Hamilton: An American Musical in teaching and public outreach

Got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter. . . Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792

Got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter. . . Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792

Please forgive the relative silence on this blog lately, friends.  I’ve been busier–in the words of my late, profane grandmother–“than a cat covered in $hit!”  Much to my surprise, I’ve found it psychologically more comfortable these days to immerse myself in the eighteenth century rather than so-called “reality” these days.  Not that the eighteenth century was a time when things were “great”–far from it!  But, the eighteenth century has the virtue of being over and done with for more than two centuries, so I don’t have any responsibility for making it better.  That’s its primary virtue for me now.

But look what happens when you listen to the Hamilton:  An American Musical soundtrack on your drive and walk to work every day:  you (I) wake up with #Hamiltunes on your mind, and you (I) walk around humming “Thomas Jefferson’s coming home. . . “ or “The Room Where It Happens,” and saying out loud to colleagues “sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder.”  (Oops!)  You (I) make irritating allusions to Hamilton, like adding “Sir,” to the ends of sentences, and sign your emails “I have the honor to be your obedient servant, H.Ann.”

hamiltonmusicalOther historians are doing much better than I am in the creative and fun ways they’re using the Hamilton pop culture phenomenon in their classrooms and in public outreach.  Here are some recent examples–and since I plan to play at least one song a day next semester in HIST 341:  Eighteenth-century America, the course in which I teach the American Revolution, I am eager to learn of other examples like these, so please add your links and ideas in the comments below: Continue reading

Sexual humiliation in American women’s political history: the longue durée

On my way to and from work lately, I’ve been listening to the original cast album of Hamilton, which is of course as catchy and terrific as everyone says it is.  (Trust me:  it’s worth even more than the hype, and I bow to no one in trashing the so-called Founding Fathers, although I do have one misgiving which I describe below.)

It’s especially interesting to listen to alongside the news about the current presidential campaign.  In particular, I’m thinking about the middle part of the album, which  features several songs about Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds and its exposure, as well as the revelation of his extortion by Reynolds’s husband.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton illustrates the partisanship at play in this political and sexual scandal by showing Hamilton essentially accused of corruption by Thomas Jefferson (the new Vice President under John Adams in 1797), and his fellow Democratic-Republican allies James Madison and Senator Aaron Burr, who had recently defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law in the New York Senate race.

This is pretty rich, considering that Jefferson and Burr had their own extramarital sexual affairs–Jefferson’s longstanding liaison with Sally Hemings, whom he owned; and Burr’s relationship with his wife Theodosia, which began long before she was widowed in the Revolution.  Confronted with the prospect of political ruin, Hamilton published his own pamphlet admitting to sexual incontinence but defending his honor as a steward of the public trust, saying that he paid the blackmail with his own money. Continue reading

Teaser Tuesday: How and why did Esther become Mali?

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

We’re back again on another Tuesday with yet another free sample from my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwrightthis time from chapter 2, in which Esther is taken captive by the Wabanaki, who care for five years, from age 7 to 12.  How did Wabanaki women and men go about turning little Anglo-American girls and boys into their daughters and sons?  Unfortunately, that’s something that Esther never wrote about or described in any detail at all in any of the documents that record her life.  Chapter 2 is probably the chapter that stretched my imagination the most–you tell me if it ventures too far from history and veers into fiction.

One of my techniques in writing this book was to imagine the bodily sensations Esther might have experienced at each stage of her life and journey.  You’d be surprised how generative it is to ask simple questions like,  was Esther warm or cold?  What was she wearing? What did she eat for supper? Whose bed or blanket did she share at night? Throughout my career as a scholar, clothing has always struck me as a vitally important issue in cross-cultural encounters in early North America–everyone talks or writes about it, and moreover it’s also a vehicle for thinking about labor, trade, politics, and cultural change.

Here’s a little sample of how I approach Esther’s introduction to life among the Wabanaki.  I introduce here a recurring motif through the book of Esther being stripped of her clothing and redressed in garments appropriate to the new culture she’s living in and/or the new stage of life she has entered. Continue reading

The prince’s body and the body politic, 2016

Henry VII and Henry VIII at left, Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour, at right. Copy of the Holbein's Whitehall Mural, ca. 1667

Henry VIII and Henry VII on the left, Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour on the right. Copy of Hans Holbein’s Whitehall Mural, ca. 1667

(Deep background:  This post recalls some of my earlier arguments about the dynastic nature of American politics, about which Americans are mostly in denial, at least when the dynasties involve male pols only.  American politics became even more royalist in the first half of the twentieth century, when the U.S. emerged as a major international player.  They’ve become even more royalist in the succeeding 70 years since World War II, in the years that the U.S. became a “superpower” and then the global hegemon.)

Queen Elizabeth I, 1592, by Marcus Gheeraerts

Queen Elizabeth I, 1592, by Marcus Gheeraerts

Hillary Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia last week.  It’s an entirely treatable condition suffered by more than one recent pol on the campaign trail, but looking at the media coverage of this ridiculous non-story, you’d think that she was Henry VIII on his death bed without a male heir.  And that’s the American press coverage–it’s almost as though reporters on the 2016 campaign trail are unaware that the health of the nation is not entirely dependent on the health and heartiness of our Dear Leaders. Continue reading

The AAR for PPL 2016

rockymtnnpOr, After Action Review for Parks as Portals to Learning–just a little taste of the ways in which military culture informs the history and present operations of the National Park Service.

My week up in Rocky, or ROMO (=ROcky MOuntain), another acronym used by Parkies, was a rich learning experience.  As a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Eastern historian my expertise was fairly irrelevant, but I took the opportunity to learn about how the NPS works.  Besides keeping up with all of the military- and government-style acronyms (EIS, NEPA, EA , ETC) for the laws and procedures that structure the park’s conservation work, faculty from Colorado State and UC Santa Barbara helped CSU students think through the ways that environmental history informs and can assist natural resource preservation as well as the interpretation and visitor experience of the park. Continue reading

Zara Anishanslin on African American women’s voices and bodies in colonial America and today.

Today we feature a guest post from Historiann friend and colleague Zara Anishanslin (@ZaraAnishanslin), an Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. Her first book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World will be published by Yale University Press in September 2016.  An expert in eighteenth-century British and American material culture, Anishanslin pulls some of the threads of contemporary conversations about African American women’s words and bodies, and finds many suggestive connections to colonial America and the early U.S. republic.  In this lavishly illustrated post, she asks how were the images and ideas of African American women appropriated or deployed by others to their own economic and political ends?  Why is it still so difficult for black women to be heard and to represent themselves?  And finally, what does this say about the racialized and gendered nature of politics in the U.S. even now?

michelleobamaspeech“Let’s argue the history of this country, ok?’

So reporter April Ryan challenged, in a televised discussion on Monday, July 18, day one of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Ryan was responding to the remarks by her co-panelist on an MSNBC morning interview, Republican congressman Steve King. King, in a WTF moment for the ages, had just questioned what non-white “subgroups” had done to further western “civilization.” Ryan’s challenge was the last word she got in before MSNBC host Chris Hayes (who along with Esquire’s Charlie Pierce had been talking over her), went to commercial break.   On a Periscope video Ryan posted on Twitter, Chris Hayes announced his regret at not letting Ryan speak, but he had shut Ryan up when it mattered most.

That same day, Melania Trump, wife of presidential candidate Donald Trump, gave a plagiarized speech with word-for-word copies of one given by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2008. The two events occurred on the same day, in the same place, in the shared context of the Republican National Convention. But they have something more fundamental in common.

Ryan and Obama are black women; King, Hayes, Pierce, and Trump are all white, and most are men. In both televised cases, millions of viewers saw white people talking over, or appropriating without consent, the voices of black women. Both were examples that offered viewers televised examples of white people denying, silencing, or stealing, the creative contributions of black women. Although the Trump campaign is notable for its naked racism, what happened to Ryan and Obama is nothing new. Instead, it is part of a very long American history of white people’s sustained attempts to silence black women’s voices and to control black women’s bodies. Continue reading