Once upon a time, back in February, the I&A Steering Committee was brainstorming potential nominees for the J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award. Ideas were being tossed around and then there was one, a name. Alexander Hamilton, or, more specifically, the musical, Hamilton. One by one, we all began to agree. More than a few of us were fans of the hit musical, and none could deny the attention that it, and its source material, brought to archives. Steering Committee member Jeremy Brett drafted the application (portions of it are reproduced below) and we sent it off.
Over the course of the next several months, Hamilton and Lin-Manual Miranda won award after award. You can imagine our delight when we found out that another award could be added to the list. If you didn’t read this week’s “In the Loop,” spoiler alert: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ron Chernow won the 2016 Jameson Archival Advocacy Award!
Many thanks to the J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award Committee for all of their work. No word yet on whether the winners will be in Atlanta to accept the award, but one can hope.
How does the nominee meet the criteria of the award?
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical (and national cultural phenomenon) Hamilton, which debuted off-Broadway in January 2015 and moved to Broadway in August 2015 in response to a wave of critical and popular acclaim, is a powerful example of the emotional impact that history can have on people’s hearts and minds when presented in an original and creative form. It also wonderfully proves the power of story and of individual historical personalities, as the narrative of one man’s life (Alexander Hamilton) evolves from archival evidence gathered through primary sources into a unified biographical study and then into a dynamic artistic production that unites the social and political concerns of the 18th century with those of the 21st. The story of the musical’s very creation is one that demonstrates such power: Miranda came upon Ron Chernow’s lauded biography Alexander Hamilton at an airport in 2008, looking for reading material for his vacation. He was immediately captivated by the drama inherent in Hamilton’s rise from poor orphaned immigrant to powerful politician and one of the major figures of America’s Founding Generation, as well as by the direct and readable prose and expert use of primary sources that made Chernow’s book a bestseller. Miranda instantly saw the potential in Hamilton’s story as a chance to tell our national history through a contemporary musical lens, and with Chernow’s biography as his inspiration went on to create a vibrant, deep and intensely clever musical with a powerful union of hip-hop, Latin-flavored, and traditional musical stylings. It is particularly notable in that the major roles, including Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, Angelica Schuyler Church, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis De Lafayette and James Madison, are all played by actors of color – this choice on Miranda’s part not only reinforces the traditional image of America as a refuge for immigrants and minorities but causes its audience to question the ongoing cultural dominance of American history by whites.
The continuing popularity of Hamilton, and the renewed interest in the book that inspired it have sparked among a wide variety of people a new fascination with Hamilton’s life, his times, and those of the people around him. Because of the musical, new generations of students are learning about Hamilton and his inspirational immigrant’s story. As Newsweek’s Zach Schonfeld says, “This show has done more than any work of pop culture to bring Alexander Hamilton out of the ivory tower and into the popular consciousness.”
The Jameson Award is designed to honor those who most effectively promote greater public awareness, appreciation, or support of archival activities or programs. The phenomenon that Hamilton has become affirms that there is a real public hunger for history and a fascination for the primary materials that document it. (Miranda certainly, in the course of writing the show, made great and profitable use of the writings of Hamilton and Aaron Burr, among others.) The Atlantic’s Edward Delman notes that “now, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has the opportunity to change the way people consider one of the Founding Fathers and the era he lived in.” The combination of Miranda’s artistic brilliance and Chernow’s sterling historical scholarship has made for a powerful tool that educators, students, and the general public have used and will continue to use in gaining a better understanding of early American history and, by extension, the letters and other primary documentation that chronicle it. The New York Public Library, for example, has recently embarked on a project to digitize much of its holdings relating to Hamilton and other historical figures featured in the show and make those images publicly available, in response to the show’s popularity.
The Issues & Advocacy Roundtable Steering Committee wholeheartedly nominates the team of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ron Chernow to receive the 2016 J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award, as champions of and advocates for the power of history and archives to inspire and educate us. We hope that the Jameson Award Committee will consider this in making its decision, and will not, in fact, throw away its shot at finding the best possible recipient for this year’s award.
What are the outstanding characteristics of the nominee?
Lin-Manuel Miranda is a brilliant composer and lyricist whose 2008 musical In The Heights won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical, and, for Miranda himself, Best Original Score) as well as a 2009 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album and a nomination for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The musical, like Hamilton, was marked by its fusion of hip-hop and Latin musical style. He is also the co-composer and co-lyricist for the 2011 musical Bring It On, which was nominated for 2 Tonys and 5 Drama Desk Awards.
Miranda is particularly noted for his combinations of musical and lyrical styles drawn from a number of American cultural communities, including his own Puerto Rican ethnic background. His works have received multiple awards in addition to those above; perhaps most notably, he was awarded a coveted 2015 MacArthur Genius Grant. It is also worth noting that Miranda and Ron Chernow received the 2015 History Makers Award from the New-York Historical Society, signifying an acknowledgment within the historical community of the importance of their work in raising historical consciousness.
Ron Chernow is a noted historian and biographer. His biography Alexander Hamilton (2004), regarded by many now as the standard one-volume biography of the man, won the 2004 George Washington Book Prize (from Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which also awarded Lin-Manuel Miranda a Special Achievement Award in 2015) and was nominated for the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award. His 2011 work Washington: A Life won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He has also written works on the history of the J.P. Morgan financial empire, on the Warburg family, and on John D. Rockefeller, Sr. In 2011 Gordon Wood dubbed Chernow “an outstanding member of the new breed of popular historians who dominate narrative history-writing in the United States today”, taking note that “his ability to master the secondary sources as well as the primary materials is the secret of his remarkable success as a biographer.”
- Newsweek article, 2/9/2016, discussing popularity of Hamilton in teaching history to students
- The Atlantic article “How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History”, 8/29/2015
- Blog post from the New York Public Library, connecting Hamilton to its Hamilton archives, 8/7/2015