… is an actual published and edited essay in Lapham’s Quarterly. Here I’m slashing a lot of brush, in the interest of starting a new American civics, with a new approach to American history.
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. Continue reading
Twice now I’ve been exposed to the notion that criticizing the musical “Hamilton” for historical inaccuracy is like criticizing Shakespeare’s history plays for 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 try to criticize Shakespeare on that basis, because 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 is a natural hook when Miranda’s fans are defending the musical against what they take to be criticism of the show’s historical inaccuracy. That’s 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, even tortured 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 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 that’s presented, back here in our universe, by the play called Julius Caesar.
And I think that assertion achieves, in its revealing way, a gibbering meaninglessness only partially masked by sober-sounding terms like “matters rather little” and “just appreciation.” 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 might be, oh, I don’t know, maybe the events involving the death of a guy named Julius Caesar?
That’s where Shakespeare looked. So 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 them, to reflect on Shakespeare’s 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, pointlessly, to point out. Differences between Shakespeare and Miranda aside, the difference in how scholars defending the musical think about Shakespeare and Miranda devolves on their thinkers’ blithe inattention to Miranda’s sources.
And that difference points to an even more important difference. Continue reading
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 correct. My job is to blame the certified liberal-intellectual culture that has prevailed throughout my lifetime. We own this.
…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 many other 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.
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. Continue reading
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
Bill Chapman called my attention to an interesting Newsweek piece by David Cay Johnston entitled Why Thomas Jefferson Favored Profit Sharing, reporting on new research by Joseph R. Blasi and Douglas L. Kruse of Rutgers and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard, as well as on Johnston’s own research, to describe
… the future envisioned by the framers more than two centuries ago – an America in which every worker is a capitalist.
Possibly unsurprisingly, I question that conclusion about the framers’ vision. Some back-and-forth on Twitter leads me to clarify here my dissent from Johnston’s article.
This is the situation — classic, at this point, for me — in which I might agree with an author about the kinds of things we ought to be doing now do encourage far greater economic equality but disagree that there’s any realistic hope of finding support for those things in the thinking of our founders. That’s in part because I recoil, and possibly too hard by now, from what has come to seem to me a compulsive troping by some progressives toward the kinds of American-essentialist, founder-invoking gestures that the right wing routinely uses, possibly to the greater good of their propaganda, and always to the detriment of realism about our history as a people.
The same damage is done by liberals, and in the liberal case I think it’s worse. For while it might be nice to believe, I guess, that if we could only get back to the vision bequeathed us by our founders, progressive values would prevail and the greater good be achieved, that’s way too simple, and too simple in a way that I think undermines both our understanding of where we come from and any hope we may have for where we might be able to go. As usual, the only hope I see lies in complication.
The Johnston piece opens by quoting Washington, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton on such things as the importance of “equal distribution of property” (Washington); fear of “the rich and the proud” destroying “all the equality and liberty” (Adams); a hope that government would defeat “an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches” (Madison); and expectations of abuse “whenever a discretionary power is lodged in any set of men over the property of their neighbors” (Hamilton). These are familiar remarks. In the quote battles waged so hard online, they can always be countered with opposing thoughts from the same men, which can in turn always be countered by quotes more like these, and so on.
Johnston, however, uses this collection of quotations to assert that the equality thing is the one thing the warring founders agreed on. Context is everything, and I’d suggest that these quotations instead indicate that the founders all participated in what was then a familiar, even reflexive Whiggish rhetoric, appealing to an ideal of rough equality of wealth as a key to stability. Such ideas are loose enough in any event, and in the case of some of the founders’ visions for America, fantastical enough, to have permitted these men lifestyles of supreme fabulousness while inspiring them to oppose at every turn the efforts of organized labor (yes, it existed then) to gain access to political power and use it to equalize wealth via representative government. Continue reading