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Hamilton vs. history: Is the award-winning musical historically accurate?

One of the final songs in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed musical that will arrive on Disney’s streaming service July 3, is an ode to the subjective nature of history — that our legacy is often shaped by those who survive us, and how we’re remembered tends to depend on who tells the tale.

That song, Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, offers a powerful finale to Miranda’s production, but it’s also a nice reminder that dramatizations of historical figures and events occasionally prioritize a good story over getting all the facts right. Hamilton is no exception, with Miranda basing the show on Ron Chernow’s best-selling 2004 biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton, but also attracting criticism for certain liberties he — and in some cases, Chernow — took with their account of Hamilton’s life.

While historians and biographers of other figures from revolution-era America have exhaustively dissected every word of Hamilton, some topics have become a recurring element in the conversation around the show’s historical accuracy. Here are some of the most noteworthy points where Hamilton takes a detour from history.

The Schuylers

In the song Satisfied, Angelica Schuyler laments her inability to start a relationship with Alexander Hamilton, who goes on to marry her sister, Elizabeth (aka Eliza). “My father has no sons, so I’m the one who has to social climb for one,” she sings.

In reality, Philip Schuyler (Angelica and Eliza’s father) had 15 children, including several sons who lived until adulthood.

The timeline of Angelica’s first introduction to Hamilton in the musical is also a bit sketchy, as Angelica had actually eloped with British-born war profiteer John Barker Church three years before she — or Eliza, for that matter — first met Hamilton. At the time the two sisters were introduced to Hamilton, Angelica was married and the mother of two children.

The love triangle

Although the Hamilton musical infers that a star-crossed romance developed between Angelica and Hamilton, the discrepancies between the show’s timeline and reality have led many to question whether this was actually the case.

Correspondence between Hamilton and Angelica that is preserved in the Library of Congress seems to suggest they had a very friendly relationship, playfully sparring over grammar in a way that some historians have deemed flirtatious. Although Chernow himself described their attraction as “potent and obvious,” others have suggested their communications were simply the product of mutual interests they shared and the close relationship Angelica had with Eliza.

Miranda himself has jokingly compared the pair’s fascination with the placement of commas as an early form of “sexting.”

"Adieu ma chere, soeur"-Hamilton, in a letter to sister-in-law Angelica 12/6/1787
See how he puts the comma after MA CHERE?#COMMASEXTING

— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) April 15, 2015

Even so, given that the entire Schuyler family maintained a long-standing, devoted relationship to Hamilton over the years, historians have generally dismissed the notion that any love triangle actually existed, as gossip of that sort would have likely caused a rift of some sort between those involved and the wealthy Schuylers.

Aaron Burr

Although the Hamilton musical devotes nearly as much time to his relationship with his rival, Aaron Burr, as it does to Hamilton’s life story, the two men’s lives weren’t as intertwined historically as the story suggests.

In the musical, Hamilton and Burr are depicted as serving as the “seconds” — representatives of two dueling individuals — for John Laurens and Charles Lee, for example. In reality, Burr was not involved in the duel whatsoever.

The same holds true for the show’s depiction of how Hamilton went about penning The Federalist Papers, a batch of essays written to drum up support for the U.S. Constitution. While the dramatized version of the story has Hamilton approach Burr for assistance in drafting the essays, it was actually James Madison (who later became the fourth U.S. president) and John Jay who joined Hamilton as the documents’ then-mysterious authors (their identities were revealed years later). By most historical accounts, Burr was neither approached by Hamilton to write any essays, nor involved in the Federalist Papers in any way.

Additionally, many of the conversations between Burr and Hamilton depicted in the musical never occurred, or in some cases, did indeed happen — but between Hamilton and other historical figures, not Burr. While there are parallels between their lives and careers — they both passed the bar and set up their respective legal practices in Albany, New York, the same year — their experiences did not bring them into each other’s lives as frequently as the Hamilton story implies.

Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds

In another instance of Burr’s relationship with Hamilton being overstated by the musical, the show depicts Thomas Jefferson, Madison, and Burr using Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds to destroy his career. In reality, it was James Monroe, Frederick Muhlenberg, and Abraham Venable who did so — although Monroe was a close associate of Jefferson at the time.

As for the affair itself, Hamilton confessed to his relationship with Reynolds and being blackmailed by her husband, James Reynolds, with the musical even directly quoting some of the lines from the Reynolds Pamphlet — which made the affair public and gave the newly formed nation one of its first political sex scandals — penned by Hamilton. Although most historians previously agreed that the affair happened, it has recently come into question.

In her 2018 biography of Eliza Hamilton, historian Tilar J. Mazzeo theorized that the entire affair was fabricated to cover up for a financial scandal involving Hamilton. According to Mazzeo’s theory, Maria Reynolds had agreed to go along with the story of their affair in order to secure the release of her husband from prison, with even Monroe himself later corroborating this version of the events. Even the letters from Maria and James Reynolds that Hamilton claimed to have were never actually seen, only described by Hamilton himself. Skeptics have suggested that Hamilton came up with the entire affair story in order to distract from a failed investment scheme that would have tarnished his party and the foundation of the U.S. Treasury.

In recent years, Mazzeo’s research has led many historians to question this particular aspect of Hamilton’s saga.

The Hamiltons

Much like the musical’s depiction of the Schuyler family, Hamilton also takes some liberties with its lead character’s family tree.

The musical implies that Philip Hamilton is Alexander’s only son, for example, when the younger Hamilton is fatally shot in a duel with George Eacker. At the time of his death, however, Philip Hamilton had six living siblings — including four brothers.

One thing the musical does portray accurately — or more accurately, undersells — is Eliza’s fierce defense of Hamilton’s legacy and her philanthropic work in the years following his death. Eliza’s prolific research and compilation of her husband’s correspondence and library of essays and other published works became the foundation of nearly all future biographical research of Hamilton. The co-founder of the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York that still exists today (now known as the Graham Windham agency), Eliza also established New York’s Hamilton Free School, the first school in Washington Heights — the same neighborhood where Miranda grew up.

Disney’s full-length film of the Hamilton musical, featuring the show’s original cast, will be available July 3 on the Disney+ streaming service.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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