#Hamiltations: Or, Genius.com Users Annotate Hamilton

Screenshot 2016-04-13 11.11.24The 18th century is cool again thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda. His hit Broadway show, Hamilton: An American Musical, based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, is a pop culture juggernaut, telling the story of the first Treasury Secretary through hip-hop and rap performed by a cast of actors who are nearly all people of color. For many Hamilton fans (#Hamilfans, #Hamiltrash, what have you), “Farmer Refuted” is not a track from the Grammy award winning musical soundtrack they would list as an oft-quoted favorite. Certainly “My Shot” and the opening lines of “Alexander Hamilton” are evoked more often when a group of Hamilton fans get together. But on genius.com (formerly RapGenius), “Farmer Refuted” warrants an in-depth annotation including primary documents and portraits.

Genius.com enables fans, students, writers  to annotate song lyrics, poetry, and sections of prose. The site’s purpose is to

“look at intertextual connections, an artist’s life—everything that might help someone better understand a piece of work. Our community uses all of that information to answer every question a curious person might have about a song or text (and even some questions they wouldn’t think to ask—those are usually pretty cool). We write as fans and scholars, for our fellow scholars and fans.” (http://genius.com/Genius-become-a-genius-annotated)

Both the authors and the fans can make annotations, and the community upvotes the annotations that work the best. This crowdsourcing of annotation works in a Wikipedia fashion and allows for faster and better annotations than if one person worked on the project.

“Farmer Refuted” is the sixth track on the Hamilton musical original cast recording. It marks the moment when Alexander Hamilton enters the public discourse surrounding the ill treatment of the colonies by the British parliament and King George III. (In fact, King George III issues a rebuttal to “Farmer Refuted” on the seventh track, “You’ll Be Back,” a hilarious Beatles-esque breakup song.) The song dramatizes the paper wars between Samuel Seabury and Alexander Hamilton, placing them in a public square in a battle of song lyrics and wits, a precursor to the cabinet battles of Act II. Samuel Seabury makes his case for the colonies to remain loyal to the king and makes a rather contemporary complaint – “this Congress does not speak for me.” Hamilton rebuts Seabury in counterpoint and publicly outwits him, winning the debate for the Revolutionaries.

Screenshot 2016-04-13 11.14.12

Genius.com users have taken on the challenge of the historically heavy “Farmer Refuted” and created helpful annotations for those who want the context of the song. Using Seabury’s own pamphlets, users compare the primary text with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics, demonstrating where they sync and where they do not. Users supply passages from the primary documents, quoting “Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress” in this annotation. They also analyze word choices, comparing the original 18th century prose with Miranda’s 21st century language.

Perhaps the best annotation to bridge the 18th and 21st centuries is the infamous commasexting reference in “Take A Break.” Hamilton’s sister-in-law and rumored love interest Angelica Schuyler Church agonizes over a comma in her latest letter from Hamilton. “It says ‘My Dearest, Angelica’ with the comma after ‘Dearest’” and she is not sure what this means. “Did you intend this?” she asks. “One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days,” she admits. Lin-Manuel Miranda in a tweet defined this as “commasexting,” combining both the wonky arcaneness of grammar obsession and the 21st century practice of sexting. Screenshot 2016-04-13 11.16.24To have Angelica worry over the 18th century equivalent of a text makes these historical figures human, relatable, and modern. Amazingly enough, it is also historically accurate – Angelica and Hamilton did participate in commasexting, although it was Hamilton whose days were consumed by Angelica’s stroke.  She addressed him as “my dear, Sir” rather than “my dear Sir.” In the letter, Hamilton writes, “You ladies despise the the pedantry of punctuation. There was a most critical comma in your last letter. It is my interest that it should have been designed; but I presume it was accidental. Unriddle this if you can.” Users attempt to do so.

“Farmer Refuted” and “Take A Break” demonstrate how the Hamilton musical is bringing the 18th century into mainstream popular culture. Miranda frequently receives tweets from teenagers reminding him that it’s Hamilton’s birthday or the anniversary of Yorktown or of the duel between Hamilton and Burr.  Obsession with the cast album means that fans are reading the 800 page Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton (#Hambio) and voluntarily picking up The Federalist Papers. Genius.com allows fans who have happily delved into colonial history a place to drop knowledge, contributing to both the lyrics and the edification of readers. Most importantly, Hamilton makes us work a lot harder, be a lot smarterhow lucky we are to be alive right now.

Shea Stuart

Shea Stuart

Shea Stuart is an associate professor of English at Gardner-Webb University and the 18th Century and Pop Culture section editor at ABOPublic. When not teaching and writing, she is on a bike. Connect with her on Twitter at @terfle or on WordPress at profmamamusings.wordpress.com.
Shea Stuart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *