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.

Leaning at first on the rickety Hamilton-vs.-Jefferson binary, Rattner says Hamilton created the first U.S. central bank against Jefferson’s fierce opposition. Jefferson did oppose the bank, but it was against Madison’s political opposition that Hamilton succeeded, and in that opposition lie many matters that complicate Rattner’s (and others’) simplistic historical and financial binaries (I wrote about some of them here [UPDATE: and also throughout my book Founding Finance, especially Chapter Seven]).

Rattner also lauds Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures,” which, as you won’t learn from Rattner, got no traction politically. And he mentions approvingly the project at Paterson, N.J., where Hamilton tried to create a strictly controlled model of a factory town. In real life, the project was another Hamilton failure; to Rattner it was the wellspring of what he seems to see as the unalloyed glories of American industrialization. If had been up to Jefferson, Rattner cracks, “we’d all still be farmers.”

Rattner then gets Andrew Jackson in his sites, suggesting like others commenting lately on Hamilton’s supposed superiority that we ought to get Jackson off the twenty. He says he wants to contrast the two men’s records, but instead he lists Jackson’s negative qualities — they are legion — to falsely imply, and in some cases falsely state, that Hamilton didn’t share them.

It gets weird. Jackson was a slaveowner, and he defended the institution. While there is ample evidence to suggest that Hamilton at times held slaves, Hamilton opposed the institution, so Rattner repeats a familiar fallacy: “Hamilton was an abolitionist.” Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow says that about Hamilton too; most of the biographers do, and why not? it’s a lovely thought. But it’s not true.

Readers interested in that subject will want to start with this balanced, scrupulous paper by the historian Michelle DuRross, which addresses the realities of Hamilton’s famous participation in the New York Manumission Society, etc. Hamilton the “staunch abolitionist” (Chernow) is such a longstanding biographical fantasy, with such a tangled history, that a certain kind of graduate student would have a ball unraveling it. Readers may be forgiven for believing that young Hamilton had the horrors of the slave markets of the Caribbean so painfully seared on his brain that in adulthood he was inspired to oppose slavery: most of the major and not-so-major Hamilton biographies — Lodge’s, Miller’s, Mitchell’s, Randall’s, McDonald’s, Brookhiser’s and Chernow’s — tell that story. Literally none can cite a primary source. Some cite one another: Randall cites Mitchell, Miller cites Lodge, e.g. The story is such common knowledge that I don’t think Chernow even gives it a specific citation. Its origin is unclear. But it’s made up.

Anyway, is Rattner’s point that Jackson was a slaveowner, so he should go? Most of the other guys would have to go too, on that basis, and fine with me: hasta la vista, George, Ben, and Ulysses S., your time is up. But Rattner isn’t calling for that, so I begin to suspect that Jackson’s slaveowning doesn’t really bother Rattner all that much. He’s using slavery as a way to clear a place on the twenty for his guy and hoping we don’t look too closely into Hamilton’s background in the matter.[UPDATE: Of course I don’t really know what R. is hoping] Not the most edifying use of our horrible history.

Really, how finely do we think we can cut this stuff? It’s revolting and awful, and that’s where we come from. “Jackson, slaveowner, ewww” raises more questions about the entire founding of the nation than any goofy proposal for putting faces on currency can begin to answer.

Rattner goes on to tell us that Jackson hated paper money. I guess he hopes to imply that Hamilton liked paper money and therefore has a better right to be on it. But Hamilton’s entire career, before and after becoming Secretary, was based on demolishing paper finance, the depreciating populist currencies of his day that built debt relief into money. With the entire lending-and-investing class that he represented and promoted, Hamilton liked specie, metal. Big notes like those written on the Bank of the United States were not, to Hamilton, a “national currency,” as Rattner tortures history to assert. The federal government did not print paper currencies as long as (and well after) Hamilton had anything to say about it.

Worse, to Rattner: Jackson closed the central bank. That caused the Panic of 1837, Rattner tells us, implying that nothing like that could have occurred on Hamilton’s watch. What about the panic and crash of 1792? It was caused in large part by the corrupt dealings of one of Hamilton’s closest intimates and partners, William Duer, also involved in the Paterson debacle that Rattner so loves, and also involved in the bank. Hamilton had to do a lot of fancy dancing, and to his credit (ha!) he stabilized the markets, but a fair comparison in which the ’37 Panic is a mark against Jackson would have to cope with Hamilton’s own panic of ’92.

But “contrasting their records” is not what’s going on here, as the conclusion of Rattner’s attacks on Jackson make especially clear. Jackson played an important role in “waging war,” Rattner complains, “particularly against Native Americans.”

Yes. Yes, he did.

But can Rattner seriously be trying to conjure, by unstated contrast, a peace-loving Hamilton with progressive ideas about indigenous people? Hamilton spent his whole career in love with war and trying to make more of it. He envisioned leading armies into Florida and Louisiana, and even into Virginia; he did lead a massive military occupation of western Pennsylvania, complete with door-kicking mass arrest, detentions without charge, and loyalty oaths extracted by dragoon.

Hamilton’s efforts in helping Washington make war on the Great Lakes Indians, in what the U.S. called the Northwest Territory, were critical to the success of that war. So what is Rattner talking about? If making war on and depopulating and trying to eradicate Indians means you shouldn’t be on the money, that’s yet another reason, along with his slaveowning, for Washington to go — and in this context, Lincoln has to go too. To Grant’s slaveowning add his campaign against the Plains Indians (“even to their total extermination,” Sherman reported to Grant, “men, women and children”); as well as General Order #11, by which Grant tried to remove Jews from parts of three states.

Who’s left? Nobody? Good. At least with nobody on our money, we’ll avoid the historical vacuity of essays like Rattner’s.

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. . . :

Read More

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.


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.

Resisting the Felicitous and the Deft: Sentences, Punctuation, and Meaning

There’s an entertaining and intelligent article in a recent New Yorker about the uses and abuses of punctuation, among other things. The piece, written by a veteran copyeditor at the magazine, will be as dull as dishwater to many, and fascinating to those like me, who work on how to make sentences say what we mean.

Really say what we really mean. Not seem to say what we more or less mean.

As the New Yorker piece suggests, that task poses endless difficulties. But the piece also exposes what I see as important failures in the tactics we use to make sentences say what writers mean.

* * * *

The author, Mary Norris, defends what she calls “close” editing for punctuation and other aspects of sentence construction. Here’s one of her examples:

“Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.”

Norris and The New Yorker favor placing those commas after “died” and “cancer” over this cleaner and more common approach: “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret.”

The example comes up because the writer Ben Yagoda called The New Yorker‘s reasons for putting commas after “died” and “cancer” nutty, and at first glance Yagoda seems sound. He ascribes the magazine’s insistence on the extra commas to a hysterical concern that otherwise “the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.”

But that’s not quite the rationale. It would be nutty indeed to fear that without those commas, a reader couldn’t gather that Atwater didn’t also die before or after 1991, and didn’t die of causes other than brain cancer.

We read sentences like it all the time, but the sad fact is that, regardless of how you punctuate it, “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret” is a foolish thing to write, and not noticing the foolishness causes problems that run deeper than incorrectness in grammar and usage.

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