Reminder: Free Midday Talk on Hamilton

Thursday, July 12th, 12:30 P.M. At Federal Hall, of course, on., of course, Wall Street. Deets.


William Hogeland on “The Hamilton Scheme: Enemies and Allies in the Creation of an American Economy”

William Hogeland on

Thursday, July 12, 2018 | 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM

Event Location
Federal Hall National Monument
26 Wall Street, NYC

Historian and author William Hogeland, a contributor to Historians on Hamilton (Rutgers University Press, 2018), will speak on how Alexander Hamilton’s national financial plan worked, why the public remains generally unaware of the details, the extremes Hamilton was willing to go to in order to bring the plan about, and why his opponents (Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin) couldn’t fully dismantle it during 16 years of Republican administration. Talk will be followed by Q&A.

About the Speaker
William Hogeland is the author, most recently, of Autumn of the Black Snake: George Washington, Mad Anthony Wayne, and the Invasion That Opened the West, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He has written books on the Whiskey Rebellion, the backroom politics behind the Declaration of Independence, and founding-era finance, as well as many essays on the realpolitik of the early republic. His next book, now under contract to FSG, is on Alexander Hamilton.

This FREE event is co-presented with the AHA Society as part of CelebrateHAMILTON 2018.

Talks in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan

For the paperback release of Autumn of the Black Snake, in June I’ll be doing a quick swing through the area where the events took place. Happy to say I’m now booked for paid talks at the Fort Recovery Museum on 6/9 and Fort Meigs/Fallen Timbers on 6/14.

I’d be eager to slot in other dates that week in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan — so if anyone knows a group, class, historical society, etc., in the area, with last-minute availability during that week, please let me know and I’ll do my best to keep costs down. Thanks!

“The Revenge of Queen Margaret,” by William Shakespeare

I hereby announce a new project. I just posted it online, largely to establish copyright as I begin to see if I can get it some attention.

It’s not a book or an essay, and it has nothing to do with founding-era U.S. history, which are what most readers of this blog know me for. It’s a play, and a play of a peculiar kind. I’m hoping Shakespeare people, theater people, Wars of the Roses people, history people, literary people, et al, will find it interesting.

In “The Revenge of Queen Margaret,” I’ve unearthed a new Shakespeare history play.

(N.B. The site I’m linking to is by no means optimized for mobile — sorry.)

This new play is all him. I didn’t do any writing, just took the four Shakespeare plays in which Queen Margaret appears — “Henry the Sixth, Parts 1, 2, and 3,” and “Richard III” — and got rid wholesale of everything that isn’t about her, collapsing the four plays into a single play with the violent queen as its main character. [UPDATE That, anyway, is the conceit. The facts are somewhat different, as explained in the Notes to the play.] Shakespeare now takes Margaret from her entry as a young, ambitious person to her exit as an old, dispossessed person. In beteween, she engages in a series of actions that make her, as a woman, an antiheroic protagonist shocking for the drama of the day.

So really this project is what’s known as a radical adaptation of Shakespeare. For years, the aged Margaret was cut wholeasale out of productions of “Richard III,” despite or maybe because of her amazing speeches and attitude. Meanwhile the young and maturing Margaret of the “Henry VI” cycle faded in and out of that story; the cycle itself hasn’t always been taken seriously in Shakespeare circles (some say a lot of it is a straight-up collaboration with Marlowe). For too long, Margaret has thus been ignored, minimized, and cut out.

Now she has a Shakespeare play of her own. In the “Notes” section, posted along with the play, I go into some detail about the dramatic and dramaturgical violence I’ve done, on her behalf, to the original texts.

I don’t yet know what to do with “The Revenge of Queen Margaret.” I’m pretty sure it will be of literary interest, to some — but might it also play onstage? I haven’t heard it spoken aloud yet, so the play’s future as a work of theater remains to be seen.

I should also note that the website I “built” for posting this play is perhaps the single ugliest site I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a  lot. I just wanted to put the text up there fast, as if it had rolled off a typewriter. It also has zero mobile accessibility. Maybe someday this work will get a nicer presentation, but for now, here it is: “The Revenge of Queen Margaret,” a history by William Shakespeare.

Again with the History?

(This is sort of Part Three, following this and this.)

It’s become a fad in the so-called resistance to Trump to project on the American founding generation not mere wisdom and judgment but the gift of prophecy. “220 Years Ago George Washington Warned Us about Trump,” reads the headline for an article in “The Hill, a good example of its type. Drawing on the famous farewell speech, the article concludes that our first president had “his inner eye” on our current president.

Nobody has taken this brand of pseudohistorical silliness farther than Peter Daou, a prolific Clinton supporter and busy social-media personality. According to Daou, Alexander Hamilton too gazed into the future and saw a vision of the 2016 election. Many, many times now, Daou has reported on Twitter how gobsmacked he was to discover Hamilton’s predicting, in 1792, that “the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the country is by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion.”

As if that weren’t mindblowing enough, in the crystal ball appears a figure so horribly familiar that Daou calls the epiphenomenon chilling: “When a man unprincipled in private life,” Hamilton goes on,

desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents. . . — despotic in his ordinary demeanor — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the general government and bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day — it may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

Believe it or not,And yes” Daou assures us of the quotation, “it’s real, believe it or not.”

But it’s only sort of real, and the quotation’s slipperiness illustrates the futility, for any real resistance to the current presidency, of this “wowza!” brand of founder-worship. Clipped misleadingly out of Hamilton’s “Objections and Answers,” where the secretary was responding, with some understandable heat, to a barrage of criticisms of his policy and aims, the passage has been edited to remove a term contradicting the supposed profile of Trump — the ellipses in the big section replace “the advantage of military habits” — as well as some material exposing the author’s not always edifying tactics for self-defense. Many of Hamilton’s contemporaries and forebears took precisely the line expressed in the quotation — pandering to a misguided populism is a dictator’s means of overthrowing a republic — and employed similar language when attacking, on that basis, political enemies who were attacking them. Here, Hamilton was folding into a common, even banal mode of discourse on demagoguery in general a pointed attack on an unnamed someone in particular (“unprincipled in private life,” “known to have scoffed in private”), casting him as a daemonic threat to the liberty and stability of Hamilton’s time, not ours.

Part of what’s been cut from the quote makes it especially clear that Hamilton is subtweeting. He introduces the section that Daou likes, beginning “When a man,” with this: “Yet it would not be difficult to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected.” The historian Jack Rakove, for one, thinks the unnamed target is Burr, but whoever it is, such quotations should serve to remind us that when they made these remarks, the founders were throwing shade on each other. Dozens of Daou’s many followers, bedazzled by an image possibly blended with that of Broadway’s Alexander, have posted remarks like “prescient!” Masked as a girding of the loins against Trump, Daou’s Hamiltonianism is really just a retreat to fantasia.

Other offenders in this mode include the author Thomas E. Ricks, here also making use of Twitter: “Thomas Jefferson on Trump: ‘Bad men will sometimes get in, and … may make great progress in corrupting the public mind and principles.’ (23 March 1801).” Like the Hamilton quotation, this is out of context — so far out, in this case, that it becomes nearly meaningless. Bad men will sometimes get in? Wow, that’s observant, mister “Sage of Monticello.”

In full, however, the passage at least has a point to make:

I sincerely wish with you, we could see our government so secured as to depend less on the character of the person in whose hands it is trusted. Bad men will sometimes get in, and with such an immense patronage, may make great progress in corrupting the public mind and principles. This is a subject with which wisdom and patriotism should be occupied.

Interesting. Sort of. But for all of the philosophical Greco-Roman generalizing, when these guys say “unprincipled in character” and “bad men” and mounting “the hobby horse of popularity” and “corrupting the public mind,” they mean the other party. They’re not insincere. They really do think their political enemies are out to destroy everything good and must be stopped. That’s why they’re enemies. But they have nothing to tell us about Trump, because Jefferson’s really talking about Hamilton and Hamilton’s really talking about Burr and Paine’s really talking about Washington and Adams is really talking about Jefferson and anybody else he can think of . . .

History has to be good for something other than this doofy quote-mining.

Less History, Please: Part Two

Picking up on my last post — it was about ill-considered efforts, on the part of high-powered members of the certified intelligentsia, to invoke American history in resisting Trump and Trumpism — I’d like to note a few more examples of the trend, giving each example a briefer and more superficial treatment (you’ll be happy to know) than I gave the lone Philip Gourevitch tweet in the last post.

Item.  New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy, Twitter, February 28:

JFK: “I am a Berliner.” DT: ‘My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” That’s about it.

Cassidy’s “That’s about it” exemplifies a common mode in tweet-zinging, the unearned mic-drop that, while intended to drive a point home, exposes weakness in the main gambit. Cassidy is a smart, informed guy, so what’s, exactly, “about it,” in the stark comparison he draws between the JFK quote and the DT quote? JFK’s Cold War foreign policy, so brilliantly personalized in the West Berlin speech, did indeed position the United States as representing the world, or at least the supposedly civilized part of it, and maybe Cassidy sees that approach as having led to a string of successes for world civilization, so glorious that we can only yearn to go back to leadership like JFK’s. If so, he’s entitled to his opinion, obviously, but surely he knows that a complicated public discourse is ongoing, among informed people like him, about the validity and relative success of the US’s efforts to represent the moral conscience of humanity during those years, efforts that in any event were all too often attended by disregard for law and democratic process. Reaction has led in many directions — one of them “America First” Trumpism. Grownup responses to Trump’s heedless reveling in unbaked ideas about national interest just can’t lie in daydreams of questing Kennedy anticommunism. And I suspect somebody like John Cassidy knows that. So what gives with sentimental invocation of the past?

Item. In case I seem to be picking on Twitter, here’s Jelani Cobb, the journalism and history professor and New Yorker staff writer, in the opening paragraph of an article published in that magazine, on possible GOP plans to amend the U.S. Constitution:

We’re familiar with the contours of the story: fifty-five delegates gathered in Philadelphia, in the sweltering summer of 1787, to do something about the inert Articles of Confederation. Having recognized that the old agreement was fatally flawed—it had no provisions for unitary foreign or tax policies, or for a national defense—the delegates set about creating a four-and-a-half-thousand-word lattice of compromises and counterbalances that has, with the notable exception of the years 1861 through 1865, cemented the union of the United States.  [. . . ] Not so long ago, the late political scientist Robert A. Dahl and the legal scholar Sanford Levinson asked whether the constitution they produced was even properly democratic. But seldom have critics so thoroughly disdained the events in Philadelphia as to call for a do-over. Until recently.

Now we’re down in the powderkeg of founding history, but you wouldn’t know from the paragraph how explosive this space is: Cobb takes the confidently authoritative tone so common when New Yorker and New York Times and other upscale writers want to use history to set up the main point of a piece. “We’re familiar with the contours of the story: fifty-five delegates gathered in Philadelphia,” etc.: it’s a tone that obscures the degree of partiality and controversy behind Cobb’s string of ensuing assertions, as well as their crashing into each other near the end. That the Articles were somehow at once inert and fatally flawed is by no means a matter of neutral fact but a rhetorical position of some of the convention delegates. What was flawed about the Articles, in those delegates’ real opinion, wasn’t inertia but its very opposite (ertia?). You’d think from Cobb’s description that the Articles were some incompetent version of a national constitution — that in writing them, their nodding authors had neglected to create ordinary necessities of nationhood, like top-down taxing and military powers. The Articles were in fact written, and enforced in the interest of state sovereignty, to prevent anything resembling American nationhood from ever occurring. The rules were actively restraining the nationalists from imposing federal taxation of the interstate public and from forming a uniform, federally-run interstate army. The delegates at what became the constitutional convention therefore came together in order, as the kickoff speaker Edmund Randolph put it, to redress the excess of democracy that had resulted, in his and others’ view, from the laxness of the state legislatures in policing their people and the political power of those legislatures vis a vis the federal Congress. Cobb’s statement that Sanford Levinson has criticized the resulting Constitution for not being “even properly democratic” thus makes no sense at all: the Constitution was openly intended by its leading framers to obstruct democracy (Levinson has sometimes elided this too). The framers themselves disliked the Constitution’s many compromises, now hymned today as grand and wise; most of them fully expected what Cobb calls a do-over; in 1814, New England came close to seceding. That the four-year span of outright civil war represents, for Cobb, the sole exception to an otherwise well-cemented constitutional American unity seems so outlandish to me that I’d have to address it in detail elsewhere. (People are always saying “After all, it’s held up pretty well for more than two centuries.” No, it hasn’t. It would be unrecognizable, thank goodness, to its first framers, and not only thanks to the amendment process. More on that later.) In the end, my big question here is much like that in the first item: Why, in order to criticize the GOP’s threat to constitutional rights, put forth such untenably sentimental statements about the Constitution’s framing and history?

Item. In case I seem to be picking on The New Yorker, here’s the historian and Atlantic senior editor Yoni Appelbaum, in an article published in that magazine on March 23, on Trump’s denial of fact.

His predecessors felt differently.

In 1770, John Adams stood before a jury, and argued that—despite what he, and they, might want to believe—the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre had been exercising their right of self-defense in the face of mob violence. “Facts are stubborn things,” he said, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Ronald Reagan took that line—“facts are stubborn things”—and made it the refrain of his valedictory address to his party at the Republican National Convention in 1988.

Sooner or later, this president, too, will learn of the stubbornness of facts.

It’s not just Appelbaum: lots of people quote John Adams on the supposedly stubborn nature of facts. Facts aren’t stubborn things, especially in law, and especially in history (John Adams bamboozled his own diary). Where Adams succeeded in the Boston Massacre cases, he succeeded not because he revealed incontrovertible facts about a chaotic and violent moment: nobody present at the event, and nobody hearing about it later, could ever possibly be sure of the facts. Informed arguments exist about how Adams really operated in that case, and those arguments will go on; Appelbaum, a historian, must know that, but no such historical realism finds its way into the rhetoric and purport of his piece. Rolling on the barrel of the “facts” quote, he gets all the way from that one line in a youngish lawyer’s courtroom pitch of 1770 to the second president’s 1797-1801 role as a predecessor of Trump, somehow thus framing Adams, in contrast to Trump, as an inveterate presidential reckoner with hard truths — and then takes a long, flying leap: Ronald Reagan becomes another fact-y president, solely on the basis of Reagan’s copping Adams’s 1770 line. Appelbaum’s piece rightly describes the inability of anyone to tell the current president hard truths, or really tell him anything. But there’s no resistance to Trump in lionizing former presidents on the basis of random quotations irrelevant to their performance in office.

What’s going on here? These writers  — some of them certified historians — are supposed to be bringing a working relationship with the American past to bear on the crisis in American political leadership. I think we’ve been getting this whole thing wrong for a long time, and that now, in the midst of a major national struggle, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Now more than ever: less of it.