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January 27, 2017
With Responses From
Jan 27, 2017
9 Min read time
Hamilton was hardly the hero or scholar invoked by Nussbaum.
Martha Nussbaum’s essay takes to extremes a mode that I object to anyway, one that de-emphasizes founding-era policy and action in preference for founding-era ideology, with close attention to the founders’ well-known immersion in classical philosophy, ancient history, and Whig thought. That approach, not so much intellectual history as the hyper-intellectualization of our national origins, seems to me to have damaged public realism about those origins to the detriment of public thought and action. Nussbaum's attention to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s character of Alexander Hamilton—and in revealing ways the historical Hamilton, too—represents an especially striking disconnection from what I think makes Hamilton worth talking about.
The style of founding history I am criticizing has a founding history of its own. Nussbaum’s essay brings to my mind the legacy of Douglass Adair. Beginning in the mid-1940s, in part through his influential editorship of the William and Mary Quarterly, Adair began fighting progressive historians, particularly their skeptical approach, still influential then, to the aura of disinterested public service in which the founders cloaked themselves, and which their early biographers celebrated. During the Cold War, a broad project involving major historians—from Adair to Edmund Morgan to Richard Hofstadter—dedicated itself to ruling out not only Marxist-influenced U.S. historical scholarship, but also any other analysis centering the founding on economic class conflict. They sought instead to present the founders, and founding-era Americans generally, as intellectually and ethically consistent and politically moderate, favoring economic fluidity, middling prosperity, and social balance—values thus construed as at once classical, based on the founders’ reading, and inherently American, in opposition to the values of postwar communism.
Nussbaum offers a sober, philosophically informed examination of a man and a founding history that never existed.
Where the right-wing historian Forrest McDonald published a tendentious economic study denying the Constitution’s framers’ pecuniary interest in the framing, Adair brought to the revisionist effort a preference, more liberal and more lasting than McDonald’s attacks, for intellectual rather than political history. He made a nuanced case for the central historical importance of the founders’ reading and thinking, especially about the meaning of virtue. That approach resonates with Nussbaum’s essay.
Wisely declining to deny the founders’ manifest self-interest, Adair instead redefined it, shifting not only self-interest but also the larger discussion of the founders’ motivations entirely away from the economic matters that midcentury progressives—and Alexander Hamilton!—cared so much about. Thanks to Adair and others, by the mid-1960s the prevailing way to study the American founding had come to involve thinking ever more deeply about classical, republican, and liberal theories of virtue. Even writers who presented founding-generation Americans as ideologically fantastical now made their points almost entirely within the context of intellectual history: debtor-creditor conflict among Americans was now deemed relevant only insofar as it might have inspired a James Madison to write about faction or a John Adams to write about balance.
The founders themselves thus became so abstracted from day-to-day politics that the grittiness and intensity necessary to create a nation seemed mere objective correlatives to philosophical themes and trends. The approach may now seem quaint, superseded in the academy by social history, feminist history, African American history, “history from the bottom up,” and other modes. But Adair’s influence continues to shape the work of well-regarded historians and thinkers to this day, scholars as different from one another as Gordon Wood, Garry Wills, Pauline Maier, and Akhil Reed Amar. Those thinkers have, in turn, been influential well beyond the academy. Our public history, in particular, remains steeped in barely-examined notions that identify the founders’ motivations—if not solely, then most significantly—with ideas.
In exploring the public history represented by the musical Hamilton, Nussbaum carries that tendency, already badly misleading, to a point where it falls apart. The problem is Hamilton. And the problem is Hamilton.
Hamilton was hardly a hero or a scholar in the sense invoked by the show.
In Nussbaum’s reading of Miranda’s play, the choices, thoughts, and actions of the character Hamilton regarding such matters as envy, the desire for preeminence, and the spur of ambition place Hamilton and Aaron Burr at the center of a drama of democratic action. This drama reflects important lessons on the nature of political morality, informed largely by ideas about the difficult relationships between private emotions and public virtue. That focus accords with matters that the founders, including Hamilton, did read and write about. As an exegesis of a work of theater—in the vein of an essay on Shakespeare’s Richard II, say—Nussbaum’s explication might have interest and value for certain readers, and we might leave it at that.
But there is no exegesis of Hamilton that does not also reflect on the history that the play is responding to. At three points, Nussbaum makes explicit her pervasive acceptance of Miranda’s text as referring in a more or less realistic way to the historical Hamilton. She notes that Miranda is “closely following” Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, calling the book “excellent.” She says that her “one quarrel with Miranda” is that he leaves out Hamilton’s explanation for accepting a duel with Burr. And she praises Miranda for having engaged in “immense intellectual and historical work.”
It is no slight to Miranda’s admirable creative power and discipline to say that closely following Chernow’s biography by no means represents a serious historical and intellectual effort to come to grips with the life and importance of Alexander Hamilton. Nussbaum would even seem to be patronizing Miranda with such praise if her remark about the Chernow biography did not appear to point to a superficial understanding of Hamilton’s career and legacy. Where Nussbaum’s essay reflects not on the character in the play but on the historical figure, her reading loses touch with reality.
Nussbaum's approach is not so much intellectual history as the hyper-intellectualization of our national origins.
An example is Nussbaum’s acceptance of a key conceit of Chernow’s book: Hamilton as exponent of the American immigration experience. Nussbaum says that Miranda and Chernow are inspired by Hamilton’s success as an immigrant, but they had to invent it to be inspired by it. In moving from one colony of empire, the British West Indies, to another, New York, the historical Hamilton no more represented the classic American immigrant experience that Chernow invokes than Benjamin Franklin did when he moved from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. Chernow’s book gains feel-good effect by associating Hamilton with the inspirational nature of the immigration narrative. Miranda capitalizes on that story theatrically, and Nussbaum follows it without comment.
Understanding Hamilton requires subjecting something such as Chernow’s book—hagiography in the contemporary warts-and-all vein—to criticism based on political, economic, legal, and military scholarship (Terry Bouton, Woody Holton, E. J. Ferguson, Wythe Holt, and Richard Kohn come to mind) as well as a close reading of Hamilton himself. I don’t mean his Federalist essays or “The Farmer Refuted,” which intellectual-history mavens will naturally be drawn to. Such writing bears not at all on the bold, improvisatory action that gave Hamilton his real importance. That action sent him at times into outright criminality, far from anyone’s conceptions of political morality, a fact glossed over and explained away by Chernow and therefore omitted by Miranda. Two episodes especially bring that context alive. During the Newburgh Crisis of 1783, the young Hamilton joined his finance mentor Robert Morris—a man central to Hamilton’s formation yet barely mentioned by Chernow, so not depicted by Miranda—in threatening the Congress of the Confederation with a military coup. A decade later, during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the mature Hamilton ordered door-kicking mass arrests without warrant and detention without charge, and tried to manufacture false evidence against his political enemies. The first episode was formative, the other climactic. Understanding the purposes they served requires intimate knowledge of Hamilton’s “Report on a Military Peace Establishment” and “First Report on the Public Credit,” as well as his interoffice cabinet memos, among other writings that many historians will concede are important yet will never find as appealing as the essays. The writing that made Hamilton Hamilton has nothing to do with the Greco-Whiggish reflections on politics that he could, of course, sling around in the style of the day, though never with the best of them.
Nussbaum, seemingly uninterested in all of that, takes her place in the Adair tradition, and exposes its fault lines, via the somewhat ironic path of accepting Miranda’s description of Hamilton as a “hero and a scholar.” Hamilton was hardly a hero in the military sense invoked by the show: Miranda’s own “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” at times seems to parody the young Hamilton’s over-the-top delight in the competent but tactically irrelevant bayonet charge he was allowed, at the last minute, to lead. And the effort to make Hamilton a scholar only reflects his fans’ misguided eagerness to elevate him to a position like that occupied by James Madison, who really was an important intellectual and philosopher. When Adair sought to counter the image of Madison as a greedy Virginia aristocrat of Marxist-influenced imagination, he was readily able to present the Madison who brought copies of Polybius and Montesquieu to the constitutional convention: the deep reader in philosophy, the projective writer. Madison the reader and writer thrives at the expense of Madison the weird, often annoying politico, at least as important historically, because the bookish Madison has a basis in reality.
Hamilton, though at least as smart as Madison, gained importance as a man of action. While Hume and Necker, among other thinkers, influenced the policy for which Hamilton took such dramatic risks with his own and the nation’s future—risks that made him genuinely and impressively antiheroic—that policy is routinely overlooked or misrepresented in preference for an attractive combination of ideas about political morality and stories about things that don’t make Hamilton special at all: love, ambition, competition, infidelity, dueling. For me, it is in the workings-up of the deliberately regressive, even destructive mechanics of the 1790 revenue bill, with its multitude of dry-sounding mathematical, technological, and administrative considerations, all fitted together in minute complexity to ensure exact results—long nights of practical study, involving manuals and interviews, not “every treatise on the shelf”—that the man’s unique brilliance comes most vibrantly to life, because I think that is where it came alive for him. In any event, those are the creative passions that formed our nation and make Hamilton important.
Adair had preconceptions that kept him from understanding the real fight Hamilton was in, a fight to defeat not first and foremost Jeffersonianism—it only hampered Hamilton—but those efforts by ordinary people in the 1780s and ’90s to bring about an egalitarian American democracy. Nussbaum takes as given the importance to democracy of both the national bank and the Constitution, but again she is reading history backward: both were explicitly conceived, and not only by Hamilton, as means of defeating democracy. In that fight Hamilton’s weapons were monetary policy and public finance, and while ideology of course played into them, such matters just don’t have much philosophical appeal. Adair, disbelieving in the radical American populism that Hamilton spent his career trying to crush—there was no significant place for that populism in Cold War revisionism—could see Hamilton only as a kind of hysteric, living in fear of uprisings that consensus-oriented postwar historians had to deem chimerical. Hamilton thus became, for a long time, categorically uninteresting to historical scholarship.
Nussbaum does find Hamilton interesting and following, like Miranda, the Chernow biography, she draws Hamilton into the Adair tent, placing Miranda’s character, and by extension Chernow’s, on the horns of a dilemma of the kind Adairites love. Where Miranda has given us a fanciful, patriotic pageant for our time, far removed from any important fact and therefore irresistibly fun, Nussbaum’s essay offers a sober, philosophically informed examination not only of Miranda’s main character but also of a man and a founding history that never existed.
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