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

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

The Fracking Boom as — Not the 19C Gold Rush! — but the 18C Land Bubble

The Economist has an interesting but, I think, historically misguided piece paralleling the current shale energy boom, especially in the West, with the Gold Rush of the 1840’s. And the similarities are indeed obvious: feverish greed, quick mineral wealth, smelly camps full of rowdy and frustrated men, American “westernness.” That’s all summed up in the old expression “black gold.”

But even as it strains comparisons past the breaking point, the piece itself reminds us, explicitly, that the thing about the Gold Rush was that any shmoe with nothing but a pick and a sieve could start looking for gold and might indeed find it: many did; others failed to. The Economist piece therefore sees the Gold Rush as something new in the world, something rowdily democratic and quintessentially American.

Whether or not that’s true, in the fracking boom, by contrast, the guys in the camps are not self-employed treasure-seekers competing with one another in a quest to wrest from the earth enough personal wealth to live a life of riotous idleness. The Economist piece itself notes that they’re workers employed by the big companies that can afford the awesome, actually terrifying technology on which this boom relies.

Nobody doing the actual labor, that is, will reap the boom’s immense profits. For the ordinary person, this is a boom in employment — of working, that is, on behalf of somebody else’s profit. To the ordinary person, the fracking boom holds out no hope, misguided or otherwise, as the Gold Rush once did, of never having to work again. That opportunity remains with the elites and their progeny.

It’s axiomatic, for the Economist, to view the Gold Rush as democratic, and therefore quintessentially American. So the piece must make the Gold Rush the first American fever for quick untold wealth, thus the template for all later booms. The piece therefore gets confused about meanings, for American ideas about wealth and democracy, of both the Gold Rush and the shale-energy boom.

* * * *

The Gold Rush wasn’t the first such event in America. The land-speculation bubble of the 18th C. was the first great American speculation rush — closely intertwined, during the Revolution, with speculation in flurries of state and federal war bonds.

And while it’s less romantic, to us, than the Gold Rush, the 18th C. land-speculation bubble has two features that make it more grimly salient, I think, than the Gold Rush, both to our current boom and to the history of American wealth, booms, and democracy. Continue reading

On Mayday: Activism vs. History

On Occupy Wall Street’s “general strike” Mayday, a thought on activism and history. I think I just heard David Graeber, author of Debt, a book I admire very much, say on Brian Lehrer’s show that the term “general strike” is now being redefined in context of the inescapable fact that American organized labor has not come out on strike today. Graeber explained that dissonance by noting that laws have made sympathy strikes illegal, anomalously in Graeber’s view when compared to standards of labor activism that he says prevailed in the 19th century.

Lots of stuff to unpack there historically. But politically, my immediate reaction: I can’t imagine that even if any and all “general strike” legislation were instantly repealed, much of American organized labor as we know it would be out on strike today. More to my point, I can’t imagine Graeber thinks so either.

So what’s up? Something to do with wishful uses of history, writing, and criticism in the service of activism. What Occupy intellectuals seem to want to do, both with the past and with current realpolitik, is to construct current and historical conditions as favoring immense growth and success for Occupy — i.e., rally to the cause. Graeber’s soundbite may well distill a nuanced historical view in which, had things gone differently in American labor history, American labor would be radically different from what it is today. If such a view enables his implying that absent a legal crackdown on the big unions, they’d be on strike today, the nuance is perverse.

As always, I think these constructions are not only misleading, possibly deliberately so, thus politically and existentially inauthentic, but also counterproductive to developing any realistic critique, an actively usable one, of American finance, economics, and government. A critique I remain unsure the Occupy movement even wants to develop. But I do.

Citation Not Needed: Thoughts on Footnotes

Thanks to Luis Villa for commenting on my post on Samuel Adams and the Boston crowd. Villa asks:

Question about the book – this excerpt leaves me screaming, in the wikipedia sense, “Citation Needed” – both because I want to learn more, but also because strong claims need strong evidence. (Whatever its other flaws, Graeber’s recent Debt was great that way.) Will the book be heavily footnoted?

To answer the question first: No. My forthcoming book Founding Finance (the post in question represents material deleted from that book) will not be heavily footnoted. It will feature bibliographical essays for each chapter, in which my sources will be presented, along with commentary on my interpretation of those sources and on competing and alternative interpretations.

To give an example based on this post, sources would include Hoerder (the most influential on me regarding crowd action in Boston and on Adams’s regard for hierarchical, corporate unity in New England); Maier (whose From Resistance… is a standard text on related matters, and who has written a key historiographical essay on Adams); Zobel (basically a Tory, in my view, who sees Adams as a master manipulator of easily led crowds); Young, who brought the Tea Party and the Boston crowd back to life; maybe Jensen, since I think he’s where I got the stuff on Gage, but I’d have to go back to my notes to be sure; and others. Alexander —  since he’s the only S. Adams biographer who deals directly with the issue of crowd “agency.”

These sources don’t agree with one another, and I don’t agree fully with any of them. So for learning more, I think my essays will be useful.

But for proving a claim? Not so much. No citation will provide proof of anything I’ve said. My sources’ own citations don’t prove what they’re saying. Continue reading

“Founding Finance” Already on Amazon

My forthcoming book — forthcoming six months from now, for the election — is already on Amazon: Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation. The book is from University of Texas Press, part of Mark Crispin Miller’s series “Discovering America.”

And to me it’s a big one: a different mode from my two narrative histories, in this case mixing historical narrative with the kinds of connections between founding history and current politics and economics — and with criticism, in that context, of the historians who precede me, especially Wood, Morgan, Hofstadter — that I’ve explored in this blog (especially regarding the Occupy movement).

For example: Should you want a view of the founding period absolutely the reverse of those presented by Akhil Reed Amar or Grover Norquist, this is the book. I hope it undermines all Tea Party/Norquist claims on the founding period while also questioning — OK, more than questioning — the impact of the academic liberal consensus on public conceptions of founding history over the past fifty years. Even as, I hope, it also tells some lively and startling stories about Paine, Herman Husband, Robert Morris, Thomas Young, Hamilton, et al. Oh, and raises questions about the debate over debt, finance, and protest in the 2012 election. And the real roots of Occupy’s economic protest. That’s it!