Pittsburghers can’t wait to see “Hamilton” at the Benedum next month, but that wasn’t the case when the real Alexander Hamilton visited here more than 200 years ago.
Scene: It was 1794, and the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pa. was getting intense.
Those riots were sparked by Hamliton, then U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, enacting an excise tax on whiskey three years earlier, because he thought it was a vice and not essential, Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, previously told The Incline.
But Western Pa. farmers sold whiskey and viewed the tax as unfair. While Americans elsewhere protested by not paying the tax, things started to get violent here, specifically in Washington and Fayette counties, said Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the History Center.
The rebellion, after all, wasn’t about whiskey. It was about economics, she said.
Protesters went beyond just not paying the tax. They stopped people in the woods and intercepted mail to see who paid the tax. Those who paid it were tarred and feathered or kidnapped, and tax collectors had their homes burned down, she said.
In August, rebels started gathering in Braddock’s Battlefield — across from what’s now Kennywood — with plans to march on and burn Pittsburgh. To them, Pittsburgh, where the merchant elite lived, was a stronghold for the government, Przybylek said.
By this point, the federal government decided it was time to crack down and arrest rebels, so President George Washington, Hamilton, and 13,000 troops headed to Pittsburgh.
Around the same time, a group of men from Pittsburgh visited the rebels and talked them out of their plan. The president and treasury secretary split when they heard that news: Washington turned around, but Hamilton kept on.
Przybylek said there’s some debate about what Hamilton was trying to do by continuing to Pittsburgh. Did he want to provoke a rebellion and make an example out of Western Pa.? Or was he caught unaware? The truth is likely somewhere in between, she said. Regardless, Hamilton arrived in the Mon Valley by late October and was in Pittsburgh by mid-November.
On Nov. 13, 1794 — the “Dreadful Night” — troops rounded up hundreds of rebels and Hamilton interrogated some of them in what’s now Downtown Pittsburgh, including Hugh Henry Brackenridge, who later founded what’s now the University of Pittsburgh.
Remember: At the time, Western Pa. was the far west, and many people here didn’t think of themselves as Americans like Bostonians and Philadelphians, Przybylek said. Plus, it was only about 20 years after the Revolutionary War, and people claimed a right to rebellion and said they’d do it again. Some believed the Whiskey Rebellion would turn into a civil war, she said.
By Nov. 19, Hamilton left Pittsburgh.
“He’s so hated that that point, he leaves the area with a military escort,” Przybylek said.
So how do you reconcile the beloved “Hamilton” with the actual man?
That’s where Hamilton Remix comes in. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, Richard Bell, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, will discuss the differences between “Hamilton” and history at the History Center. The program includes strong language, so it’s not recommended for kids under 14. Tickets are $18 for adults and $9 for kids and include admission to all History Center exhibits.
It’s not about criticizing what’s inaccurate, but examining why creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who played Hamilton in the original Broadway show, took creative liberties to make his version relevant to today’s audience, Przybylek said.
The performance is not a dissertation, it’s art, she said. But if it provokes someone to understand a little more about history, then that’s a good thing.
“The musical is entertainment, and we are the history component,” she said.
“Hamilton” is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, from Jan. 1 to 27, and tickets are still available, including through a lottery that starts Sunday for $10 seats. Find out more here.