Commentary

Alexander Hamilton Answers the Historians

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Historians on Hamilton, How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past

Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter, editors

Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2018, 399 pp.

By Nancy Spannaus

Aug. 2, 2018—While I did not have very high hopes for this book of essays critiquing the Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, I did not expect to find such a concerted set of attacks on not only Alexander Hamilton himself, but also historian Ron Chernow and the whole school of historians who positively assess the role of the “dead white European males” who led the world-historical battle to establish the American Republic. It was an eye-opener, to say the least, and rather disheartening when one considers that many of these historians are shaping the minds of the nation’s youth in our universities.

Fortunately, according to many accounts, the impact of the musical—the content of which I myself critiqued months ago–continues to be a positive one, spurring a wave of popularity for Hamilton’s writings (such as the Federalist Papers), and hopefully the study of his ground-breaking economic policy papers as well. If biographies are also in the mix, I would hope that Forrest McDonald’s Alexander Hamilton is at the top of the list.

Yet, clearly the strain of thought expressed in this volume of essays, fifteen in all, deserves to be answered. Were Hamilton himself alive, he surely would have jumped avidly into the fray. As it is, I can think of no better way to deal with these critiques than to call upon Hamilton’s own words and thoughts, in hopes of adequately reflecting his arguments against the historians’ attacks and misstatements. I certainly can’t purport to replicate his thought, or even to agree with him on every matter. But since some of the criticism almost precisely echoes that of his contemporary opponents, some rejoinders are readily at hand.

Debt and Corruption

Setting the tone of the attack is the lead article of this volume by William Hogeland, an unabashed critic of Hamilton’s life’s work in establishing the American economic system. This author obtained further insight into Hogeland’s thinking during a presentation he gave at Federal Hall in New York City on July 12, where he referred to Hamilton’s plan to pull the nation together with his economic system as a “scheme.” Hogeland argued that Hamilton’s “scheme” was to combine the wealthy class, with the government and the military, to form a powerful bloc which would serve the interests of the wealthy. When one member of the audience asked if he would consider Hamilton to be a proto-fascist, Hogeland demurred, ultimately saying that was a thought worth pursuing.

In his essay for Historians on Hamilton, Hogeland blames Chernow for what he considers Miranda’s misguided praise of Hamilton for being anti-slavery and for the common man, and then launches into an attack on Hamilton’s moves to create our national economy. The first “crime” was that Hamilton was not in favor of getting rid of the debts incurred during the war, but to “growing and sustaining a federal debt as a fundamental element in building the kind of nation that might expand geographically and industrially and compete with other nations militarily and commercially.” To this end, Hogeland argues, Hamilton used federal power to “suppress democratic expression, subordinate federal judges, bamboozle Congress, and amplify military power.”

Author William Hogeland speaks in Federal Hall July 12.

Alexander Hamilton would find nothing new in this accusation. His first Report on Public Credit, in January of 1790, argued outright for the national government to not only pay its war debts, but to assume those which had been incurred by the states. Every state, every American, owed his freedom and future to the sacrifices made in the war for independence, he argued. All should share in ensuring those debts are not ignored, but funded.  More important, from the standpoint of the future, is the requirement to establish public credit, a prerequisite for building a strong economy, and the need to bring the states together into a Union, which was the sine qua non for defending the gains of the Revolution.

Hamilton summarized his purposes as follows:

To justify and preserve their [investors—nbs] confidence; to promote the encreasing respectability of the American name; to answer the calls of justice; to restore landed property to its due value; to furnish new resources both to agriculture and commerce; to cement more closely the union of the states; to add to their security against foreign attack; to establish public order on the basis of an upright and liberal policy. These are the great and invaluable ends to be secured, by a proper and adequate provision, at the present period, for the support of public credit.

Hamilton goes on to argue that the consequences of such a policy will also be beneficial. To wit: it will likely allow public debt to serve the purposes of money; it will extend trade; it will promote agriculture and manufactures; it will lower the interest on money–and defeat those speculators, who, under the conditions of the time (not to mention now!), were profiting off the “fluctuation and insecurity” and turning U.S. debt into a “mere commodity.”

Did some rich people benefit from this plan, as Hogeland claimed? Indeed they did, but so did wide swaths of the American population, who prospered from the new conditions of a de facto national currency, credit, post roads, and uniform commercial rules. Indeed, it was the desperate economic conditions of the 1780s, fed by British economic (and real) warfare as well as state-against-state conflict, that provided sufficient popular support to pull off the Constitutional Convention, and establish a nation, as opposed to a league of 13 states.

Yes, No Democracy

The second article in the volume is by respected Hamilton scholar Joanne Freeman, and is entitled “Can We Get Back to Politics? Please?”  Freeman critiques Miranda’s musical for ignoring Hamilton’s role as a politician, and thus mistakenly idolizing him. She sees this American Revolutionary, who risked everything (including his neck) during the war and afterward to build the nation, as “profoundly conservative” in his campaign to “empower the government.” Freeman accuses Hamilton of acting out of fear—fear of the power of the states, and fear of the “democratic multitude” which might lead to “anarchy and ruin.” (She does admit this was a powerful argument at the time of the French Revolution, where blood was running in the streets from the use of the guillotine.)

Did Hamilton oppose “democracy?”  Yes, indeed, he did—as did all of the major Founding Fathers at the start.  They were proceeding from the study of the ancient city-state republics, wherein, time and time again, it was the manipulation of the mob—the “people”—which led to ungovernability and ultimately, to tyranny. They believed instead in a Republic, a form of representative government dedicated to the public good, and led by “the best” citizens, those with the education, temperament, and morality to put the welfare of the public first.

The tarring and feathering of a government agent in the Whiskey Rebellion.

Hamilton’s writings against what he would call “mobocracy” were ubiquitous. His arguments against leaving power in the hands of the states can be found throughout the Federalist Papers, where he pointed out the grave danger of the European powers reconquering parts of the Union if it remained decentralized, with predominantly state power. As far as the “people in the streets” were concerned, Hamilton was famous for intervening to prevent mob violence, even by his revolutionary allies, and gave his life in the attempt to abort the rise of a man whom he saw as a would-be Caesar, Aaron Burr.

Writing to a friend in 1792, when he was working to prevent Burr from becoming Vice President in the second Washington Administration, Hamilton said: “Mr. Burr’s integrity as an individual is not unimpeached. As a public man, he is one of the worst sort—a friend to nothing but as it suits his interest and ambition. Determined to climb to the highest honors of the State, and as much higher as circumstances may permit; he cares for nothing about the means of effecting his purpose…. In a word, if we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States, ’tis Burr.”

And Caesar, of course, as Hamilton had explained in earlier debates with the Jeffersonians, was “the Whig of his day.” [i.e., the liberal-nbs] His antithesis, the Tory Cato, “frequently resisted, the latter [Caesar—ed.] always flattered, the follies of the people. Yet the former perished with the republic—the latter destroyed it….”

The American Constitution, which Hamilton and Washington did so much to create, explicitly aimed to prevent “direct democracy,” precisely in order to encourage deliberations and the exercise of reason in leading the nation. Today, unfortunately, there are few who can distinguish between a “republic” and a “democracy,” although understanding that distinction may well mean the difference between our nation’s survival or demise.

“Dead White European Males”

Many of the remaining essays in this volume are dedicated even more explicitly to attacking Miranda’s  Hamilton for whitewashing Alexander Hamilton, particularly on the issue of race. He may have been for manumission, they say, but his wife had slaves, he lived in a society profiting from slavery, he capitulated to compromises with slavery.  All true enough—Hamilton was not an abolitionist, as pro-Hamilton historian Stephen Knott has said.  But Hamilton’s entire economic and political concept was dedicated to building an industrial (commercial) republic which rejected the slave-labor system, and arguably would have done so if the pro-slavery faction had not reversed his policies. I believe that, like Abraham Lincoln, he considered the creation of the Union, and the establishment of his American System of Economics, an essential step toward eliminating slavery for all the people of the United States, including African-Americans.

Louis XVI on the way to the guillotine, just one of thousands to die.

But the common thread among most of these essays is even broader and more insidious than the racial issue: an outright attack on what is called “Founders’ Chic,” or the “Great Man Theory of History,” or history as made by “Dead White European Males.” Because injustice was not eliminated with the victory of the American Revolution, the argument goes, the accomplishment wasn’t so great after all. The following assertion from Andrew M. Schocket, in his essay “Hamilton and the American Revolution on Stage and Screen,” is one of the most flagrant, disturbing examples:

The depiction of great men doing great things, rather than social and political change occurring through popular movements, reassures people who, consciously or not, hew to traditional notions of power, race, and gender. The idea that independence consists of unfettered individual liberty, and that all the good guys were for it, relieves us of the responsibility for questioning the motives behind the original establishment of the country (!), or considering the possibility that patriotism requires both individual sacrifice and working together for the common good….

To my mind, the argument is, on its face, absurd.  Our Revolution and Constitution were made by “great men,” great men who won the support of a sufficient number of their fellow citizens to establish a government framework which would go on, in fits and starts, to “form a more Perfect Union.” That Union is still far from perfect, but the advances that were made, under Presidents who followed the economic and Constitutional principles laid out by Alexander Hamilton, have created the basis for more progress.

Of course, there was no unanimity at the time of the Revolution; John Adams estimated that at least a third of the colonists were prepared to stick with the Crown!  And surely some colonists went along with Independence and the Constitution for what might be called “the wrong reasons”—take Aaron Burr, for example. But to claim that it was a “popular movement” that led the Revolution, or that we should “question the motives” for establishing the country, is preposterous. Does Mr. Schocket want to debate whether we should have stayed within the British Empire? Does he believe that the “people in the streets” devised the strategy for winning the war, and securing the peace? Would he have preferred we follow “popular opinion” as in the widespread popular support for the French Revolution in the 1790s? Our republic would not have survived.

What we are seeing here is the ghost of Howard Zinn, or Charles Beard, come back to attack the American Revolution itself.

Hamilton’s Vision

Were Alexander Hamilton able to speak today—to critics and admirers alike—I believe that much of what he would say would echo that of George Washington’s Farewell Address, a masterful document into which Hamilton had much input. Hamilton would emphasize the crucial need for the Union, and how his concept of public credit—as a support for national banking, internal improvements, technological progress, and the productivity of labor—provides the basis for increasing interdependence and harmony in the nation, and around the world. He would argue against irrational attachments internally and externally—factions and foreign prejudices—in determining any aspect of state policy.  He would stress a national commitment to “diffusing institutions of knowledge” and to the practice of virtue in public office.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton does not deal with these elevated concepts, and in my view, thus unintentionally belittles Hamilton’s stands for principle, the Constitution, and the Union. But Miranda (and his inspiration Ron Chernow) does recognize greatness, and seeks to inspire the youth of the nation to pay attention to one of the greatest Founders of our Republic.  That is an honorable intention, in contrast to most of the “Historians on Hamilton.”

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5 Comments

  1. Speaking as one of the editors, thank you for paying attention to the book — even though you didn’t like it very much! But I would like to point out to your readers that there are about ten other essays in the book that do not struggle over the doctrinal disagreements that surround Hamilton’s history.

    I would also like to say — I am not sure the phrase “Dead White Men” appears anywhere in the book. I only mention this because it’s kind of a dog whistle term that suggests we are engaged in a multicultural rescue of Early American history, which . wasn’t the project at all.

    • Thank you for your response. I did interpret a lot of the criticism of the authors as falling into the school of attack on “dead white men” making history, but the phrase the “Great Man” theory of history could have sufficed just as well. The emphasis on people of color being ignored in making American history did seem to be a very strong theme among those whom you asked to contribute to your book. In my view, the reality of Hamilton’s crucial contributions to the building of our republic was not represented, and that was the book’s greatest weakness.

    • Another belated reply, Claire. In boning up for your forum at the National Archives last night, I found the discussion of “dead white men” in your book–in Renee’s article! It’s not an explicit attack on that idea, but implicit in her analysis of the ironies of both conservatives and liberals endorsing the play. I think that divide itself is problematic. Anyway, just thought I’d directly respond to your statement. Hope to be in touch again. (By the way, the AHA Society, to my surprise, published a link to my review of your book. How is your circulation going?

  2. Richard Sylla says:

    Is it really “true enough” that Hamilton’s wife had slaves? I have encountered no evidence of this, although her father, Phillip Schuyler, is known to have owned slaves, so Eliza Hamilton, nee Schuyler, probably grew up in a household with slaves. But there doesn’t seem to be any hard evidence that the Hamilton’s ever owned slaves after their marriage. Eliza’s sister, Angelica, is reported to have said that it was too bad the Hamilton’s had no slaves, as Eliza would not have had to work so hard when they entertained if she did have that help. And when Hamilton died, there were no slaves in his modest estate.

    • I am glad to be corrected on this — I should have said “it may be true;” there are so many different stories out there, that it takes a lifetime to get all of them straight. Thank you!

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