The Hamilton Scheme: Video

C-SPAN video of that talk I gave on Alexander Hamilton’s creative phase. 

Grimly funny to me that after I spent the whole talk emphasizing, ad nauseam, that Hamilton’s purpose was not to pay off the war debt but to sustain it via funding, C-SPAN introduces the video this way: “Mr. Hogeland examines how Hamilton’s first goal was paying off the debt accumulated during the Revolutionary War.”

There really is no purpose to anything I do.

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William Hogeland on “The Hamilton Scheme: Enemies and Allies in the Creation of an American Economy”

William Hogeland on

Thursday, July 12, 2018 | 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM

Event Location
Federal Hall National Monument
26 Wall Street, NYC

Historian and author William Hogeland, a contributor to Historians on Hamilton (Rutgers University Press, 2018), will speak on how Alexander Hamilton’s national financial plan worked, why the public remains generally unaware of the details, the extremes Hamilton was willing to go to in order to bring the plan about, and why his opponents (Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin) couldn’t fully dismantle it during 16 years of Republican administration. Talk will be followed by Q&A.

About the Speaker
William Hogeland is the author, most recently, of Autumn of the Black Snake: George Washington, Mad Anthony Wayne, and the Invasion That Opened the West, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He has written books on the Whiskey Rebellion, the backroom politics behind the Declaration of Independence, and founding-era finance, as well as many essays on the realpolitik of the early republic. His next book, now under contract to FSG, is on Alexander Hamilton.

This FREE event is co-presented with the AHA Society as part of CelebrateHAMILTON 2018.

https://www.moaf.org/events/general/2018-07-12-william-hogeland-on-the-hamilton-scheme-enemies-and-allies-in-the-creation-of-an-american-economy

Again with the History?

(This is sort of Part Three, following this and this.)

It’s become a fad in the so-called resistance to Trump to project on the American founding generation not mere wisdom and judgment but the gift of prophecy. “220 Years Ago George Washington Warned Us about Trump,” reads the headline for an article in “The Hill, a good example of its type. Drawing on the famous farewell speech, the article concludes that our first president had “his inner eye” on our current president.

Nobody has taken this brand of pseudohistorical silliness farther than Peter Daou, a prolific Clinton supporter and busy social-media personality. According to Daou, Alexander Hamilton too gazed into the future and saw a vision of the 2016 election. Many, many times now, Daou has reported on Twitter how gobsmacked he was to discover Hamilton’s predicting, in 1792, that “the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the country is by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion.”

As if that weren’t mindblowing enough, in the crystal ball appears a figure so horribly familiar that Daou calls the epiphenomenon chilling: “When a man unprincipled in private life,” Hamilton goes on,

desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents. . . — despotic in his ordinary demeanor — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the general government and bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day — it may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

Believe it or not,And yes” Daou assures us of the quotation, “it’s real, believe it or not.”

But it’s only sort of real, and the quotation’s slipperiness illustrates the futility, for any real resistance to the current presidency, of this “wowza!” brand of founder-worship. Clipped misleadingly out of Hamilton’s “Objections and Answers,” where the secretary was responding, with some understandable heat, to a barrage of criticisms of his policy and aims, the passage has been edited to remove a term contradicting the supposed profile of Trump — the ellipses in the big section replace “the advantage of military habits” — as well as some material exposing the author’s not always edifying tactics for self-defense. Many of Hamilton’s contemporaries and forebears took precisely the line expressed in the quotation — pandering to a misguided populism is a dictator’s means of overthrowing a republic — and employed similar language when attacking, on that basis, political enemies who were attacking them. Here, Hamilton was folding into a common, even banal mode of discourse on demagoguery in general a pointed attack on an unnamed someone in particular (“unprincipled in private life,” “known to have scoffed in private”), casting him as a daemonic threat to the liberty and stability of Hamilton’s time, not ours.

Part of what’s been cut from the quote makes it especially clear that Hamilton is subtweeting. He introduces the section that Daou likes, beginning “When a man,” with this: “Yet it would not be difficult to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected.” The historian Jack Rakove, for one, thinks the unnamed target is Burr, but whoever it is, such quotations should serve to remind us that when they made these remarks, the founders were throwing shade on each other. Dozens of Daou’s many followers, bedazzled by an image possibly blended with that of Broadway’s Alexander, have posted remarks like “prescient!” Masked as a girding of the loins against Trump, Daou’s Hamiltonianism is really just a retreat to fantasia.

Other offenders in this mode include the author Thomas E. Ricks, here also making use of Twitter: “Thomas Jefferson on Trump: ‘Bad men will sometimes get in, and … may make great progress in corrupting the public mind and principles.’ (23 March 1801).” Like the Hamilton quotation, this is out of context — so far out, in this case, that it becomes nearly meaningless. Bad men will sometimes get in? Wow, that’s observant, mister “Sage of Monticello.”

In full, however, the passage at least has a point to make:

I sincerely wish with you, we could see our government so secured as to depend less on the character of the person in whose hands it is trusted. Bad men will sometimes get in, and with such an immense patronage, may make great progress in corrupting the public mind and principles. This is a subject with which wisdom and patriotism should be occupied.

Interesting. Sort of. But for all of the philosophical Greco-Roman generalizing, when these guys say “unprincipled in character” and “bad men” and mounting “the hobby horse of popularity” and “corrupting the public mind,” they mean the other party. They’re not insincere. They really do think their political enemies are out to destroy everything good and must be stopped. That’s why they’re enemies. But they have nothing to tell us about Trump, because Jefferson’s really talking about Hamilton and Hamilton’s really talking about Burr and Paine’s really talking about Washington and Adams is really talking about Jefferson and anybody else he can think of . . .

History has to be good for something other than this doofy quote-mining.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and William Shakespeare

At least twice now I’ve been exposed to the notion that criticizing the musical “Hamilton” for its historical tendentiousness is like criticizing Shakespeare’s history plays for their historical inaccuracy, with the presumption — so obvious, the implication goes, that it’s not even worth stating, let alone arguing — that only a cluck would attempt to criticize Shakespeare on that basis, because, well, Shakespeare. The historian R.B. Bernstein invoked the Bard in this context when moderating a panel discussion at a conference of historians. Martha C. Nussbaum, the scholar of philosophy, law, and government, did so too when declining to respond to my argument, editorially solicited, that an uncritical participation in emphasizing the American founders’ reading and thinking, at the expense of examining their action, leads ironically yet ineluctably to acceptance and even celebration, in Nussbaum’s Boston Review essay “Hamilton’s Choice,” of the hagiographic history that served as inspiration for the musical.

This Miranda-Shakespeare comparison seems a natural hook when Miranda’s fans are defending the musical against what they take to be criticism of the show’s historical inaccuracy, because Shakespeare’s famous history plays, from Julius Caesar to the Wars of the Roses cycle and beyond, aren’t history either. Nussbaum puts the comparison in this strange way:

. . . literal veracity matters rather little [in the Hamilton musical], no more than it matters to a just appreciation of Shakespeare’s political ideas that he may have based too much on Plutarch and not studied a wider range of historical sources for ancient Rome. There are flaws in Shakespeare’s political understanding of monarchy and its relationship to the populace, and sometimes these do show up in a one-sided use of his source materials, particularly in Julius Caesar, where he gives Cicero and the republicans short shrift. But one could have seen those flaws had the play been a total fiction, since his disturbing ideas about the inevitable venality of the people are evident from the play alone.

Nussbaum seems to be saying that, in an alternate universe in which the play Julius Caesar lacks any reference to specific historical events (so probably isn’t titled Julius Caesar?), we’d still be able to see the flaws, as Nussbaum calls them, in the view of monarchy and populace presented, back here in our universe, by the play called Julius Caesar. I think that assertion achieves, in a revealing way, meaninglessness. It’s absurd to imagine a Shakespearean view of monarchy and populace, flawed or otherwise, independent of actual Shakespeare works; it’s absurd to imagine any Shakespeare history play independent of that play’s relationship to specific historical narratives. In considering how such issues develop in Julius Caesar, a handy place to look would be the events involving the death of Julius Caesar. That’s where Shakespeare looked, and it seems to me that it actually is important, if not, necessarily, to enjoying a production of one of the plays, then to any critically informed appreciation of Shakespeare, to reflect on his biases regarding democracy and monarchy — I lack the apodictic certainty to label them flaws — in part by considering his relationship to sources.

Nussbaum, for one, has done exactly that. Her close consideration of Shakespeare’s sources is reflected in the quotation above.  Yet regarding the Hamilton musical, she hasn’t considered sources — that’s what I was trying to point out. The difference between Shakespeare and Miranda, in the context of scholarly thinkers’ defense of the musical, has to do with such thinkers’ inattention to Miranda’s sources. And that difference points to an even more important difference. Continue reading

Responding to Martha Nussbaum in a Boston Review Forum on Hamilton

In Boston Review, the eminent  American philosopher, legal scholar, and classicist Martha C. Nussbaum offers a reading of Lin-Maunuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” I dissent. 

UPDATE: How can this matter right now? That’s something I imagine readers thinking, and it’s something I thought, when first asked to respond. And that was before election day. Right now it matters to me this way: You can blame Trumpism and be right. My job is to blame the certified liberal-intellectual culture that has prevailed throughout my lifetime. We own this.

 

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 …