The groundbreaking popularity of Hamilton: An American Musical serves to remind educators of music's powerful role in learning. Songs often enhance learning with infectious, foot-tapping messages that merge with the beating of our hearts and pumping of our blood to engage a wider spectrum of the brain.
But how does the life of a Founding Father become a Broadway musical? Fairly simple it turns out: After reading Ron Chernow’s 700-page Hamilton biography, actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda was awe-struck. He decided that a musical celebrating the feverish intellect and unparalleled accomplishments of Alexander Hamilton was “what the world was missing.”
Before writing his hip-hop musical, Miranda admits that he recognized Hamilton’s face on the $10 bill, and he probably knew that this Founding Father was killed in a duel.
Most U.S. History teachers know at least one more thing. Hamilton wrote many of the seminal Federalist Papers that framed and explained the basis of the U.S Constitution. He provided the blueprint that took the colonies beyond revolution and into the complicated details of running a nation.
First, here's a condensed version of Hamilton's impressive achievements.
A self-taught immigrant from the island of St. Croix, Hamilton became George Washington’s right-hand-man during the Revolutionary War. Commanding infantry at the Battle of Yorktown, he escaped enemy fire and helped force the British surrender. Following the Revolution, Hamilton was equally accomplished:
- As mentioned above, he wrote most of the Federalist Papers, which helped convince states to ratify the Constitution. His essays demonstrated the practical advantages of a central (federal) government. See Federalist 51, 68, 69, and 74.
- He served as the first secretary of the treasury and stabilized a post-war economy in shambles.
- He established a gold-based currency system and paid off a huge war debt.
- He helped craft Washington’s foreign policy, including the Neutrality Proclamation, avoiding entanglement in foreign wars.
- Not only did he argue for a paid military and the U.S. Coast Guard, but he also introduced a bill to establish a military academy at West Point.
It took Miranda’s fast-talking jib-jab, hip-hop styled lyrics to convey even a fraction of the Hamilton's ideas. Here’s an example of the captivating verse in his Cabinet Battle #1, in which Hamilton addresses his nemesis, Thomas Jefferson:
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?)
If we assume the debts, the union gets
A new line of credit, a financial diuretic
How do you not get it? If we’re aggressive and competitive
The union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative?
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
We plant seeds in the South. We create.
Yeah, keep ranting…
Since the day we learned the alphabet by chanting our ABCs, we've known the power of rhythm and song to motivate and help imbed learning. But the immense popularity of this show is a good reminder that complicated ideas and storytelling can be enhanced by musical presentation.
So remember, if you are teaching elementary school students, wouldn't it be fun to sing along with Sal the mule traveling 15 miles on the Erie Canal ("Low bridge, everybody down").
And even a Lady Gaga tune can be a good vehicle for remembering some key details from the French Revolution.