A World-Historical First

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 …

More Bogus Comparisons: Hamilton vs. Jackson 2

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 West is 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.

Continue reading

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.  Continue reading

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.