Could Alexander Hamilton ever have been president of the United States?
If so, why have I always thought otherwise?
Like most of Tulsa, I went to see the touring production of “Hamilton” at the Performing Arts Center. The wildly popular and innovative show closes Sunday night, and if you don’t have tickets you’re probably out of luck.
It was a very good show, although a lot of the audience was more enthusiastic about it than I was. I would have preferred a more spectacular closing number — think Curly declaring, “We know we belong to the land” or Tony and Maria reprising “Somewhere.” The theater isn’t what it was, but let’s not go into Wayne’s affection for the golden age of Broadway.
What I found puzzling about “Hamilton” wasn’t the tunes. It was that moment in Act II (spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the show but plan to) just after Hamilton publishes a pamphlet revealing his amorous involvement with a married woman, not his wife. The Jefferson clique is left giddy at events because now Hamilton can’t be president!
Hold on! I thought Article II of the Constitution already prevented Hamilton from being president, that Jefferson’s people had already put in a clause requiring that the president be a native-born American specifically to prevent Hamilton’s future candidacy. I’ve compared notes with other people who are like me — educated but not scholars in U.S. history or constitutional law — and found some who thought the same thing. What gives?
Dr. Richard Bell, a scholar in early American history at the University of Maryland, is scheduled to give a talk on the historical veracity of “Hamilton” at 2 p.m. Sunday at Gilcrease Museum. (The lecture is free with museum admission, and anyone interested should go. Also, he’s written an interesting-sounding book — “Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home.”)
In a telephone interview, Bell told me that he loves “Hamilton.” He thinks Lin-Manuel Miranda is a musical genius who did some legitimate research and largely succeeded in accurately portraying the contours of events, especially the friction between the Founding Fathers in the early days of the republic.
A musical isn’t a history lecture, but the number of things “Hamilton” gets right certainly outweighs any modest detail issues, Bell says. (One interesting example of the latter: The climactic duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr didn’t directly result from the presidential election of 1800, as you probably would conclude from the musical but from the events of the New York governor’s race of 1804, in which Burr lost to a candidate strongly backed by Hamilton.)
Bell said he has also heard the story that the native citizen clause of the Constitution was aimed at Hamilton, but it’s never been a focus of his research. So he couldn’t really answer that one for me.
I went to University of Tulsa law professor Lyn Entzeroth, who quickly told me that it isn’t a focus of her research either, and that she had never heard the story that the natural born citizen language targeted Hamilton. But she was smart enough to pull out a copy of the Constitution and read it to me.
Article II says: “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution shall be eligible to the office of the president; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years and been fourteen years a resident within the United States.”
That’s interesting, isn’t it? Hamilton had been in what would become the U.S. since 1772, more than 14 years by the time the Constitution was adopted. He wasn’t a natural born citizen — he was born in Nevis — but he certainly would seem to have been a citizen per se at the time of adoption, given the fact that he fought in the Revolutionary War and served in the Constitutional Convention. By the way, I learned some of that from “Hamilton.”
You can find online scholarship that says it’s not all that simple, but the consensus seems to be that — whatever I may have heard — the natural born clause wasn’t designed with Hamilton in mind.
Kristen Oertel, the University of Tulsa’s Mary F. Barnard chair in 19th century American history, also hasn’t specifically researched the issue, but she has taught early American history for 20 years, the last 10 at TU. She also wasn’t familiar with the story about the natural born citizen provision being designed to get Hamilton. She points out that when he left Nevis, Hamilton migrated from one British colony to another, and no president was born in the U.S. until Martin Van Buren.
Speaking of popular fictionalization of history, I’ve been watching the PBS series “I, Claudius,” which dates to the 1970s. It holds up well as drama.
Early in the series, a Greek poet name Aristarchus compliments Thallus, a sort of announcer in the Roman court of Augustus Caesar, on the timbre of his bass voice. Thallus says he was formerly an actor but he gave it up because, “The theatre isn’t what it was.”
Aristarchus responds, “No. And I’ll tell you something else. It never was what it was.”
It never was what it was.
So true. Of theater and our understanding of history.
Aristarchus, by the way, was the name of a real astronomer and mathematician, although he was long dead before Augustus was born. The internet tells me he was the first known person to posit that the sun was the center of the universe.
Which wasn’t right. But it was closer to right than what others were saying at the time.
Sometimes close to right is the best we get.