‘Hamilton’ missed a chance to highlight Haitian Revolution

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” missed an opportunity to highlight the Haitian Revolution.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” missed an opportunity to highlight the Haitian Revolution.

“Hamilton” triumphantly arrived on Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton is a tremendous commercial and critical success. This is an awe-inspiring play for people who love hip-hop culture.

As a work of public history, “Hamilton” misses one major opportunity. It never mentions a major contribution that people of color made to new world democracy: the Haitian Revolution. This revolution is too often forgotten.

In 2015, a Brooklyn high school teacher named Bill Coulter brought students to see “Hamilton” at the Public Theater. To prepare students for the trip, he assigned a non-canonical document of democratic thought: the Haitian Declaration of Independence. Why include Haiti in discussions about “Hamilton”?

For educators who teach racially diverse classrooms, Haiti bridges the distance between students of color and textbooks that often neglect the contributions of black and brown people. This pedagogical approach is similar to one of the stated goals of the “Hamilton” production. Miranda explained his decision to reimagine the founding fathers as black and Latino: “One of our overarching goals … is [to] eliminate any distance between [the] audience and [the] story … Let’s make the founders of our country look like what our country looks like now … We are every shade, every color.”

If we think of “Hamilton” as a play that provides entry points for audiences who are usually excluded from the story of new world democracy, Haiti’s inclusion begins to make perfect sense. The Haitian Revolution is an exhilarating story of people of color contributing to the “age of revolutions.”

Historians use the phrase “age of revolutions” to describe the democratic revolts that began in the late 18th century, most notably: The American, French, and Haitian revolutions. “Hamilton” skillfully draws connections between the American and French Revolutions, etching out a transatlantic conversation between the United States and Europe. But if we are serious about telling the story of multiracial New World democracy, then Haiti must be included.

In 1791, the enslaved Africans on the French colony of Saint-Domingue revolted in a coordinated strike against their owners. Thirteen years later, the country of Haiti was born. Haiti became a beacon of hope for enslaved people in the new world and a frightening specter of insurrection for slave holders everywhere.

The Haitian Revolution sent shock waves across the Atlantic world. One of the more progressive moments of the French Revolution was a direct response to the uprising. In an attempt to regain control over Saint-Domingue, the National Assembly ended slavery in all French colonies in 1794. Furthermore, Haitian rebels helped the United States nearly double in size through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. After suffering massive military casualties in Saint Domingue, Napoleon sold away France’s New World colonies and retreated to Europe. Alexander Hamilton thanked the rebels in the Evening Post newspaper: “To the …obstinate resistance made by [Saint-Domingue’s] black inhabitants are we indebted …” Later in 1815-1816, Haiti gave support to Simon Bolívar, a general who is remembered by many as the “George Washington of South America.”

“Hamilton” could have broken the trend of silencing Haiti by including one line about the revolution. This line never comes, and the silence continues.

All of this is not to minimize the powerful achievements of “Hamilton.” The issue is curricular as most American history classes leave Haiti out of the story of New World democracy. In the book on which “Hamilton” is based, historian Ron Chernow mentions the Haitian Revolution once, only to suggest that a yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia may have originated in Saint-Domingue, doing little to racially diversify the pantheon of democratic icons.

But other educators like Bill Coulter are helping a generation of students find new democratic heroes. Coulter represents a pedagogical approach, as does Chernow, and to paraphrase a lyric from “Hamilton”: The world is wide enough for both. Regrettably, there are relatively few Bill Coulters in today’s curricular landscape.

Thankfully, for inquiring minds, resources are abundant. You might begin reading the fascinating literature on the Haitian Revolution. And if your research starts sounding like music, you could grab a pen. The final song of “Hamilton” asks the crucial question: Who tells your story? When the official textbooks forget us, we narrate ourselves. That’s what rappers do. That’s a hip-hop story.

Chinua Thelwell is assistant professor of Africana studies and history at William & Mary.