representation of women in the musical, when juxtaposed with Hamilton’s more progressive representation of race, reinforces patriarchy in potentially damaging ways for the audience.


X, 210
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 210 pp.

Biographical notes

Jeffrey P. Mehltretter Drury (Volume editor) Sara A. Mehltretter Drury (Volume editor)

Jeffrey P. Mehltretter Drury (PhD, University of Wisconsin) is Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Wabash College. He has published in numerous rhetoric journals and authored two books: Speaking with the People’s Voice (2014) and Argumentation in Everyday Life (2019). Sara A. Mehltretter Drury (PhD, Pennsylvania State University) is Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Director of Democracy and Public Discourse at Wabash College. She has published in Communication Quarterly, Argumentation and Advocacy, and Journal of Public Deliberation, and is an Indiana Humanities Action Fellow.


Title: Rhetoric, Politics, and Hamilton: An American Musical
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