by Katie McNally
When UVA alumna and renowned historian Joanne Freeman first took an interest in one of America’s lower-profile Founding Fathers, she never imagined that Broadway might share her enthusiasm. It was a thrill, then, to see how her research helped guide Lin-Manuel Miranda as he wrote a smash-hit musical about Alexander Hamilton, Freeman said.
Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, has been studying Hamilton for more than 40 years. She is also a leading expert on early American politics, earning her master’s and Ph.D. at UVA. She studied under Peter Onuf, UVA’s Thomas Jefferson Professor of History Emeritus and one of the founding co-hosts of BackStory, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ popular history podcast.
Freeman came full circle by joining BackStory last spring as one of two new permanent co-hosts while Onuf takes a more occasional role. She discussed her plans for BackStory and her Hamilton research with UVA Today. (This interview has been edited for length.)
Q. As you watch the news and plan for BackStory episodes, what historical moments are on your mind?
A. The one that’s foremost is the 1850s, not only because it was extremely polarized, but because of the nature of that polarization. By the late 1850s, there were two groups of Americans with opposing ideas, each group assuming that the other was un-American and violating fundamental American ideals. Of course, the issue at hand was the problem of slavery, an issue where there wasn’t much of a middle ground.
Our current polarization reminds me of the extreme polarization of the 1850s in many ways. But our political system is built on debate and compromise. That’s the foundation of our democracy. At present, we’re at a moment of extreme political malfunction.
As an early American political historian, I’ve spent decades researching and writing about the creation of our political system. That kind of knowledge really matters right now. To protect American democracy, people need to understand how our political system was created and structured and how ideas about democratic politics evolved over time.
Q. What’s it like watching your research translated into art?
A. Hamilton captures something of the spirit of America’s founding, the ongoing improvisation and fraught feelings … People don’t think of that generation as real people who were scared and confused and made big mistakes. Having people understand that America’s history specifically—and history generally—is fundamentally about people making choices and figuring things out—that contingency matters—that’s all for the better. For that reason, the play has created a supreme teaching moment.
Q. How did studying at UVA influence your work?
A. UVA is so steeped in history that it’s wonderful to study any history there. But when you study early America, you’re surrounded by what you’re studying. Peter Onuf—who I call “the mentor from heaven”—was also a big reason that UVA was such a great place to learn.