Alexander Hamilton vs. the Whiskey Rebels. Yet Again

“Hamilton: an American Musical” doesn’t mention the Whiskey Rebellion and the military suppression of western Pennsylvania that brought Alexander Hamilton’s creative phase to its climax. An earlier version of the play did have a Whiskey Rebellion section, but since the rebellion and its relationship to Hamilton’s national economic plan formed the subject of my first book, I can only be glad that that part of the show got cut. Leaving out the public-finance efforts that made Hamilton who he was may be understandable in creating a work of musical theater — but without some such realistic economic framing there would be no way to get any sense of what the Whiskey Rebellion and its suppression were about.

Many of Hamilton’s new fans, among many others, have no way of knowing that the linchpin of his great plan of national finance was a tax on whiskey (the first-ever federal tax on a domestic product). Violent resistance to that tax and its purposes became the nation’s first-ever insurgency for democratic access to political and economic power. The rebels didn’t object to taxation, they weren’t against American nationhood, and they didn’t just like to sit around and drink (they did like that, but so did everybody else then). They objected to the tax as unfair because its proceeds were earmarked to pay interest on government bonds held by a small number of very rich Americans. Whose income from those bonds was, of course, untaxed. Also the tax discriminated against small whiskey producers and encouraged industry consolidation among big producers.

So the years 1791-1794 saw the famous founders Washington and Hamilton, in hopes of authoring a rich, expansive, dynamic nation based on concentrating wealth and building military power, pitted against the little-remembered white working-class populists of the day who wanted economic and political equality for the less- and unrich.

That conflict between Hamilton, as first Treasury Secretary and architect of the national economy, and the proponents of democratic approaches to public finance who included the whiskey rebels represents the central issue for the important part of Hamilton’s career. He was fighting those he and his allies disdained as social “levelers” and “the democracy” long before he was fighting his opponents in officialdom Jefferson and Madison. From Hamilton’s efforts to demolish movements for economic equality came the economic blueprint — its linchpin a tax on, yes, whiskey — for the dynamic, powerful, rich, expansive nation that the United States did go on to become.

This founding fight between Hamilton and the whiskey rebels isn’t merely “relevant,” as the nation argues anew about taxes, wealth, Wall Street, corruption, monopoly power, money in government, etc.; and as the culture explodes with hiphop Hamilton onstage in city after city; and as major politicians square off to accuse one another of socialism or plutocracy, extremism or corruption. This founding fight isn’t just one among a number of historical examples of elitism versus democracy, or moderation versus extremism, or any of the other oppositions that various political positions will always read in various ways. This fight, whichever side of it you’re on, at any given moment, is the founding fight: the fight that actually launched the country and left us in a state of perpetual conflict with one another over what the country’s supposed to be about, when it comes to credit, debt, taxation, property, wealth, money.

The founding fight is the thing about the founding.  Continue reading


AOC and the American Founding

After going back and forth on Twitter a bit with Eric Levitz about his article with the headline “AOC Thinks Concentrated Wealth Is Incompatible With Democracy. So Did Our Founders,” I thought I’d clarify my point of view. Really, I thought I’d use my objections to the line of thought exemplified by Levitz’s piece as a way of developing my own thought — at some length, it turns out — on egalitarianism and the nation’s founders, especially with regard to Jeffersonianism as a supposedly progressive antidote to Hamiltonianism.

Levitz’s linkage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to founding American values rose out of the panting, 24/7 need of media platforms to gin comments made on other media platforms into further comments; and out of opinion writers’ ceaseless task of opining on whatever momentarily passes for breaking news, which often means somebody else’s ceaseless opining. Hence Levitz’s discussion of the American founding, in response to a predictably reactionary rant by Sean Hannity, calling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s policies un-American.

But clickbait headlines aren’t the responsibility of writers. Levitz’s real point is more intelligent, informed, and nuanced than the headline’s suggestion that — contra Hannity — Ocasio-Cortez’s desire to use government power to restrain wealth and promote economic equality is actually grounded in philosophies, goals, and policies that brought the nation into being. For of course it’s true that, as Levitz says, “there’s nothing foreign or communistic about the idea that concentrated wealth is incompatible with democracy.” And of course it’s true that Hamilton, for one, despised democracy and promoted concentration of wealth as a national good — so in a funny way you can say that even he would have agreed that the two aren’t compatible.

Yet Levitz uses a disproportionately involved schooling of Hannity to mount a defense of Ocasio-Cortez as an exemplar of founding American values. So I’m now using an even more disproportionately involved dissent from Levitz to present my thoughts on the futility, for any real public engagement with progressivism and democracy, of roping the founders into those values. Politicians of every persuasion will never stop invoking imaginary founding precedents for their views. But intellectuals could stop, and I think if they did, the public discourse would improve, and so would our politics. Levitz’s take is a classic of its kind, yet far better informed than most, and so just as Hannity’s knee jerks in response to AOC, and Levitz’s in response to Hannity, mine jerks like this:

Levitz begins his effort to root Ocasio-Cortez’s progressivism in founding American values by invoking Thomas Paine, not via argument, but by linking to a Bill Moyers interview with the Paine scholar Harvey Kaye. The idea is to position the author of “Common Sense” as representative of egalitarian views supposedly evinced by “many of our republic’s founders,” as Levitz puts it. Since Paine’s radically egalitarian views made him persona non grata with almost every one of our republic’s founders, the mainstream founding-history establishment doesn’t even consistently include Paine as a founder: it endorses his (possibly overrated) contribution to independence via the pamphlet; it sometimes ignores and sometimes explicitly tut-tuts the economic radicalism that made him unique among the famous founders, and which aroused the open disdain of Adams as early as 1776, and of Washington by the early 1790’s at the latest. Paine served as an inspiration for and a supporter of the popular American insurrectionary movements that Henry Knox, sounding almost exactly like Hannity, feared were out to confiscate all of the elites’ property and redistribute it equally by tyrannical fiat.

Elites called the Constitutional Convention to put a stop to that stuff, and it was not for nothing that the Washington administration left Thomas Paine to die under the guillotine in Paris, refusing even to claim him as an American citizen. Paine escaped that fate only by luck, and when he did at last die, alone, drunk, and poverty-stricken back in New York, the tiny group of funeral mourners included not one comrade from the glory days, Federalist or Republican. If Paine is a hero, he’s a tragic one, precisely for being in no way representative of “many our republic’s founders.” His ideas are representative of exactly what the other founders were out to crush when forming the nation. In the process, Paine was crushed too.

Leapfrogging from Paine, whose real story offers no help in constructing an ethos of economic equality shared by a multitude of founders, Levitz jumps along the path set out by many hopefuls before him, landing on Jefferson, long the go-to person for locating egalitarianism in founding American thought. Glaring problems now arise, and Levitz is keenly aware of them. Continue reading

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #16, last essay, and last thoughts on the helplessness of liberal civics in the Trump crisis

The premise and starting point for this selection of a decade of essays, on bad history’s toxic effects on American civics, is here. By bad history I’ve meant a whole cluster of wrongheaded ways of “doing” American history, presenting it, studying it, debating it, invoking it, thinking about it, and I’ve embraced in the blunt characterization “bad” a wide range of cultural phenomena, from sectors of the scholarly history profession to museum exhibitions to political speeches to broadcasting to upscale journalism and beyond.

Today’s re-post, from the Spring ’18 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, will be the final entry in this selection of essays. In this essay, I explored Adams, Hamilton, and Federalist 78 to show how liberal history and civics have made themselves helpless in the Trump crisis: “Separation of Power.” 

To review the decade: We began in ’08, with candidate Obama’s fantasies about the Constitution; we end in ’18, with liberal civics’ inability to fight Trump. In between came hiphop Hamilton, first at the Obama White House, then on Broadway. While the decade can sometimes feel to me as if it went by in a blur — that’s a famous feature of aging — this particular memory trip has made the decade seem at least a century long. I seem to have gone through some actual intellectual/critical/artistic development. That’s good — for me. What happened to the country, and especially to our public discourse about the country, wasn’t good, though. And it didn’t start to go bad on Election Day 2016.

Now I have to end this run with a kind of anticlimax, because, really, a selection of essays like this needs an introduction and a conclusion. I’ll do that something like that at some point.

For now, I’ll round things off by quoting Waylon: “Are you sure Hank done it this way?” We need a change — in how our history has engaged the American public since the middle of the last century. Maybe even an outlaw movement . . .

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #15, first thoughts on the Trump crisis and the failure of liberal history and civics

The premise for this selection of a decade of essays on the effects of bad history on bad civics is here. And we’re getting near the end.

At last we re-arrive at the annus horribilis of 2017, just after Election Day 2016, and the ongoing crisis that will soon bring this selection of essays, to its shattering climax. What I’ve had to realize, looking back this way, is that the two massive events that blew me and the rest of our culture out of the water — Alexander Hamilton on Broadway and the ’16 election — had long been lurking in the swamps I was writing about in these essays. I’d been poking at them for about a decade.

I don’t mean, of course, that I saw them coming. Whatever I was poking at lay hidden in the murk. But for me, those two cultural events, exploding out of the murk, those two massive events in American history and civics, will be forever interlinked.

Interlinked not just in approximate chronology, but as effects and indicators of what’s wrong with how we think about our country. The Obamas’ natural delight, in ’09, at watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapping the Ron Chernow book at the White House, was explicitly connected to the Hamilton cult in policy circles, which I began writing about in ’07, and which yokes the Bush and Obama administrations on approaches to public finance and economics that have contributed mightily to some of our most disastrous situations. You can watch Tim Geithner congratulate himself, ten years later, for the bailout’s recouping all government money from the banks (and watch him feel so misunderstood). You can also take a look at the effects of Hamilton-inspired public finance on Puerto Rico. The big-tent idea that everybody from Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton to the Obamas to Wall Street execs to a bunch of avowed right-wing pols could at least agree to love Hamilton on Broadway is for me the ideal encapsulation of the failure of our civics and our public history and that failure’s impact on our politics. I’m not a policy guy — I track the intellectual and the fantastical and the rhetorical currents — but maybe the equation’s more like “bad history = bad civics = bad policy.”

You can argue that Bush and Obama shared a good policy. At least then we’re arguing. Instead, liberalism can’t quit the fantasia represented by “Hamilton” the musical. The history profession, for its part, began criticizing the Hamilton phenomenon, sort of — for “inaccuracies” like ascribing abolitionism to Hamilton — only after the musical became so phenomenal. With a few notable exceptions (Jesse Lemisch, Mike Wallace, maybe a few others), the profession had never criticized the falsehoods in the highly rewarded Chernow book; the simplistic lionizing in Brookhiser exhibition at the New York Historical Society; or, most importantly perhaps, the Paulson-Orszag Hamilton-cult policy that joned the Obama and Bush administrations, even as those phenomena were dovetailing to produce a series of disasters — at the very, very least to our public discourse — that have now risen to climax.

I did engage in such criticism. But I’m not a member of the history profession. And so I criticze the profession, too. Where were all the “engage with the public” founding-history scholars when Alexander Hamilton was being trumpeted by everybody from David Brooks to Henry Paulson to Robert Rubin to the Obama economics appointees as the great inspiration for the public finance policy of the 2000’s? I now think that’s what these selected essays were really about, all along: how so many of the ways we’ve “done history” in my lifetime — I’ve embraced in this broad critique the postwar scholarly consensus and museums and broadcasting and speeches and magazine articles, etc. — are what got us to this crisis I couldn’t see coming when I was writing about it.

The liberal history-and-civics spectrum naturally disagrees with me. Many members of the profession, those most willing to engage with the public, and thus admirable to me, think the opposite: that what brought us to this awful pass is not enough history, not enough civics — not enough regard on the part of the public for their profession and its expertise. Thus a whole new kind of public history got fired up on Twitter after the election. Some think #askahistorian is a powerful mode of resistance.

I don’t think so. Sounds good now, builds careers and profiles and promotes the profession, but I repeat: where was all that expertise if and when it might have mattered? Maybe the whole basis for the expertise, and how it’s been used publicly, is wrong. Maybe, like the economics experts who got us into the financial crisis, and those who suppposedly got us out of it, deployment of historical expertise has been a major contributor to a current crisis, in this case a crisis in American civics. Maybe American history, as an endeavor, needs some radical rethinking.

Beginning to work out my dissent was the purpose of today’s re-post, from July ’17, about eighteen months ago, when I first tried to write about public understanding of history in the Trump crisis. Featured players include David Gergen (remember him?), Philip Gourevitch, Steve Bannon (remember him?), William Jennings Bryan, H.L. Mencken, and me:  “Now More Than Ever, We Need Less History.”

Next up is the final entry in this selection.

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #14, last thoughts on “Alexander Hamilton: an American Musical”

The premise for this selection of a decade of essays on the effects of bad history on bad civics is here.

This re-post, from the first days of the horrorshow that was early 2017, with Trump now President of the United States, is perhaps more rarefied than yesterday’s hobnob with Kim and Jen on Page Six.


The unpredictable Hamilton-musical phenomenon, which had seemed to rear up like a horror-movie monster from semiconscious themes in my years of essays on failures in American history and civics, gave me this unusual opportunity: at the invitation of Boston Review‘s editors, I pointed out intellectually damaging effects of the highly regarded scholar Martha Nussbaum’s acceptance of the history behind the musical.

(Prof. Nussbaum declined to take what I was saying seriously, leading to some unintended comedy in the final paragraph of her response, which evinces precisely the troping I was complaining about in her thought, even while denying that my complaints have any connection to that thought, as it was exposed in her “Hamilton” essay — plus I get placed, for once, on the same side as Gordon Wood, supposedly, which is funny too. You can find both Nussbaum’s response and her original essay via the link to my essay, above. Both of her pieces only confirmed a bias I sometimes have, which takes the form of sheer bafflement at the modes in which some of our most lauded academic types think, or write, or act, or do anything.)

Moving forward now. When I was asked to write that response, only about a week had passed since Election Day 2016, so when I posted, on this blog, a link to the essay, I added: “How can this matter right now? That’s something I imagine readers thinking … Right now it matters to me this way: You can blame Trumpism and be correct. My job is to blame the certified liberal-intellectual culture that has prevailed throughout my lifetime. We own this.”

By “certified liberal-intellectual culture” I meant Nussbaum, but I also meant me. And you, possibly. That criticism had long been my theme. Now it had exploded in my hands.

So my next and final move, in this selection of essays, is to move out of the first massive cultural-political explosion that blew up all my half-hidden themes — the Hamilton musical — and into the bigger and far more horribly discombobulating one — Grendel’s dam following Grendel — which is of course the fact that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Bad history gets you bad civics — but man, that’s some really bad civics. I had some idea, but only, as it turned out, some.

If you’d like to see more of my thoughts on the musical, there’s another essay on the blog, which you can find by poking around. The Trump situation quickly became the bigger thing, so I leave that particular “Hamilton” essay out of this particular selection.

Before leaving the musical behind altogether, however: I was also delighted to be asked to contribute the opening chapter to Historians on Hamilton, 2018, from Rutgers University Press, edited by Claire Potter and Renee Romano. There I was able to bring together, via the public-history crisis of the musical, much of what I’d long been saying, here and elsewhere, in dissent from Ron Chernow’s Hamilton bio and the cult of Hamilton in Bush and Obama policy circles; and to criticize the founding-history profession’s having declined to engage with that nexus, which became so destructive.

I’m also proud to note that every contributor to that volume but me is a trained, certified, professional scholar. The crisis of the musical was in some ways good to me, or at least to getting certain ideas I’ve been writing about for years to somewhat bigger, more interested audiences. I’m only sorry that my rantings — like Kevin McCarthy’s in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” — were too little, too late.

Next up: the failure of liberal history as a contributor to the Trump crisis.

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #13, again with “Alexander Hamilton: an American Musical”

The premise for this selection from about a decade of essays is here.

The previous selection dove, finally, into that fateful year of 2016, when I began to have to acknowledge the existence of the Hamilton musical. Today’s re-post comes from a moment later that same year, when I realized the whole gigantic nightmare might turn out for the best. For me, anyway.

Thanks to being quoted at length in Robert Sullvan’s Harper’s essay on the Hamilton show and cult, I ended up with Kim and Jen and some of that highly coveted New York Post “Page Six” coverage. (Note that the Post headline accurately gets many years of essays into four words.) Speaking of unpredictable. Who would have imagined that my years of criticizing the Hamilton cult in Bush-and-Obama policy circles would dovetail with the cultural explosion that is the Hamilton musical to give me and Bob Sullivan bold-faced-name tabloid exposure? Life is funny.

Next up: I try to argue with Martha Nussbaum about the history behind “Hamilton.”

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #12, in which at last we get to “Alexander Hamilton: An American Musical”!

The premise for this selection from about a decade of essays is here.

OK, we’ve arrived at last: the first of two massive, unpredictable cultural and political events that seemed to rear up like Grendel, followed by what my eighth-grade students used to call “Grendel’s mom,” out of the mucky subconscious of these selected essays, which I began writing in ’08, events that have seemed to push my themes into explosion. Like, “See, I was right, but wait, no, I didn’t want to be this right, that’s huge, agggh!” Fade to black.

“Hamilton: an American Musical” transferred to Broadway in ’15, and for a while I was truly speechless. As you know if you’ve even glanced back at these essays, public misconstrual of Hamilton had been my obsessive theme since even before ’08. I’d construed public misconstrual of Hamilton as the secret illness at the heart of the body politic. Like Kevin McCarthy at the end of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” I’d been trying heroically, futilely, to warn you off. The Hamilton cult led us astray. The financial crisis. The foreclosure crisis. Hank Paulson. Tim Geithner …

… and now … this? The most popular phenomenon since the invention of popular phenomena? People who’d never even heard of Hamilton now obsessed by him?

I had no words. I couldn’t even.

Nice people would come up to me and say, “Hey, how about that Hamilton musical, pretty wild, that’s kind of in your wheelhouse, right?” and I’d simply goggle at them, amazed. It wasn’t happening. For a long time, I think I actually believed I could just ignore the whole thing. Maybe it would go away.

Hence this, from ’16. My first, tentative effort to admit that the musical phenomenon exists — and to shift responsibility for the dire misconceptions it writes large, and their disastrous effects on American civics, away from its author and toward pop and scholarly history themselves. “Historian, Heal Thyself.” 

Next up, also from ’16, but very brief: another angle on the same topic.