Hamilton’s Address

Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to see the musical Hamilton last evening and was lustily booed by the audience. The cast also took to the stage at the end of the show to deliver a statement, which was read by actor Brandon Victor Dixon:

Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show. This wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.

According to the New York Times, Pence heard the speech and left the theater smiling, though Donald Trump reacted with less equanimity.

I think reasonable people would agree that the hopeful and inclusive message offered by the cast of Hamilton was hardly rude, even if the behavior of the audience could be construed as such. Whatever the case, Trump’s tweet is notable for its evident naiveté. The notion that “proper” theater should be apolitical and/or simply comforting entertainment is a shibboleth. Given the broad acclaim that it has generated, there seems to be little doubt that Hamilton has been offering audiences a “safe and special” experience. Indeed, that the show is able to offer a progressive message and be wildly enjoyable belies the notion that politics and entertainment do not mix.

Beyond this, the President-elect might also look to history. Pence is hardly the first politician to be booed at a theater. One historical precedent that springs immediately to mind is an unfortunate evening that President-elect John Quincy Adams experienced at the Washington Theatre in 1825. The election of 1824 was a bruising four-way battle of candidates from across the ideological spectrum with strong bases of regional support. IN the end, no candidate received enough electoral votes to win outright, although Andrew Jackson (99 electoral votes and 40% popular vote) led John Quincy Adams (84 electoral votes and 30% popular vote) by a not insignificant margin. This meant that the House of Representatives would decide the election, and when it convened in early February 1825, Adams won on the first ballot with the support of the Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Jackson denounced the result as a “corrupt bargain,” and Adams was hounded by his supporters wherever he appeared. When President-elect Adams and his family went to the Washington Theatre to see the ballad opera Love in a Village, both the actors and the audience hectored him. Louis McClane, a Representative from Delaware, was also in attendance and wrote to his wife the next day describing the scene:

Last night it was announced that the P. elect would attend the theatre. I went, he was there & his family. In one or two of the comic songs some allusion was made to the election of the 9th which was rec’d with death like silence. After some time, a song called the “Hunters of Kentucky” was sung, alluding to the conduct of Jackson at New Orleans–at this a universal shout carried all around by repeated cheering for some minutes & I really feared it would have been difficult to quell it. It was an awful knell for the Pres elect-& he felt it. What will he feel when he hears this shout penetrating every part of the Union? Well may he say, he would not take the office if he could avoid it (Louis McClane to Catherine McClane, February 12, 1825)

For those wondering about the significance of the song, “The Hunters of Old Kentucky” was written by Samuel Woodworth in 1821 to celebrate the American victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson was the leader of the American forces and the song became an anthem of his political campaigns.

AB8 W8793H 1841, Houghton Library

This 1841 broadside is one of many versions and editions of the song, but highlights the populist rhetoric and veneration of Jackson that it promulgated. After disrupting the performance and going through several verses while Adams sat “with death like silence,”the audience eventually relented. Adams would not visit the theatre again for years, so all in all he certainly seemed to have had a rougher time of it than Pence did the other night.