…I’m a boldface name!(Oh, yes — the actual essay is here.)
After ripping into a Huffington Post article on Hamilton the other day, I get a call from the people involved saying, basically, “you’re right, we were wrong.” Since nobody’s ever changed their mind before, I consider this a benchmark historical moment. Then, even more graciously, they had me on a podcast to talk about it, starting at 22′. Just to be clear: despite the headline, I don’t think Hamilton is overrated. Also, I seem to be swallowing my words in uncharacteristic fashion, but y’all know my rant anyway …
If you’re getting sick of this subject, imagine how I feel. I’m only one man, with pressing matters to attend to. However, a while back three profo explainers at the Huffington Post came up with a series of wrongheaded remarks on the excellence of Hamilton when compared with Jackson, and it’s been galling me, so here I go again, as the great communicator used to say.
N.B. I don’t like Jackson. Hell, I don’t like any of these people, and they sure as hell wouldn’t like me. They wouldn’t like you either. This isn’t a fansite, though that’s what I’m beginning to fear a lot of history really is.
But I can’t let the following nonsensical remarks, made with blithe confidence by Ryan Grim, Laura Barron-Lopez, and Zach Carter, in the piece linked above, go uncorrected:
- “Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, was a strong opponent of slavery, and was an early member of the New York Manumission Society, an abolitionist group. . . “ Too far a stretch, confusing manumission with abolition. You’d almost think Grim, Barron-Lopez, and Carter weren’t aware of my earlier blog posts on this matter, here and here. Keep up, people.
- “Andrew Jackson, meanwhile, a War of 1812 hero, was a slave owner.” I think by “meanwhile,” the authors mean something other than “occurring at the same time as something already mentioned”; they must mean “for his part” or “by contrast,” and the intent, if not the mot, is clear: disparage Jackson by contrast to Hamilton over slaveowning. They never say Hamilton wasn’t a slaveowner, but they imply it, and the record doesn’t support the implication. Which, again, I thought I’d already clarified (see links above): it really is tedious to have to keep repeating these things. Anyway, “slaveowner” applies to all kinds of people (including many members of the Manumission Society) whom the authors refrain from attacking, so what’s their point? Oh. Wait. Here it comes . . .
- “Even more perniciously, Jackson carried out an ‘Indian removal’ policy as president.” Indian removal, the authors assert here, is more pernicious than slaveholding. (That’s why we have explainers; otherwise we might not know which is worse.) Really, I doubt they meant to make that assertion, because how on earth would they know which is worse, but this writing thing is hard. Such a flailing-in-the-dark opening phrase must reflect the authors’ dimly gathering sense — you can feel it start to nag at them as they write, just not hard enough, unfortunately, to get them to stop writing — that if “slaveowner” were to disqualify a founder from appearing on currency, there wouldn’t be many founders there. So they come up with what they inform us is the distinguishingly awful characteristic of Jackson: Indian removal. And now things get really silly.
- “. . . decades of policy in the United States and the preceding British colonies had sought coexistence and reconciliation with various native peoples. Jackson’s policies reversed these efforts. . .” This is straight-up nonsense. (Well, one thing here is true: the colonies came before the United States. Hence, I guess, “the preceding”?) Many colonial lieutenant governors’ and colonial legislatures’ policies, and those of (“the following”?) United States, from its inception, were dedicated to seizing Indian land and pushing Indians out. In the later colonial period, the royal government at Whitehall did try to prevent white expansion westward and to reserve land for Indians: after Jeffrey Amherst was recalled and Thomas Gage took over, Ministry policy became more beneficial to indigenous people than anything the Americans (and some of their royal governors) were cooking up, and a lot of indigenous nations knew it; that’s why they allied with England in what, for Indians, was only the latest and worst episode in a forty-year war to defend their homes from American incursion for the purpose of real-estate speculation. Ministry efforts to make what is now the Midwest a permanent Indian country served as a cause of war for American independence; American desire to conquer that region was a cause of forming our nation; in 1794 the first war the nation ever fought brought about the conquest. The U.S. did tell the Indians that all of this was in service of coexistence, but that doesn’t mean HuffPo writers in 2016 should believe it; most of the Indians involved sure didn’t. The authors might not think pushing Indians into smaller and less familiar places qualifies as “removal.” It does, but anyway, the idea of someday moving all Indians west of the Mississippi originated with and played into the American Revolution and into the very basis of nationhood. Hamilton, vaguely connected by the authors to this fanciful “coexistence and reconciliation” policy, was really at one with Washington, Jefferson, and all the others in pursuing various forms of military incursion on Indian land, with various schemes, including removal, for coping with continued Indian presence. “There
is an American Westis a Western Country. It will be settled,” said Hamilton (emphasis his), and nobody fought harder than he to originate the army that accomplished that goal: the United States Army, that is, which came into existence precisely for the purpose of carrying out the conquest. Jackson didn’t “reverse” anything, and what followed involved the likes of Lincoln and Grant, but again the authors seem to be getting nervous about where their assertions might end up leading them, so . . .
- “Jefferson was a slave-trading landed elite whose esteem for farmers is often confused under contemporary politics with a ‘small is beautiful’ rural utopianism.” It is? Well, maybe “under contemporary politics,” whatever that means, but smacking Jefferson around like this is only what Hamiltionians have been doing for years; Jeffersonians do the same to Hamilton; it’s all crap, and I really thought I’d made that clear, here, for example, and here. Oh well.
It goes on, but I’ll stop, because of course there’s no reason these authors wouldn’t have all this nonsense in their collective mind. It comes from Hamilton’s biographers, mainly from Ron Chernow. The giveaway is here:
Indeed, after Shays’ Rebellion, which threatened to undo the nation [sic] before it really got going, Hamilton argued in a Federalist Paper that it was the oppressive debt under which he [no antecedent, but they mean Daniel Shays] lived that drove him to rise up — surely a controversial, if not treasonous, position among the moneyed elite that made up the rest of the founding fathers. “If Shays had not been a desperate debtor it is much to be doubted whether Massachusetts would have been plunged into a civil war,” he wrote.
That’s a flat-out misreading of Federalist 6, and there’s no way Ryan Grim, Laura Barron-Lopez, and Zach Carter happened upon the paper and made the same mistake as Chernow: the reading originates with Chernow, and if the authors of the HuffPo piece, or for that matter Chernow, were to read the quotation in context they’d see their mistake (I have to think). The paper is on the evils of demagogues, with Shays, in Hamilton’s opinion, serving as a minor example of the type. Hamilton’s not excusing or sympathizing with Shays for being a debtor; he’s knocking him. Hamilton isn’t condemning the debt as “oppressive”; he’s using “desperate” in its sense of “criminally reckless,” as in “desperado.” It’s true that Hamilton was critical of the spasmodic and ill-considered debt-retirement schemes of Massachusetts, but you’d have to know almost nothing about him to think he would have advanced a position that “the moneyed elite that made up the rest of the founding fathers” would find “controversial, if not treasonous.” But these authors, evidently not following me as closely as I would recommend, have only Chernow to rely on, so what can one do? I wish historians of the past 200 years or so had cared more about Hamilton. They haven’t, and the loss to public understanding of perhaps the most important founder after Washington has been grievous.
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.
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: “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.
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
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.
. . . 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. . . :