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: “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

Will This Never Cease?

It won’t cease, no matter what I say. Still:

The well-regarded historian Thomas McCraw, author of the recently published The Founders and Finance, who died untimely only a few days ago, has a characteristically well-written, and persuasively liberal posthumous op-ed in today’s Times on Alexander Hamilton’s finance policies, which makes all the usual Hamiltonian — I don’t know what to call them, because they can’t be mistakes — presumptions? misconceptions? — that my book Founding Finance is in part out to challenge? correct? demolish?

In the wake of the election, the neoliberal desire to invoke Hamilton (yet again — Paulson, Geithner, Orszag et al were self-professed Hamiltonians) as a guide to current policy certainly raises some big questions. But as a writer on the period, I’m most bewildered by the reflexive Hamiltonian tendency to misconstrue what Hamilton actually did.

In this and many other cases, the miscontrual doesn’t even serve a useful purpose: McCraw’s most persuasive point — that obsessing about “fiscal cliffs” and lowering taxes and cutting benefits, etc., is not a realistic  way to deal with national finance problems — would be at least as strong with full acknowledgment of the real Hamilton plan. Continue reading

Founding Fathers, Founding Villains: The New Liberal Originalism

(Cross-posted from “Boston Review.”)

Liberals have become originalists too. Recent books by progressive thinkers as varied as the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, journalist Roger Hodge, and political commentator Rachel Maddow decry a national failure to live up to the founders’ purposes in creating the Constitution. Maddow means by her title, Drift, an unfortunate movement away from founding-era anti-militarism into the modern military-industrial complex. In Lessig’s Republic, Lost, the loss has come about thanks to a money influence in politics that Lessig says the founders condemned as corrupt. Hodge, in The Mendacity of Hope, frames a criticism of President Obama in terms of the founding political battle over finance between Hamilton and Madison.

All of the liberal originalists’ books run into political and historical trouble over some unedifying realities of our founding period. . . .

Read more.

Historiography: Douglass Adair and the Triumph of Founding Ideas over Founding Action

I swore I’d never abuse a blog this way, but the following is straight b-roll. I’m cutting this out of a book I’m just now finishing. [UPDATE: It’s finished.] George Wolfe, playwright and sometime artistic director of New York City’s Public Theater, was reputed to respond to actors’ suggestions for things they might want to add to a scene by making a scissor-snipping hand-motion in the air and saying “Save it for your nightclub act.” This snippet is is part of a much longer critique of the influential academic history of our time . . . [UPDATE: I may not be talking, really, about intellectual history per se. More about an overreliance on intellectual history by historians who for various reasons prefer discussing ideas to discussing political and economic action.]

* * * *

So here’s the thing:

I’m not saying intellectual historians harbor some evil desire to distort. Intellectual historians just want history to be intellectual.

In my lifetime, they’ve made it so — or at least made American founding history so. For anyone wondering how we traveled, in about sixty years, from the Beardians’ dominating founding history by promoting their somewhat oddball take on class conflict to Gordon Wood’s and others’ dominating it by promoting “republican synthesis,” I believe we can thank the mighty influence of Douglass Adair. How Adair looked at the founders is how we mostly look at them now, so I think it’s worth a glimpse at how he pulled that off.

Like Robert Brown and Forrest McDonald, in the 1950’s Douglass Adair took direct aim at Beard. Yet he didn’t employ tendentious economic studies like theirs. Adair made a highly nuanced appeal to the importance of the founders’ reading and thinking, especially about the meaning of virtue.

It’s surprising, given Beard’s obscurity today, to see how powerful Beard’s influence was when Adair began work. In his Ph.D dissertation Adair could only go so far. He basically said, “Yes, of course, it was all about financial self-interest, but I’m just saying the classics might have had something to do with it too.” And he acknowledged what then was supposed to be common knowledge among historians, that the framers acted to restrain democracy because “their pockets were being picked by the backcountry debtors.” The prejudice embedded in that remark, in favor of the creditors, would offend hardly anyone today, since the subject of founding debt and credit has become opaque for many readers. That’s a reflection of Adair’s success. He shifted the larger discussion entirely away from economic matters that he’d been forced to acknowledge, at least, when he started.

Adair curated the postwar development of founding history largely through his role as the editor of “The William & Mary Quarterly” in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Much of the writing he encouraged there carried forward his project: thinking ever more deeply and arguing ever more closely about liberal, republican, and classical theories of virtue in government — the appropriate way, to Adairites, to read America at its founding. Through that process, economic conflict among classes in founding America came to have relevance only in so far as it inspired Madison to write about faction, say, or John Adams to write about balance.

One of the revealing effects of Adair’s approach to the project of debunking Beard, important for the stories I tell, has to do with how we look at Alexander Hamilton. The pro-business, right-wing Beard debunker Forrest McDonald made Hamilton a hero. That was counterintuitive, given McDonald’s Goldwater connections and Hamilton’s ceaseless activism on behalf of government power. Then again, the New Dealers, whom McDonald opposed, had copped Jefferson for their own founding mascot (even more counterintuitively). McDonald’s admiration for Hamilton may also remind us that the right’s famous affection for liberty often has to do with ensuring that deleterious effects of private enterprise on less advantaged people might never serve as a reason to regulate private enterprise.

In contrast to McDonald’s right-wing style of Beard debunking, Adair’s middle-of-the-road liberalism makes Hamilton a social conservative, living in hysterical fear of a class war that Adair was out to define as chimerical. Adair thus doesn’t have to deny Beard’s contention that Hamilton’s efforts in public finance involved an attack on the less advantaged; [UPDATE: On reflection — and on reading an essay by Pope McCorkle in American Journal of Legal History that I can’t link to — that’s not really a Beard position. In the end, it’s hard for me to say what Beard’s position was, on a number of things, but what I really mean here is something like “Adair thus doesn’t have to deny Beard-influenced contentions that founding finance policies associated with Hamilton and the Federalists involved an attack on the less advantaged”]; he just sees the Hamiltonian extremity of anti-populism as baseless, silly, off the point of founding history (as he’s tautologically defined it). Since balancing fights among Americans is what interests Adair and his liberal-intellectual progeny, and not the fights themselves, both Hamilton and his enemies in the eighteenth-century popular-finance movement exist by definition outside the mainstream of the American founding. The founding populist efforts I discuss, the desire to radically change American society, to make government economically egalitarian, nothing to do with the ideas of Jefferson and Madison — that’s a molehill of which Hamilton foolishly made a mountain, in Adair’s reading.

The problem with the Adair narrative — and I think this is emblematic of the preference for looking at ideas, not action — is that it fails to explain much of Hamilton, and much of what actually went on in the founding. For one thing, Hamilton’s manifest economic liberalism: that daring pursuit of financial innovation, which, combined with his hierarchical conservatism, made activist government such a powerfully stabilizing, nation-creating force in the 1790’s. In shifting history away from the class war in which both Hamilton and the popular-finance movement knew themselves to be engaged, the Adair narrative cleanses early American tendencies toward stability and liberalism of the economic regressiveness that (I believe) attended them. Great historians have thus continued to be happy to believe in Adair’s Hamilton the extremist social conservative and upper-class hysteric, important to mention but intellectually marginal to the American project, and because intellectually marginal, ultimately marginal. Biographers and politicians alike perennially insist on Hamilton’s importance. Major academic historians have mainly stuck to giving him his bare due without getting interested in him.

That’s because Hamilton was an actor, not a thinker, in that his thinking — at least as adept, in my view, as anybody else’s of his day — served action, and action occurs in conflict. None of that serves the prime Adair directive of seeing in founding America a synthesis, a resolution of conflict, carried out in the famous elites’ ideas about virtue. The populists of the day, to the extent that they were economic radicals, will always look to Adairites extremist and hysterically misguided, just as their opponent Hamilton does; or, to the extent that populists can be described as not politically radical, just eager for personal advancement, they can be seen as having been unfairly labeled radical by the reactionary Hamilton. Either way, their needs would soon be addressed — supposedly! — by the intellectually attractive Jefferson, and then met — supposedly! — in the age of Jackson, and the franchise was opened in the states throughout the nineteenth century, so why on earth discuss radical thought and action as important to the founding?

Here’s why I do: Hamilton and the radical populists saw one another clearly, and what they saw represents the great political struggle of the period, the struggle that made us, I think, and the struggle we’re still in. To Adairites, that’s all off point. In the Adair reading, Madison is the founder to watch — not Hamilton, not Washington, not really John Adams, certainly not Samuel Adams. Adair’s Madison reacts to the Madison that Beard had pushed on us in 1913 — a Madison not much more than a somewhat pretentious aristo looking out at all costs for his own wallet, his republican theory, supposedly by his own admission, just a tactic for pushing back against the masses. Adair’s 1950’s Madison, by contrast, stays bent over his books. A reader and writer more than anything else, Madison rarely even looks out the library window, so immersed is he in the world of ideas. Madison has thus become the ultimately appealing founder for many readers of founding history. How could he not be? Anyone who loves reading for the sake of knowledge, nuance, exploration — any reader of serious history — will naturally prefer to hang out with the bookish Adair philosopher Madison rather than the hypocritical Beard plutocrat Madison. The Virginian sought to defeat the most pernicious effects of faction, ingeniously, by permitting faction to thrive in a balanced system. Who among us wouldn’t want to sit in a hushed and cozy library with Madison, Adair, and the classical authors? It beats considering grubby matters like paper versus metal, economic interest, and class war. And how especially satisfying is it that those great classical thinkers’ thinking was made law, for the first time, thanks to Madison himself, in the founding of our own government? Madison looks like somebody we’d be pleased to exchange a few ideas with. He looks like a smarter version of somebody, we dare to believe, like us.

The flattering, sentimental attraction of that version of Madison is so great that we no longer remember the Madison who was a politician operating within alliances and under pressures, not always to perfectly consistent ends, and with highly ambiguous effects on our founding history. The Madison we like remains so pure of heart and thought that to conservatives he’s the first conservative, to liberals the first liberal. We don’t really need to care what he meant when he mentioned the disaster of paper money and devaluing of debt in “Federalist Ten,” an essay we cite approvingly on other matters more edifying and therefore nearer to our hearts. We forget that regardless of the degree to which Madison was interested in the subject of his own interest, he had a point of view on society that he may have mistaken, as the rest of us do, for the objective one, in which his conclusions were shaped to fit his social and economic position.

And we forget that Adair came up with all that stuff about Madison in full-on attack on what was then the dominant position in American founding history. Adair was attacking Beard. McDonald, openly scabrous in his disdain, admitted by his tone that the war he was fighting was a political one, but Adair took a cannier tack, and so utter has been his victory over Beard that we no longer know that Adair was engaged in warfare at all, or that the war had political and not only intellectual dimensions. The self-regarding attitude of judicious omniscience employed by Adair, Morgan, Hofstadter, Wood, et al, dims our awareness — by sheer force of the attitude more than by anything else — not only of the importance of financial and economic struggles in the American founding but also of the academic combat in which those historians made their careers. We’re no longer expected to register the degree to which, in the past they’re supposedly merely exposing to us “as it was” (as Wood has actually said about his own work), it is the historians, and not the historical figures they study, who have the most decisive interests.

Militarized Police, circa 1794: an AlterNet Post

Here’s an AlterNet piece exploring some of the historical ramifications of the militaristic stance of some police departments during the “Occupy” crackdowns:

Police, not military. The distinction may seem academic, even absurd, when police are bringing rifles, helmets, armor, and helicopters to evict unarmed protesters. But it’s an old and critical distinction in American law and ideology and in republican thought as a whole. The 17th-century English liberty writers, on whose ideas much of America’s founding ethos was based, believed that turning the armed might of the state, (necessary in waging war against foreign enemies), to domestic policing of local communities tends to concentrate power in top-down executive action and vitiate treasured things like judiciary process, individual liberty, representative government, and free speech. . . .

Read more.

Comments have been dispiriting (unlike comments on my previous AlterNet post, where a real dialogue took form). This batch involves a lot of  “Yeah, duh. This is a fascist state. Off the pig!” Nobody much seems interested in the Edmund Randolph-Alexander Hamilton debate during the Whiskey Rebellion, the fact that these struggles have been going on from day one, and we’ve never come down on one side or the other. Ah, well.

Liberal Hamiltonians (One Sect of) in “Vanity Fair” Get Whiskey Rebellion, Tea Party, Hamilton Himself Way Wrong

Or: How Liberalist Consensus Fails Both History and Politics

This is just classic:

With their steadfast resistance to taxes, their hostility toward central government, and their willingness to risk a national default, today’s Republican candidates tap into a different American tradition–one that begins not with tea but with whiskey: the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

To understand that rebellion and why President George Washington was willing to send troops to put it down, go back to the early days of the Revolution and look at what really motivated the founders.

So runs the apparent thesis statement — the straw man, really, since “that rebellion,” supposedly so important to understand, almost never comes up again in the piece — of an essay by Simon Johnson and James Kwak, intended to criticize Tea Party history and economics, in the current issue of Vanity Fair. In the top-five “most popular” online VF pieces, the essay is a perfect example of its (to me) dispiriting type: seemingly learned, reasonable-sounding, liberal; presented for a general readership by noted thinkers; glib, complacent, superficial, and therefore fatally flawed to the point of being just flat-out wrong in its effort to examine both the American populism of the 18th century and today’s populism, as represented by the Tea Party and other current right-wing sensibilities. (Or, for that matter, left-wing sensibilities.)

As such, the piece distills (ha! ha!) all the many ways in which highly informed, well-regarded, no-doubt well-meaning authors can so easily, almost reflexively, abuse history, especially when it comes to finance and economics.

Especially distressing about the piece is how many details the authors can get right, obvious and unexciting details to any student of the period, while somehow managing to ignore the all-important historical context that would give the piece any useful meaning for general readers. So they get all the big stuff, and indeed a certain number of critical facts, wrong, and wrong in a damaging way. Even as they tell their story, purportedly imparting historical wisdom to help us understand current debates, Johnson and Kwak prevent us from engaging with the realities of that history, or with today’s political conflicts over public debt and taxes, their ostensible subjects.

The main idea of the piece, right enough as far as it goes and as far as I’m concerned (and hardly meant to provoke Vanity Fair‘s readership to any new thought): the Tea Party is wrong about the founding-era history on which its claims are based. The Tea Party and the “constitutional conservatives” think the founding was about disempowering government, keeping taxes miniscule, and having no national debt. It wasn’t.

Because yes, yes, it’s true, as the authors say: Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, believed that a nation could thrive as such only if it enjoyed access to credit supported by reliable taxation. And yes: the Constitution enabled the Congress to tax, and the first Congress, advised by Hamilton, assumed all the state war debts in the federal one, levying taxes proposed by Hamilton to pay for the program. So yes: when Tea Party people say “the founders” excoriated debt and hated taxes, they’re not talking about Hamilton, or the Washington administration, or the first Congress, or even the Constitution as drafted, amended, and ratified.

Those observations are banal, but the piece is far worse than banal. The truisms lose all meaning when the authors try to develop their ideas both in terms of the founding period and in terms of today’s politics. Continue reading