History lessons from the musical Hamilton

The price of a ticket to Hamilton finally came down to something I was willing to pay: $0 (already subscribing to Disney+).

So far I’ve learned that taxes in the American colonies were sky-high and King George was arbitrarily murderous.

Who else is watching? Now that we’ve seen it, does it seem like it would have been worth $2,000/seat to see in the theater? (If we assume that the streaming Hamilton is as good as the live one, comparable to the assumption that our state and local overlords would have us believe regarding K-12 schools, everything else on Disney+ is essentially free until everyone in our family is dead. The cost of four tickets to Hamilton on Broadway, back in the year 2019, would pay for at least 50 years of Disney+?)

Also… Happy Treason Day!

An NBER paper:

There is no doubt that the colonies paid very low taxes. For example, in 1763, on average, a citizen in Britain paid 26 shillings per year in taxes, while a citizen in New England paid just 1 shilling per year (see, for example, Ferguson 2004). Along the same line, Walton and Shepherd (1979) present an index of per capita tax burden for 1765: Great Britain 100, Ireland 26, Massachusetts 4, Connecticut 2, New York 3, Pennsylvania 4, Maryland 4, and Virginia 2. Moreover, after the Seven Years War, the British Parliament tried and failed to impose new taxes on the American colonies …

The third wave was the Townshend Acts of 1767, which were customs duties on British products imported into the colonies. The measures were intended to raise 1% of colonial income, a relatively small economic burden. Moreover, they met the criteria that only external trade should be taxed.

I’ve seen some other sources that calculated the tax burden for American colonists at 2 percent of income, lower than the most efficient countries today, such as Singapore (14 percent). For reference, the U.K. collects about 33 percent of income in taxes today while the U.S. is at 27 percent (but we spend 38 percent!).

Regarding the other history lesson, did King George ever actually order any colonist killed, like Admiral General Aladeen in The Dictator did?

Fallingwater, more or less on the Proclamation Line, west of which the colonists could not steal land from the Native Americans without rebelling against England:

Correction from Joseph Boyle: The British actually did steal more land (via “treaty”) in the years between 1763 and 1776. The Purchase Line of 1768 reflects this theft. (This correction notwithstanding, the British did seem to be more inclined toward honoring treaties and less inclined toward slaveholding than were the colonists.)

14 thoughts on “History lessons from the musical Hamilton

  1. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that a country run by central banks would celebrate America’s first fascist central bankster.

  2. > Regarding the other history lesson, did King George ever actually order any colonist killed, like Admiral General Aladeen in The Dictator did?

    Are you counting the Revolutionary War, which killed several tens of thousands of Americans? (Wikipedia says 37,000–82,500 colonists dead of war and disease, a mere fraction of the Americans that have *already* died of coronavirus.)

    • Ryan: The way it is pitched in the musical, King George’s penchant for killing colonists was a reason for the colonists to start the insurrection (i.e., the killings occurred before the rebellion began).

  3. It made for a great drinking game, though I cannot remember much past the 3rd song of the first act.

  4. At the time, the aggregate economic output of the North American colonies exceeded the aggregate economic output of the rest of the Empire. When I learned this it cast the revolution in a totally different light for me.

  5. Once a meager tax is accepted its easy to raise it…. as all politicians know. Its the camel’s nose under the tent issue!

  6. Isn’t having all black actors portray white historical figures perilously close to “whiteface”? Or at a minimum, cultural appropriation? If a Broadway musical biography of Martin Luther King Jr had an all white cast, would BLM crowds rush to pay $500/seat, or burn down the theatre?

  7. mini-Mememe-ette forbade the rest of the Mememe family from watching it while she had a remote viewing party with her friends. Halfway through, she quit watching and said it was terrible — not enough dialogue to give the songs proper context. 1776 is a good musical for those hankering for some patriotic musical history.

    We ended up watching The Pink Panther Strikes Again for movie night.

  8. It’s a bit ironic (or sad?) that the NBER authors make those two arguments (it was only 1%, a “small economic burden,” and it was a purely external tax) because those are precisely the two arguments made by British Parliament when passing the acts. Fortunately, those arguments were refuted already in 1767! If you want to understand why colonists were so upset about a tiny tax on a few items, I highly recommend reading the “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” (https://thefederalistpapers.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Letters-From-A-Farmer-In-Pennsylvania.pdf), by John Dickinson in 1767-1768.

    In the immediate wake of the Townshend Acts there was a lot of confusion in the colonies as well over whether or not they should be upset. The “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” were a critical set of essays that explained to colonists that, yes indeed, they should be upset. Following the letters, public opinion turned against the Townshend Acts and war became inevitable. Interestingly, John Dickinson himself was politically a moderate. Even in the letters, he writes against the rioting that took place following the Stamp Act. His object was reconciliation with Britain: he was the chief author of the Olive Branch Petition in 1775, and then argued against the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and refused to sign it. I think reading his letters provides strong insight into why even those opposed to independence, such as he, saw the Townshend Acts as too great a danger to liberty to be ignored.

    I again highly recommend reading the letters, but to give a little more context as to why there was such opposition to a 1% tax: it wasn’t about the size of the tax, it was about the fact that it had been imposed by British Parliament. It is a common misconception among Americans that they were revolting due to high taxes imposed on them, but it really wasn’t about that at all. It wasn’t about King George III either; he was broadly supported by the colonists until 1776, when “Common Sense” started the break that the Declaration of Independence finished. It was really about the colonists vs. British Parliament. British Parliament felt they had the right to tax the colonists. The colonists were not represented in British Parliament, and thus came the cry “No Taxation without Representation.” This was an American slogan, but was a long-standing British idea. In Great Britain, the king did not have the power to lay taxes; only the representatives of the people (Parliament) could do so. Taxes were considered a gift from the people to the government that must be assented to. American colonists felt that they deserved this same right; they had assemblies and representative governments of their own in each colony, and only those governments had the right to lay taxes. Most British Parliament members disagreed. At first they floated the idea that Americans were “virtually represented” in British Parliament, a notion that was scorned even by prominent Parliament members such as William Pitt. Finally in 1766 they passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that British Parliament had power to make laws in America “in all cases whatsoever.”

    To the Americans this was tyranny. A government thousands of miles away in which they had no representation was claiming power to bind them “in all cases whatsoever, ” including directly taking their property in the form of taxes. And is this not tyranny? The fact that British Parliament was an elected body made no difference, because the Americans could play no role in its election. It might as well be a king or a dictator claiming power “in all cases whatsoever,” something that not even the British would stand for since the Magna Carta.

    British Parliament passed the Declatory Act in 1766 but didn’t really flex its newly-declared muscles at that time. The Townshend Acts were the first test of that, and they were a carefully designed test. They were specifically constructed by Charles Townshend, a senior member of the ministry at the time, to assert the power of British Parliament in a way that would be least likely to cause rebellion. For this reason the tax was small. For this reason it affected only external trade, which British Parliament undisputedly had some right to control. But they were specifically designed to be the start of a slippery slope, and (following the “Letters” referenced above) the colonists recognized them as such and vigorously opposed them.

    Ultimately British Parliament was not willing to leave the power in the American assemblies, and Americans were willing to be ruled by the king but not by British Parliament, and so there was no alternative but war.

    • As for the musical Hamilton: I saw it when it came out to SF and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Obviously the history is messed up a little bit to compress it into a short musical (for instance LaFayette was definitely not hanging out with them in New York in 1776!), but going in I was most concerned for how George Washington would be treated. Removing his name and reducing his significance is a cause-du-jour among California liberals (because, of course, he owned slaves) and so I was relieved to see him treated in the musical with the respect that he deserves. And Alexander Hamilton himself was a true patriot and a man worthy of being remember, so it’s great to see his story being told in a way that connects to youth and will help his legacy go on. The musical was likely already responsible for thwarting the Obama administration’s plan to remove Hamilton from the $10 bill (https://www.playbill.com/article/treasury-secretary-to-announce-today-that-hamilton-will-stay-on-10-bill-com-351602).

    • That was brilliant, thank you very much. As far as King George directly ordering the death of an **individual colonist** (in the manner of an extrajudicial killing) prior to the outbreak of war, I’ve never seen any evidence of that. However, by the time the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and even in 1775, things were getting very hot in other ways. The closest examples in the Indictments seem to me:

      “”For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

      “For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States: [I think this was two people who died at the hands of British soldiers who were acquitted by a court biased in favor of the Crown?]

      “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us [In early 1775, when the King declared the Colonies to be in open rebellion.]

      “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. [Charleston, Falmouth (Portland ME), Norfolk were burned]

      “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. [German mercenaries]

      “He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. [They took the crews of the vessels and impressed them instead of treating them as prisoners of war.’]

      “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” [Relatively self explanatory]

      Each of the Indictments has a story of its own, and to understand them and place them in context, you need to read the footnotes in a good history book.

  9. It seems fitting somehow not to forget Jack Jouett (“The Paul Revere of the South”)

    By the time 1781 rolled around, the author of our Declaration of Independence himself may very well have been dead had it not been for Jouett. He saved Jefferson and the Virginia legislature from capture by the British Cavalry under Banastre Tarleton (under Cornwallis) with a 40 mile ride in the dead of night through the woods and over trails from Louisa, Virginia to Monticello and then Charlottesville.


    Jouett rode through some rough terrain to evade the British and arrived in time, in the early morning hours, to warn Jefferson, who then lollygagged around for so long at Monticello he almost let himself be captured anyway! Can you imagine what would have happened if the British had succeeded?

    “Oh and yes, that Declaration of Independence of yours? That’s some piece of work. We have the author right here under guard.”

    It looks like all Jouett got for that was a pair of pistols, a sword that was never delivered, and later, an elementary and middle school named after him. He was buried in an unmarked grave. Oh, and a bottling of pale ale, “40-mile” by the Three Notch’d Brewing Company.


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