Historian, Heal Thyself

I haven’t had enough time to post here in a long while, and I still don’t, but the pushback that the musical “Hamilton” is getting — finally! — from some historians and critics inspires thoughts that won’t fit into 140 characters. I’ve been obsessively tracking and tweeting dissent from aspects of the show, beginning with Ishmael Reed’s compelling article from August, and more recently a illuminating piece by Lyra D. Monteiro, a history professor at Rutgers, advanced further in her interview; as well as in a Slate piece covering the matter.

Last week, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf weighed in. And I was happy today to see the whole thing covered, on the front page no less, in the New York Times.

I should say that having spent nearly fifteen years trying, like a flea hurling itself repeatedly against a battleship, to dent the grand progress of the Hamilton industry, I’ve found the show’s reception literally impossible to respond to. I know I wasn’t getting anywhere anyway, but come on: this?! Mostly I’ve just been shaking my head in rueful wonderment.

And I’ve mulled over the soundtrack album. Unlike many founding-era history people who have responded to the show’s music, mood, and popularity with a degree of joy I can only call giddy, I just felt tired on hearing that first reference to throwing away the shot, knowing where it would have to lead. That’s just me, I know: my exhaustion has more to do with my long relationship to Hamilton, and to those who would promote his legacy by misconstruing everything he did, than with the show itself. I do get why the music is exciting — well, the hiphop is, with seriously clever rhyming and at times hilarious attitude; not so much for me the more conventional musical-theater songs — and why the whole thing is theatrically fresh, energetic, unexpected.

In the end, though, I can only view the show and its wildly positive reception as springboarding us from founder chic, which made it hard enough to confront our origins, to founder twee. I’ve been living too long in a founding world fraught with radically other impulses than those presented with such imaginative boldness by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” For all of the racial reversals (Monteiro is especially good on that), and in fact largely because of them, the show is breathing thrilling new life into falsehoods long embraced by our financial and political establishments regarding our national origins. It’s no shock to me that those establishments have taken up the show with such boundless enthusiasm.

More fascinating — disconcerting, really — is how hard some academic historians have fallen. These are the people who really know and teach the period, and they’ve surprised me by their unabashed love of the show. (A smart discussion, mainly but not entirely among historians who like the show, appeared back in August at the estimable Junto blog — happy to see those guys getting their due in today’s Times.)  For one thing, yes, these historians must know that Hamilton wasn’t really an abolitionist, but also the entire Hamilton-vs-Jefferson binary is not only so banal and unnuanced but also in many ways just so wrongheaded that while it’s fine (with me) for a theatrical event seeking broad popularity to lean on that oversimplification, it’s annoying (to me) to see professional historians so happy to have it dramatized.

Now, per today’s Times piece, come the critical historians. Hallelujah. And yet I’m finding some of their commentary unsettling too. While rightly pointing to the show’s historical inaccuracy and misleading sentimentality regarding the nation’s origins, they largely ignore the big historical tradition on which the show’s attitudes are based. It’s not Lin-Manuel Miranda who first made Hamilton an abolitionist, for example: Hamilton’s biographers have been promoting that myth for generations; Ron Chernow is only the most recent.

[UPDATE: And while I disagree with the comment below saying the show doesn’t call Hamilton an abolitionist, I think the commenter makes a good point: the show itself doesn’t make such a huge deal out of the so-called abolitionism. It’s more often been those reflecting on the show who call Hamilton an abolitionist. This is typical but by no means unique: “Miranda makes much of Hamilton’s abolitionism, coming as he [sic] did from the West Indies, where the brutality of slavery was a constant, daily tableau.” (http://thefederalist.com/2016/01/27/the-real-hero-of-hamilton-is-aaron-burr/)  I’m pretty sure the idea that Hamilton became anti-slavery because the institution’s horrors were seared on his brain in the Caribbean has no actual source; biographers have been swapping it around forever, citing one another.]

Miranda would have had to dig deeply and counterintuitively to question the abolitionism , and that process would assign him a job other than the one he has. It’s entirely fair for non-historians to expect to be able to rely on lavishly praised history books intended for general readers. And yet the expectation turns out to be misguided.

I can relate. That’s where I started. I’m not a professional historian either. My job, as I came to assign it to myself, turned out to be different from Miranda’s, but when I started digging into Hamilton, I was amazed to find no secondary source refuting the abolitionism (since then, I have) and no primary evidence supporting it. What I learned, over many mind-bending sessions in the library: you can construct Hamilton as an “uncompromising abolitionist” (Chernow) only by skipping around in the Hamilton-Laurens exchanges on recruiting black soldiers, overstating the importance of Hamilton’s membership in the Manumission Society, ignoring references in the correspondence to his (evidently relatively few) slave purchases, defining the three-fifths clause as something an abolitionist wouldn’t view as a compromise, and redefining the word “abolition.” (More on that here and here.)

And it wasn’t Miranda who came up with Hamilton as a model for and enabler of exceptionally American opportunities for upward social mobility. That’s from Chernow, Richard Brookhiser, David Brooks, the New York Historical Society Hamilton exhibit, the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, and elsewhere. It’s got nothing to do with what Hamilton was trying to accomplish for the United States (time-space considerations force me to link anyone interested in that subject to this [long!] essay of mine from 2008).

Maybe it’s partly that historians don’t look on popular biography as history, so they haven’t bothered to criticize the Chernow and Brookhiser presentations of Hamilton. That reflects a bigger and to me more serious issue in founding-era historiography: well-known historians just haven’t been especially interested in Hamiltonian finance (exceptions are E.J. Ferguson [UPDATE: and Terry Bouton] and Elkins-McKitrick). Intellectuals prefer other intellectuals, and Jefferson and Madison cast themselves as intellectuals, despite being not one whit smarter than Hamilton (for the historiography nerd, and I use the singular advisedly, more on that here.)  I think of Hamilton as, with Washington, the most important of the founders because of what he did, not what he thought, in a field many historians say they think is important but don’t really like parsing, economics and finance. It’s not clear to me that a lot of serious historians have a good grasp on Hamilton’s real relationship to the war debt, for example.

So it’s not just Miranda, and it’s not just Chernow and the other Hamilton biographers, who have contributed to misleading us as to what actually happened during the founding. A paucity of critical history regarding Hamiltonian finance and the connections between that project and the man’s political career has left journalists who want to write about the facts behind the show with few places to turn but Chernow, Brookhiser, et al. Matt Yglesias, undertaking to fill us in on the background of one of the show’s songs, “Cabinet Battle, #1” rehashes a description familiar from Brookhiser regarding the Madison-Hamilton debate over funding and assumption. It’s a view that the few who really look into these things have taken seriously since Ferguson, in The Power of the Purse (1961), showed that it made no sense. If historians had weighed in critically when Chernow and Brookhiser first published, public understanding might be different now.

That the show is so overwhelmingly exciting and popular has historians waking up. But the historiography of bad Hamilton studies — a long tradition of miseducation, in the interest of establishment ends — still doesn’t seem to draw their interest.

Maybe it will. The Gilder-Lehrman Institute — mightiest underpinning of the Hamilton industry for many years now — sees no bright line between the serious scholarship it funds so lavishly across a range of American history subjects and ventures like “Hamilton.” The Institute has, according to the Times today, “created a curriculum for 20,000 low-income New York City public school students who will be able to see the musical, in a program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and subsidized by the show.” It’s worth historians’ asking what ends that educational mission is intended to serve. I think it’s clear I hold no brief for the show, but I wish historians analyzing its failings would also look at their profession’s failings when it comes to public understanding of the realpolitik of the founding period.

Hamilton and the Tenner

It does seem to me historically tone deaf for the Treasury Dept. to consider taking Alexander Hamilton, of all people, off U.S. currency, of all things, or even reducing his presence there. I can’t say I care who is on the money — easier to have nothing there but graphic design, I think — but if any face should be engraved on money, it’s Hamilton’s. Money is what he was all about.

That obvious fact has recently inspired a burst of Hamilton adulation, summed up in Steven Rattner’s New York Times Op Ed today. Rattner takes the controversy as an occasion for making a boatload of wrongheaded comparisons among the U.S. founders, arriving at the foregone conclusion that Hamilton was morally and politically superior to others. That requires glib assertions that misrepresent Hamilton and end up making no historical sense at all. Continue reading

James Baldwin and William Buckley, Fifty Years On

Here’s some video from a  symposium I was honored to take part in, at Linfield College, on the famous Cambridge Union debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley. In this opening panel, Patrick Allit and I take sharply differing angles on the evident decline of racism in mainstream American conservatism.

Unfortunately (from a video point of view), I  made the for-me unusual move of reading my remarks instead of speaking from notes, so most of what you’ll see is the top of my bald head. That’s what I had to do for the piece I wanted to bring, but Patrick does it right — extempore. C-SPAN was there, so maybe some of this will be aired there too.

Great talks from other symposium participants: Eddie Glaude’s moving, challenging keynote; two brilliant papers mainly on Baldwin from Lawrie Balfour and Susan McWilliams; and Joe Lowndes and Will Barndt taking on Buckley.

Thanks to Nick Buccola and all the students and faculty at Linfield who made this event come off so well.

James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. . . .

. . . had their famous debate at the Cambridge Union (somewhere in print, I once called the Oxford Union) fifty years ago this month. Later this week, I’ll be giving a talk on Buckley’s legacy regarding race rhetoric in American conservative politics, at this symposium at Linfield College:

Linfield hosts symposium on the Baldwin-Buckley debate.

The Frederick Douglass Forum on Law, Rights, and Justice at Linfield College will host a scholarly symposium on “James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream.”

The symposium, scheduled May 7-8 at Linfield, will commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the classic 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. at the Cambridge Union on the motion: “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Eddie Glaude, professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University will give the keynote speech “James Baldwin and #BlackLivesMatter” Friday, May 8, at 12:30 p.m., in Nicholson Library.

The symposium schedule is. . . :

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Re: “Poetics” in the Goofball Name of This Blog. . .

(Mighty) Shelley said, in A Defence of Poetry:

…The life of Camillus, the death of Regulus; the expectation of the senators, in their godlike state, of the victorious Gauls; the refusal of the republic to make peace with Hannibal, after the battle of Cannae, were not the consequences of a refined calculation of the probable personal advantage to result from such a rhythm and order in the shows of life, to those who were at once the poets and the actors of these immortal dramas. The imagination beholding the beauty of this order, created it out of itself according to its own idea; the consequence was empire, and the reward everlasting fame. These things are not the less poetry, quia carent vate sacro [because they lack a sacred bard]. They are the episodes of that cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of men.

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Ted Cruz and Patrick Henry

The usual rightist history mess has just come from Ted Cruz, invoking the antifederalist Patrick Henry in making a claim on the U.S. Constitution. [If you’ve seen my Twitter rant on this, you’ve basically seen this.] I prefer to believe Cruz is more disingenuous than ignorant: as I suspect of Grover Norquist too, Cruz may know full well that he’s fighting a rear-guard battle on behalf not of the Constitution but of antifederalism.

Patrick Henry is one of Cruz’s avatars of liberty, no doubt because of the “or death” speech. And yet Patrick Henry fought tooth and nail to demolish the Constitution that Cruz says we need to “reclaim.” Henry was open about his disdain for the Constitution. He refused to show up at the Constitutional convention and tried his best to prevent ratification.

That’s because Henry understood how the Constitution works. Provisions like the “necessary and proper” and “interstate commerce” clauses, he complained, give the federal government virtually unlimited power over the states.

Where “constitutional conservatives” like Cruz claim that those clauses have been unconstitutionally stretched, Henry knew better. Overwhelming federal power is constitutional, Henry said. That’s what the Constitution does. That’s why he hated it. And the amendment process, which some today like to think got rid of federal overreaching and re-empowered the states, while some today think of the amendment process as getting rid of federal overreaching and re-empowering the states, Henry thought that process was a joke.

So imagine Henry’s fury when Madison and Jefferson, having tried in the late 1780’s to soothe all fears of excessive federal dominance, decided they didn’t like what Washington, Hamilton, Adams, et al, had been doing, and started claiming in the 1790’s that the states could constitutionally nullify federal law. No, Henry reminded them: states can’t do that. That’s the whole problem, fools. That’s why I told you not to promote and ratify this thing. You can’t get out of it now. Suck it up.

With more or less his dying breath, the old antifederalist Patrick Henry (at Washington’s behest) rose from his bed to condemn Madison’s novel states-rights theory. His final speech is far better documented than the “or death” speech of the 1770’s. You blew it, Henry told Madison and others. Now that the Constitution he’d warned them against was ratified, it was law.

Or: Unlike “constitutional conservatives” today, Henry a) knew what the Constitution said, b) hated it openly, c) supported it as law. Henry is one of my favorite founders, not because I agree with him about the lost sanctity of Virginia sovereignty, etc. — he was another slave-driving, high-Whig squire, with no use for democracy — but because as such, he was almost alone among the famous founders in being intellectually honest. He stood on his principle even to the point of honoring a Constitution he hated. With the exception of John Dickinson — also on “the wrong side of history” — Henry is literally, I think, the only founder who shows that kind of consistency.

I don’t think that’s what Cruz is saying about him, though.

Grammar: Gaffes vs. Crimes

Further — but more briefly! — re that commas-and-false-modification post. Reading the great essayist Zadie Smith in “The New Yorker,” on the brilliant comedy duo Key and Peele, I find this: “Key’s father married his stepmother.”

Unlike what I was talking about in my blog post — “proper” grammar perverted to inauthentic purposes — that’s an innocent gaffe. The pronoun “his” can’t have “Key” as its antecedent, as here “Key” is part of the possessive “Key’s,” not a noun but an adjective, which can’t serve as the antecedent to a pronoun; meanwhile, a perfectly good-looking noun is kicking around, near the pronoun, eager to offer itself as the antecedent, but that’s not the intended meaning. I don’t think Smith is saying, in this case, that some guy married his stepmother.

This error doesn’t reflect a crime against honesty; it’s just a slip. I raise it because in writing that post, I’ve realized that grammar rules aren’t my subject. (If this kind of error were all over any magazine, the magazine would become unreadable, but that’s not the case.) We all make slips. Funny, given my Freudian bent, but in this case I don’t think the slip is all that revealing (despite the Oedipal drama it seems to point to!). A bogus intention elaborately hidden within structurally flawless grammar — that’s where I think the more interesting conflicts are revealed.