Cultural Caviar

Alexander Hamilton: Honorary Nonwhite

February 03, 2016

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Alexander Hamilton: Honorary Nonwhite

A simple model that helps make much about the modern world easier to comprehend is that of a high-low tag team against the middle. As part of a time-tested strategy of divide and rule, the rich tend to push for policies and attitudes that increase identity-politics divisiveness—more immigration, more Black Lives Matter rioting, more transgender agitation, and so forth—which makes it harder for the nonrich to team up politically to promote their mutual economic interests.

You could call it: “Diverse and Conquer.”

A striking example of how identity politics turn in practice into the Zillionaire Liberation Front has emerged in the war over which Dead White Male to kick off the currency to make room for a woman: the $10 bill’s Alexander Hamilton or the $20’s Andrew Jackson. Bizarrely, the reactionary genius Hamilton, apostle of rule by the rich, is rapidly morphing in the conventional wisdom’s imagination into an Honorary Nonwhite.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew recently announced plans to put a woman’s face on the $10 bill and asked for suggestions for which woman from American history to honor. It turned out, though, that there wasn’t much agreement or even enthusiasm over any particular woman. But there was much fervent defense of the plutocratic Hamilton staying on the sawbuck and instead discarding Jackson, the epitome of democracy, from the twenty.

One reason is that American history is rather lacking in women who were both important in their own time and popular today. Unlike the British, who have numerous female monarchs and some worthy artistic heroines such as George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and the Tory Jane Austen, whom the Conservatives have chosen to replace the Whig Charles Darwin on the ten-pound note, American history is lacking in women who can match up well with the top men.

“Andrew Jackson, the founder of the modern Democratic Party, is out of fashion because today diversity outranks democracy.”

An overlooked cause is that American culture heroes, such as Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, and Groucho Marx, tended to war against the stifling conformity imposed upon American life by schoolmarms and society dames. (Prohibition was the most notorious example of the mischief women and Protestant ministers got up to when the doughboys were fighting over in France.)

Putting women such as Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea on coins failed to excite enthusiasm in the recent past. And the usual suspects being trotted out this time, such as Anthony (yet again), Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and, especially, Harriet Tubman, also suffer from not being very easy on the eyes. (My choice would be Marilyn Monroe. While America’s semi-famous women politicians and artists are largely second-rate relative to Europe’s, the same cannot be said for our goddesses of the silver screen.)

The New York Times reported that the treasury secretary was blindsided by the support for his Federalist predecessor:

The bigger issue, however, turned out to be Hamilton versus Jackson. Many respondents asked: Why displace Hamilton, the first Treasury secretary and the architect of the American financial system, rather than eject Jackson from the $20 bill given his record of violence against Native Americans and opposition to national banking?

Andrew Jackson, the founder of the modern Democratic Party, is out of fashion because today diversity outranks democracy.

It wasn’t always like this. Jackson was the first president elected by universal white manhood suffrage after the elimination of property restrictions on the vote. This made him a potent symbol of democracy in the middle of the 20th century. Matthew Yglesias writes for Vox:

Two generations ago, popular historiography was dominated by the thinking of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian and Kennedy administration aide who produced admiring books titled The Age of Jackson and The Age of Roosevelt. This tradition aligned neatly with the imperatives of the Democratic Party, and emphasized the idea of a continuous tradition of standing up for the little guy, starting with Jefferson, continuing with Andrew Jackson, and moving onward into the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy. In this historiographical tradition, the little guy is, implicitly, white.

But since standing up for the implicitly white little guy is racist, we now stand up for the big guy. (Who is almost always white. Funny how that works…)

Today, Jackson is best known for driving the Cherokee down the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.

Of course, pushing the Indians westward was crucial to building a landowning, middle-class democracy, as virtually all American leaders understood. For example, in 1863 Abraham Lincoln addressed fourteen Plains Indian chiefs visiting the White House about his plan to turn them from free hunters into reservation farmers. The “Great White Father in Washington” explained to the Indians:

We pale-faced people think that this world is a great, round ball…. The pale-faced people are numerous and prosperous because they cultivate the earth, produce bread, and depend upon the products of the earth rather than wild game for a subsistence.

(The tragic irony of the Cherokee was that they had assimilated further toward white civilization than any other tribe—they farmed, published a newspaper, and owned black slaves, and their chief was seven-eighths white.)

The Times excuses Lew’s maladroitness by saying:

The Treasury Department could not have anticipated that in the face of this dispute the musical “Hamilton” would become a Broadway smash, further elevating its subject. Mr. Lew took his wife to the show in August, for their anniversary, and met the cast backstage.

Another Democratic treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, was also at Hamilton that night. (Rubin founded the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution to provide Wall Street Democrats like himself with their own shadow government during the Bush administration.) Timothy Geithner had already seen Hamilton Off Broadway. There’s no word whether Larry Summers has tickets, but Bill Gates included a song from the show on his Desert Island Discs last week.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton had already been a sensation when it debuted Off Broadway months before Lew’s announcement about the ten-spot. And it’s not hard to grasp how the show fits exactly what wealthy white New York liberals want to see: minorities defending Wall Street. It’s the Obama of musicals. (The president, by the way, made time in his schedule to see Hamilton twice last year.)

Miranda envisions Hamilton, the grandson of a Scottish laird, as a West Indian immigrant “whose life embodies hip-hop.” Kendra James writes for the Toast:

Imagine a stage filling slowly, populated by characters plucked directly from history: Aaron Burr, George Washington, Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette, Angelica and Elizabeth Schuyler, and others—all white in historical reality, but here imagined as people of color. Imagine a Broadway stage where the only white featured lead is King George III, the one common enemy of everyone onstage telling this story about the struggle to first found and then succeed in America.

This sounds agonizingly dumb, but it’s not. By all accounts, Hamilton is a highly skilled entertainment. I haven’t seen the musical, but I have read the 818-page book it’s based on, the 2005 doorstop biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. He writes sympathetic histories of financier dynasties, such as The House of Morgan and The Warburgs.

The composer and star, Miranda, is exactly the kind of minority whom wealthy white people want to believe in: a rare cultured Nuyorican from a high-achieving family (his father was a political adviser to former mayor Ed Koch) who reads massive books about the Founding Fathers. (And he’s even a Broadway composer who is straight.)

Granted, the notion of Alexander Hamilton—who struck everybody who knew him as far right by 18th-century American standards—as a progressive hero would have seemed more than a little bit nuts to Americans at any time before the present. Whereas the other Founding Fathers were followers of the Whig philosopher John Locke, Hamilton was by nature a disciple of the monarchist Thomas Hobbes. Woodrow Wilson described Hamilton’s antidemocratic ideology with the words “A very great man, but not a great American.” (But then, Wilson is on the outs these days.)

Miranda promotes Hamilton’s birth in the West Indies as bringing vibrant diversity to stuffy white America. But historian Paul Johnson pointed out that Hamilton’s cynicism represented

the gutter-philosophy of the West Indies…where it was the war of every man against every man—and woman. It was distinctly un-American…. But if un-American, he went a long way towards creating, perhaps one should say adumbrating, one of the central fixtures of American public life—the broad conjunction of opinion which was to become the Republican Party.

Not surprisingly, the cheapest single Hamilton ticket for this month costs $325.

Also unsurprisingly, last November the Democratic National Committee sponsored a benefit performance of Hamilton to retire Obama’s 2012 campaign debt, with tickets going for up to $5,000.

There’s no report if Bernie Sanders showed up.

But, in any case, the Democratic Party’s Hamilton was a sellout.

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