Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018 for April 30: The Hamiltonian ideology

I referred in the last post in this series to a case in 2016 in which Hillary Clinton offered up a bit of Lost Cause history.

Matthew Yglesias picked up on that moment to talk about how the prevalent understanding of US history has evolved in recent years, How Hillary Clinton got on the wrong side of liberals' changing theory of American history Vox 01/26/2016.

Hillary's blooper was about how the Yankees were too mean to (white) Southerners after the Civil War:
The kind of politician Bill Clinton — supported by Hillary as, by all accounts, a genuinely trusted adviser and confidante — was at that time has gone badly out of style, and Hillary Clinton's reemergence as a Northern suburbanite is part of that process. But answering the question of which historical president she most admires, Clinton named Abraham Lincoln. That's a safe choice in almost any context. But she went on to espouse a theory about the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination that would have been banal for almost any 20th-century Democrat but that cuts sharply against the modern progressive view of American history. [my emphasis]
Yglesias describes the dominant view in the Democratic Party of 2016 this way, "Most liberals now believe that Reconstruction was a noble project to secure racial equality that was stopped by unjustified Southern racism and violence."

That also happens to be a view based on empirical reality. Whether that was desirable or not is to some extent a matter of judgment. White supremacists obviously don't agree with the desirability of Reconstruction's project to achieve racial equality before the law. But I would argue that value judgments can't legitimately be abstracted from empirical history, either.

I share the broad view of Reconstruction as a democratic project. But I think of my own outlook on American history as a left viewpoint or interpretation. And from my perspective, the general Democratic view of the Civil War period and Reconstruction is basically accurate from an empirical standpoint and is also consistent with a left, left-liberal, or even (theoretically) conservative perspective.

But the popular left and left-liberal versions of early American history and the antebellum period I find very problematic. HistoryNet's definition of antebellum: "The Antebellum Period in American history is generally considered to be the period before the civil war and after the War of 1812, although some historians expand it to all the years from the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 to the beginning of the Civil War."

Continuing with Matt Yglesias: "Modern-day liberals no longer feel the need to talk around the embarrassing fact that it was a Republican who saved the Union." So far, so good.

But he continues, "and are in the process of constructing an entirely new usable history in which Alexander Hamilton is a heroic Founding Father and the post–Civil War effort at Reconstruction was a noble failure, not a regrettable consequence of Lincoln's death." Reconstruction, I'm down with that.

But the idea of Alexander Hamilton as an admirable admirable historical model for the left and/or center-left, that's where I get off the train. Alexander Hamilton was a great American and a supporter of the American Revolution, which does make him a revolutionary, at least for part of his career. He also was one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, along with James Madison and John Jay. The lazy left-liberal version of history right now is very jumpy about saying positive things about the American Revolution. Because, you know, "revolution" is a BernieBros thing.

At least we seem to be largely spared, for the moment, of a re-run of the old capital-p Progressive interpretation of the American Revolution as the real revolution and the Constitution as a counter-revolution (more or less) of self-serving rich white guys at the Constitution Convention. This was the famous theory of Charles Beard in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). It has been thoroughly refuted on empirical and theoretical grounds in the ensuing 105 years. But it still pops up now and then. It's only a matter time, I'll pessimistically guess, before corporate Democrats discover Beard's theory, which set up the Revolution up as a good event and the Constitution as the bad one, and use it only in reverse: the Revolution as bad (BernieBros!!!) and the Constitution is good (Hamilton the "heroic Founding Father.")

BTW, it's been pretty common for a while to use "Founders" for "Founding Fathers," although all the Founders at the Constitutional Convention were men. But referring the the founders of the country in a more general sense, I tend to use the more inclusive version.

Before we leave Hamilton, the guy was a conservative at best later in his career and I would go with reactionary. He was a brand of monarchist, wanting to set up the American President as a de facto king. He believed that a popularly elective legislature could only function practically if they were being regularly bribed, preferably by the Executive or his allies. The Citizens United decision in that sense was a very Hamiltonian one. The Bank of the United States, which he is conventionally praised for advocating, eventually came to undertake that function by paying regular stipends to members of Congress. The Bank was a private institution given special approval by the federal government, paying members of Congress before whom it could advocate for policies favoring the very rich.

Then there's this. Yglesias writes about:
... the sensibilities of the modern-day Democratic Party, which includes very few white people with deep family ties in the South. But it's an institutional problem for the Democratic Party to the extent that admitting Republicans were right on racial issues in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s leads to awkward questions about why committed white supremacists from earlier periods (like Andrew Jackson) and later ones (like Woodrow Wilson) are celebrated as pillars of the party.
I'm not a particularly fan of Woodrow Wilson, though I'm a "fan" of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. More specifically, they represent the trend in actual American history that successfully fought and won the American Revolution. Jackson at age 17 was a soldier in the American Revolution, so he can legitimately be counted as one of the Founders. They also represent the strain in American history that worked, with considerable success, to expand democracy among the American political community.

Today, we take a different view than at least white American males mostly took in, say, 1820, of the historical reality that the American political community was made up almost exclusively of white males.

But it's also true democrats all over the world looked to the United States of the Revolution and the early Republic and the antebellum period as a radical experiment in democracy. Which it was. So the movements that expanded democracy, as the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian period did, matters historically. Those were the people who were going in the direction that the Democratic Party celebrates in retrospect. The Abolitionist movement matters, the women's rights movement mattered, the growth and activism of labor union matters, advocates for immigrants' rights, Indian rights, and much more, they all matter. They don't erase the horrors of slavery or Indian dispossession. But they didn't drop down from Heaven in a divine intervention like Yahweh opening the earth to swallow up Korah and his followers, the Biblical event Walter Benjamin celebrated as sweeping away the old order to make way for an entirely new one. They happened in the process of real struggles by real people.

Real achievements in national independence for the American Republic are also important: the Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans. That doesn't make American policy toward the native peoples of North America moral or pure. It doesn't make imperialist wars acceptable. But it's part of real history. And to ignore real democratic advances or the flawed human beings who achieved them and came to symbolize them is also ahistorical. And not a meaningfully "left" approach to history.

It's foolish from a left or left-liberal perspective to celebrate a monarchist like Hamilton as a democratic hero but dismiss Jefferson and his democratic tradition entirely. It would be even more absurd to ignore the radical difference between John Calhoun and his followers, on the one hand, and Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian reformers, on the other.

As I've noted before, John Brown is the figure on which the half-baked Democratic historical view that Yglesias describes always founders. John Brown was an anti-slavery activist who took an active part in the guerrilla war between pro- and anti-slavery forces in "Bleeding Kansas." And his failed raid on Harper's Ferry was part of a serious plan to set up armed resistance units in the Appalachians to encourage runaways and harass slaveowners with guerrilla tactics. So his antislavery credentials are solid! He was also unusual among white men in not only opposing slavery but advocating for political and social equality for blacks. And for women. He's one of the few famous white men of pre-Civil War America that advocated racial and gender equality in a way that would today be considered mandatory for a Democratic politician, and to which even many Republicans politicians feel they need to make rhetorical nods.

But, oh, that guerrilla war against slaveholders and their armed supporters ... That makes him a "terrorist" by today's standards. Even though it was proslavery guerrillas he was fighting against in Kansas, i.e., also "terrorists," good egalitarian white liberals in the United States tend to shy away from taking him as any kind of acceptable model, symbol, or hero. Because people who quake at Republicans calling them "socialists" - or even "liberals"! - certainly don't want to be caught saying nice things about the "terrorist" John Brown. It doesn't fit into Hamiltonian narrative that venerates Alexander Hamilton and John Quincy Adams, also anti-slavery but as much of an advocate for the narrow class interests of the wealthy as Hamilton himself.

Any view of 19th-century US history that celebrates the liberation of the slaves at the hands of the Union Army but is too squeamish to acknowledge the democratic, political, and moral necessity of the anti-slavery guerrilla war against the Slave Power's supporters in Kansas is seriously lacking something.

Yglisas also comments, "Lincoln is, obviously, the president who freed the slaves and saved the Union. Alongside George Washington he's the conventional choice for greatest American president." Yglesias doesn't elaborate on the status of George Washington, although he seems to grudgingly concede his importance in American democratic history in that comment.

Which brings up another problem with the Hamiltonian corporate Democratic historical narrative. Lincoln the Great Emancipator had his own model Presidents. But his two main models were ... Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, both condemned to the dustbin of American history by the Hamiltonian outlook. How is it that the Great Emancipator took those two Presidents as the model for his own democratic project? The Hamiltonian view finds that very hard to explain. For a more straightforward democratic left view, it's fairly obvious.

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