A story celebrating constitutionalism – the rule of law – even when told through the life of American statesman Alexander Hamilton (1755/57-1804), does not seem to be a promising basis for a super-hit Broadway musical. Yet, as we all now know, Hamilton: The Musical has defied this belief, playing to a full house every show despite eye-watering ticket prices to become one of the top 10 grossing Broadway musicals of all time. It was still going strong before Covid-19 interrupted its run. On Friday, Disney+ Hotstar released Hamilton, a filmed version of the play that was recorded in 2016. The whole world will now get to see what the fuss was about.
For us in India, American history is mostly an unknown, only thinly covered in schools. What we do learn, however, is hard to forget because of the many unlikely linkages between the two countries on opposite sides of the globe. It starts with Christopher Columbus, who famously set out for India, stumbled onto what is now Bahamas, and still somehow got famous for the laughable claim of “discovering” America.
Then there was the Boston Tea Party, which, we all learned, wasted good Indian tea. The British general who surrendered to George Washington in Yorktown, finally ending British hold over America, was Charles Cornwallis, the future Governor General of India (1738-1805).
Alexander Hamilton, therefore, is unlikely to ring a bell for too many in India. But the play makes it easy for us by setting up the hero in terms we all understand: “The ten-dollar founding father without a father, got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.”
Even Hamilton’s disagreements with American President Thomas Jefferson over economic policy – industrial vs agrarian – are familiar because they echo our own anxieties. Jefferson accuses Hamilton in rap, “In Virginia we plant seeds in the ground. We create. You just wanna move our money around.” Hamilton replies “Thomas. That was a real nice declaration. Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation. Would you like to join us, or stay mellow, doin’ whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello?”… Yeah, keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting.”
Perhaps what will not be clear to Indian viewers even after watching the play is what makes Hamilton such a universally liked man in hyper-partisan America. Former president Barack Obama, a vocal fan, said after watching it, “Pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on – during my entire political career.”
A large part of that has to do with the abiding influence of essays – The Federalist Papers – that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote to drum up support for ratification of the American constitution. Of the 85 essays, Hamilton wrote 51. Because Madison and he were also members of the constitutional convention, the essays are often used today to help interpret the intentions of those drafting the Constitution.
The 18th-century world of Alexander Hamilton that we see in the play is far removed from ours. After all, a central part of the plot is the tragic duel between him and his New York rival Aaron Burr. However, the debates then are very much part of the debates that shaped our own constitution in the 20th century. In the Indian constituent assembly volumes, Hamilton’s name comes up only once, but the ideas from the Federalist papers feature often.
In fact, one particular essay of Hamilton, The Judiciary Department, has had quite a consequential journey into Indian constitutional law. The original essay asks the question: can judges overturn the will of the majority as reflected by acts of Parliament?
Hamilton’s answer is clear: “No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this, would be to affirm, that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid.”
It is this core argument, admittedly after more than a century worth of twists and turns, that the Indian Supreme Court used to strike down the repressive laws passed during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency (1975-77). The Supreme Court ruled then that Parliament could not alter the “basic structure” of the Constitution. And now, it is once again poised to revisit the strength of that conviction. A slew of decisions is expected against acts recently passed by Parliament, from the constitutionality of the biometric Aadhar identity project to the changes in the country’s citizenship laws.
As inspiring as the story of Alexander Hamilton is the story of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created the musical as well as wrote the lyrics and composed the music. Miranda worked on the musical for seven long years before it was first premiered off-Broadway in 2015. Perhaps the biggest creative feat of the play is not just talking about a complex subject without concessions but doing so with Black and Hispanic actors playing all the major parts.
The subversive power of (re)shaping the founding myth of the American republic in the popular imagination by people of colour was clear in 2015; it is even more so today. And why that matters is left in no doubt as George Washington and other actors rap before taking their final bows.
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who tells your story?”