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, as I tried to point out. That difference between Shakespeare and Miranda, in the context of scholarly thinkers’ defense of the musical, points to a larger and more important difference. 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

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.