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.

Gilder-Lehrman Turns Historians into Liberaloid Fanboys

And regarding American vernacular music, there’s a treasure trove of foregone conclusions, overdetermined consensus, thuddingly obvious truisms, and outright falsehoods at the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s The Music and History of Our Times, which the Institute promotes as an online resource for teaching history in a relevant manner — American history, that is, which all of GLI’s efforts ceaselessly imply is the apogee of all history.

What ever happened to teaching against the text? Or, in this case, against the album cover, against the presskit, the songbook, the fanzine, the Hall of Fame? Problems with the GLI approach to roots-and-pop Americana may may be glimpsed in this unfortunate passage from the lede to the overview:

Popular music is the soundtrack to much of our history. When Revolutionary War soldiers went off to war, they did so to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” Abolitionist songs, sung by groups like the Hutchinson Family Singers, brought the anti-slavery message to hundreds if not thousands. As Americans faced each other in battle, the army in blue took heart from the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while soldiers in grey rallied to “Dixie.” Nineteenth-century men courted their sweethearts to the tunes of Stephen A. Foster, while slaves in the cotton fields found solace in spirituals . . .

Mere banality leads — surely unintentionally but nearly inexorably — to a horrible rhetorical gaffe in the last sentence I quoted: “Nineteenth-century men courted their sweethearts to the tunes of Stephen A. Foster, while slaves in the cotton fields found solace in spirituals.” The author doesn’t mean to contrast “slaves” with “men,” but she does, and ironically it’s thanks to her effort to conjure, ever so gracefully, a kind of all-embracing consensus in musical Americana — to presume, say, that spirituals gave solace, and to quick-define slave music in the Negro Spiritual — that she goes so badly head over heels. The way of thinking, and thus of writing (and/or the way of writing and thus of thinking), leads to meaninglessness.

Leave our crazy, beautiful, scary, mean-ass, sad, hucksterish, stomping music alone, GLI (and all the tamed academics you support)!

Here’s my grimmer view of roots music, including Foster and those slaves.