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Hamilton, Hip-Hop, and the Law (Review)

Hamilton and the Law: Reading Today’s Most Contentious Legal Issues Through the Hit Musical


“THE 10-DOLLAR founding father / got a lot farther by working a lot harder / by being a lot smarter / by being a self-starter.” “We’re gonna rise up! Rise up!” “Just you wait.” “The room where it happens.” “Immigrants: we get the job done!” “History has its eyes on you.” “I’m not throwin’ away my shot.” “But we’ll never be truly free / until those in bondage have the same rights / as you and me.” “I’m ’a compel him to include women in the sequel!” “And when my time is up, have I done enough?”

These ear-catching lyrics from the Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning Hamilton: An American Musical, whose cast album went platinum faster than any album in the history of Broadway, are among the most memorable from any American musical. But what is even more remarkable is that for many, they are as memorable as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” or “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” or “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

In her intriguing new book, Hamilton and the Law: Reading Today’s Most Contentious Legal Issues Through the Hit Musical, Lisa A. Tucker has succeeded in using the innovation and exuberance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ground-breaking musical to explore a wide range of legal, social, and historical issues. In turn, the 33 essays she has collected help us better understand and more deeply appreciate the complexity and sophistication of this historical hip-hop musical.

Tucker, associate professor of law at the Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University and author of the novel Called On, writes, “There is simply no question that Hamilton has captured the American imagination in a way that no lesson on civics, government, the Founding of the nation, and the development of the U.S. Constitution has ever achieved.”           

The very first essay, “Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Future of Originalism,” by Richard Primus, professor of law, theory, and history of the US Constitution at the University of Michigan Law School, exemplifies the best of this thought-provoking collection. Primus reminds us that Hamilton opened on Broadway in the summer of 2015, just when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. “The birther-in-chief’s campaign for high office and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap opera about the man behind the Federalist Papers,” Primus writes, “spoke to the same deep issues about American identity at a time when the nation’s demography was increasingly coming to resemble that of the larger world.” He adds that Trump sought “to protect an America that was still mostly white and Christian against Mexicans, Muslims, and other outsiders deemed dangerous,” while Hamilton “was so confident in the multiracial future that it rewrote the American past in its image.”

Primus uses Hamilton to outline a new progressive approach to the theory of “originalism” in interpreting the Constitution, which for decades has been employed by conservatives to maintain the status quo, retard the expansion of civil rights, and uphold broad executive authority, all the while claiming that this was the single-minded “intent” of the Founders. Primus posits that what shapes constitutional law is not the actual original meaning of the Constitution but instead “the original meaning as understood by judges and other officials at any given time.” Therefore, “how judges imagine the original meaning of the Constitution depends on their intuitions — half-historical, half-mythical — about the Founding narrative.” If you change the myth, you can change the Constitution, and “Hamilton is changing the myth.”

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books