Jonathan Hennessey is the author of the new book Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father. His other books include The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation and The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation. He is based in Southern California.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this graphic history of Alexander Hamilton?
A: Deborah, please let me start by thanking you for discovering my book and giving me the chance to talk to you and your followers about it.
Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father is actually my fourth, out of five, nonfiction graphic novels. Insofar as I’m an established author at all, I’m established in this unconventional niche. That is, histories based on independent research done in comic book form.
My first book, published in 2008, was an adaptation in comic book (or graphic novel) form of the entire U.S. Constitution. The experience of researching and writing that book led directly to a follow-up on the Civil War. That book, The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation uses the words of Lincoln’s arguably most famous speech to tell the whole story of the Civil War—from colonial times all the way to the present.
The point of front-loading all that is to mention that Alexander Hamilton is treated in some detail in both my first two books. But the idea of a publisher being willing to give the green-light to an entire graphic book devoted entirely to Hamilton alone? Only the smash Broadway musical would have made such a thing possible.
So, when the opportunity arose to devote so much attention to this one single Founding Father—whose reputation has had major ups and downs over the centuries—I pounced on it.
This happens to be an incredibly consequential time to be writing about the Revolutionary War and Early Republic eras of American history. That’s because, on the one hand, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s theatrical masterwork has made it a subject popular with tens of thousands of people who barely gave it a second thought a few years ago.
And now with what’s going on with our national politics, Americans are contemplating and actively participating in the narrative of what this country is supposed to be all about. And they are doing so at a level of intensity not seen, I don’t think, since just before the Civil War itself.
It’s absolutely crucial that anyone who cares about the future of this nation educates herself about figures like Alexander Hamilton and the political philosophies they stood for. Because people in positions of power and influence are actively trying to re-write that history as we speak.
Q: What do you think accounts for the popularity of the Hamilton musical and other things relating to Hamilton?
A: Here let me say this: I really don’t think that the popularity of Hamilton: An American Musical has very much to do with any new mass engagement in politics. Nor do I think it has anything to do with Donald Trump or the so-called “Resistance.”
I also wouldn’t say that the Hamilton mania has very much to do with the historical figure. As a man and as a politician, the historical Hamilton does not map on very neatly at all to either a modern liberal position or a modern conservative position.
The Hamilton mania can really all be attributed, I would say, to the specific genius of the play. And—I can’t stress this enough—to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s onstage portrayal of Hamilton.
In other words, it’s not necessarily the historical Hamilton but instead the theatrical stylization of the man that Lin-Manuel Miranda adopted as an actor, vocal artist, and writer.
As performed by the playwright, Hamilton is an arresting and appealing mix of sometimes contradictory qualities. He’s vulnerable. But he’s ambitious and brave. He swaggers with his fellow Revolutionary bros, but he has enormous sensitivity as a father and husband. He’s an exhausting-to-be-around workaholic. But he also has a rich inner life and moral failings most anyone can identify with.
We also know from the very beginning that Hamilton is going to die young. So, he has this tragic pall hanging over him the entire time. It makes for a captivating experience in and out of the theater. Because even if you haven’t yet managed to see Hamilton, so much of the character still comes across in Miranda’s voice in the soundtrack album.
And I mean Miranda’s voice. Because I really don’t think that if some other possibly even more accomplished Broadway actor starred in the role—and became the performer “of record” by being the lead singer on the soundtrack—the effect would have been the same.
Miranda’s voice is great. But it isn’t the stuff of which opera stars are born. He sounds kind of like someone you would know. What his vocal performance lacks in technical prowess it more than makes up for with its ability to make you believe in and empathize with the Hamilton character.
However, the responsibility of the play for the interest in Alexander Hamilton in general doesn’t end there. It’s also how the musical was cast with people of color. How it was conceived as a musical that would channel rap and hip-hop.
Both of those choices could have been facile gags. But in Miranda’s hands they’re much more. More articulate people than I have written about how the inclusion of minorities in the cast opens up American history to communities that typically feel either excluded from or oppressed by it. Or both!
I also find it a commentary on how the British in the 18th and 19th centuries looked down on Americans as second-class citizens—and how the music world looked down on rap and hip hop.
It’s a brilliant way to approach a play on so many fronts. And to me, there is no question that Hamilton wouldn’t have been so effective a piece of theater without those choices.
Q: What type of research did you need to do to write this book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?
A: Thankfully, I was already pretty well-grounded in the history of the period and in “Hamiltonian” political thought. But I have been impressed by this again and again in life: when it comes to history, there is always something more to learn.
When I was writing the book, I was working with this huge advantage. I had been accepted as a reader at a private university-type research facility, The Huntington Library, in Pasadena, California. The Huntington is one of the repositories of rare books and archival materials in the English-speaking world.
It’s more or less in my backyard. But scholars from all over the world go on sabbatical to use the collection there for writing books and academic papers, especially on American or British history, art, and botany.
Unless I had been living near an East Coast Ivy League college or the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., I wouldn’t have had so many valuable documents available to me. Really, it’s easy to think nowadays that all the information you need is online. But so, so, so many good books have never been digitized.
Coming into the writing of Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father I also knew this. That the people who were likely to pick up the book were going to have certain expectations based on the structure of the musical—and what episodes of Hamilton’s life were and weren’t included.
(For example, the figure of Hercules Mulligan—though an actual person in Hamilton’s life—did not play so large a role in his career. He could easily be left out of most Alexander Hamilton biographies. But musical fans have fallen in love with him, and would be puzzled or annoyed if my book didn’t shed some light on him).
I am always surprised and surprised anew every time I look in detail at the history of the American Revolution—and how desperate the patriot side was in so many ways. Taking a crack at it this time, it left a deep mark in me how much we really owe to France for being able to hold out against the British long enough to eke out a victory.
I had also never before appreciated how deeply dysfunctional American politics were in the Early Republic. And France comes back into this! Because believe it or not, there was in the 1790s a pro-France craze among the most radically populist anti-government people in the infant United States—the kind of people who tend to hate France and everything it stands for today.
Alexander Hamilton’s instincts to use military force, religious baiting, and elitist impulses to counter his political enemies—especially in later times when his influence was dwindling and personal misfortune and bad decisions had made him into something of a national laughing stock—were also surprising. And, I might add, unflattering.
Q: What do you think Justin Greenwood’s art adds to the book?
A: Justin, who is accomplished and naturally talented enough to excel in any style of comics, has a particular passion for crime stories. Like Stumptown and Stringers. What made that attractive to me was his approach with to portraying a more realistic universe than you would have with a typical superhero book—while retaining the savvy powers of exaggeration you need to make energetic and appealing comics.
Along with color artist Brad Simpson, there was a lot of careful work to accentuate light and dark. This is something you need when you’re in a world lit only by candles, lanterns, and torches.
Justin was also amazingly game to take direction from me with the hundreds and hundreds of historical images I provided of historical figures (often at different ages) and period locations, wardrobe, vehicles, and what in cinema or on stage you would think of as “props”—tools, weapons, personal items and so on.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Thanks for asking! Well, I may be taking a break from nonfiction graphic novels for a little while. Years ago I stumbled on a little-known story about deaf athletes that I believe deserves to be told. And I probably will not choose to do so in the comics medium—mostly because I want to concentrate on writing in a way that wouldn’t work so well in comics.
I am excited about this project because just a few weeks ago I was helped to find a bygone deaf athlete’s personal scrapbook that I had every reason to think had been tossed into a dumpster in the early 1980s.
But there’s also this. Given the uncertain political times we live in, I believe it would be irresponsible not to take what I know about American history and the Constitution and struggle to get it somehow into the national conversation.
Writing the Hamilton book gave me what I believe to be an absolutely decisive insight into a Constitutional controversy that has to do with our sitting president and several of his businesses. I recently made an hour-long free-to-watch documentary on the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution.
And I am planning another one on the Second Amendment. I think almost everyone on both sides of the issue is coming at it wrong. And that there might be a surprisingly effective way to deal with gun violence by restoring the forgotten role of certain elected leaders in this country who have been sitting on the fence on the issue for literally generations.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I was on tour with Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father through much of the Northeastern U.S. in October.
That gave a West Coast-based guy like me the chance to visit or re-visit many of the actual places in which Alexander Hamilton lived and breathed—including the sites of his residences in New York and Philadelphia, and many Revolutionary War battlefields in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
So all this month of November I’ve been embarking on a social media campaign I call #Hamiltonwashere.
Every day I bring you to a new location important to Alexander Hamilton history, showing what the place looked like now and then. You can find it on Instagram (instagram.com/hamiltongraphic), Twitter (@Hamiltonbook), the book’s dedicated website (hamiltongraphicnovel.com), or my personal website, jonathanhennessey.com.
Here’s something else that’s fun and entirely unexpected. Did you know that running throughout the entirety of the cult classic ‘80s teen dramedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High there is an underlying metaphor about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson? It’s true! And I've also made a short video deconstructing that. It’s on YouTube at https://youtu.be/MNm308fP64A.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb