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

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If Only: the Founders and Income Inequality

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

Chernow Gets It Right

Nobody has been more critical than me — this statement may even be true — of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Yet Chernow’s Sunday NYT op-ed on the fruitlessness of appealing to the founders for support in contemporary politics could not be more spot on, from my point of view. I won’t discourse on its many virtues of clarity, detail, and logic, just say that I think it’s “must” reading for everyone across the political spectrum who is concerned about the role history can (and can’t) play in framing public debate. Chernow is in a position to put the matter so much less fractiously than I’ve been doing, thus probably far more persuasively, and he has a huge audience that crosses political divides. His weighing in on this issue might actually do some good, and that would be a big help in these wild times.

The Chernow from whom I’ve dissented of old does make an appearance in the final graf:

No single group should ever presume to claim special ownership of the founding fathers or the Constitution they wrought with such skill and ingenuity. Those lofty figures, along with the seminal document they brought forth, form a sacred part of our common heritage as Americans.

Huh? The rowdy, ruthless infighters Chernow has evoked everywhere else in his piece, where he constantly reminds us of their gritty humanity, now suddenly turn into the “lofty,” “sacred” figures of misty-eyed cliché? For a brief and bad moment, it’s as if we’re supposed to assume the usual supplicant position and just be sure to keep our grubby hands off some holy, ingeniously wrought grail.

Hell no. Hence fractiousness.

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