Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth
by Stephen F. Knott University Press of Kansas,
336 pages, $34.95
Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth is a book from which one can learn a great deal, but neither about Alexander Hamilton nor the persistence of myth. It is concerned with American history-more specifically, the history of the American Founding. It focuses on two representative symbols, Jefferson and Hamilton, and the persistent bifurcation in Americans’ self-perception as a nation committed, on the one hand, to democracy, equality, localism, populism, strict constitutionalism, and agrarian economics-and, on the other, to limitations on popular political expression, hierarchical organization, centralization, elitism, a loose construction of the Constitution, and commercial economics. Jefferson and Hamilton quickly became the symbolic expressions of these competing socioeconomic programs, and it is the history of this association and their changing character that Stephen F. Knott tells.
What makes Knott’s story compelling is the polemical nature of the historiography surrounding the Founding, as well as the changing national characterizations of Jefferson and Hamilton as alternating waves of vilification and hagiographic praise swept across the historical landscape. As Knott shows, these patterns responded with predictable regularity to changes in the economic and social environment. In particular, Hamilton’s standing rises and falls with the stock market. Yet, in spite of our overall prosperity, Knott perplexedly reports that Hamilton has regularly been on the losing side of this national battle, as indicated by the disparity in Washington real estate devoted to each man. But what makes this work stand out is the detailed manner in which Knott draws to the reader’s attention the persistence of politicization surrounding early American historiography. The cumulative effect of this unfortunate story is likely to undermine confidence in past historical objectivity, or even our current ability to do better.
These depressing possibilities are not conclusions that Knott reaches. But anyone reading his book who is not a “believer” (and it does approach religious zealotry) in the truth or righteousness of either Jeffersonianism or Hamiltonianism is likely to reach similar conclusions concerning the difficulty, if not impossibility, of writing balanced early national American history. In his telling of this story, one should not expect much from politicians, but what is less expected is the consistent partisanship displayed by the most preeminent of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians. As Knott observes, FDR’s promotion of Jeffersonianism was politically excusable, but “less justifiable was the lowering of scholarly standards by the nation’s intellectuals, who promoted a simplistic common folk versus plutocratic view of American history . . . [and] offer[ed] a glaring example of historians in the service of a political movement.” Across the historical landscape, Knott shows (sometimes inadvertently) that historians (and political scientists) have served as apologists for Jefferson or Hamilton as they advanced both their political and professional interests.
It is this story, then, that Knott, modeling his effort on Merrill Peterson’s The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, tells so powerfully. Knott shows that Hamilton, from the days after his death to the early years of the twentieth century, was regularly lauded in New England and the Middle Atlantic states, and vilified in the South and West. The image that seemed to endure the longest and yield the greatest animosity resulted from Hamilton’s monarchical sympathies. But even during the Jacksonian years, when Hamilton’s historical reputation was at its nadir, there were men like Chancellor Kent who wrote that “if Hamilton had lived twenty years longer he would have rivaled Socrates or Bacon.” More expansive still was the attitude towards Hamilton, again almost wholly in the North, that emerged from the carnage of the Civil War and the perception that Hamiltonian centralization would have prevented the war. At least in the North, these were good years for Hamilton and bad ones for his fraternal twin.
The Gilded Age, however, would be an even better time for Hamiltonian adoration. Among scholars, one finds John Torrey Morse, John Bach McMaster, Hermann von Holst, and Henry Cabot Lodge lovingly protecting his memory. But there were also highly respected critics: John Fiske, William Graham Sumner, George Bancroft, and Henry Adams. In particular, we learn that Adams was responsible for having reported that Hamilton had described the democratic “people” as “a great beast.” As Knott shows, this putative remark took on a life of its own, for “it was around this alleged view that Hamilton’s opponents and detractors gathered most consistently, both then and now.”
Still, even during these years of ascendancy, Hamilton remained highly controversial in the South and the West. This was especially true for Populists-men such as Tom Watson and William Jennings Bryan. More damaging to Hamilton’s reputation, Knott reports, was the fact that these populist antipathies “were embraced by progressive historians and political scientists whose writings influenced the new century’s political leadership. Charles Beard, Vernon Parrington, Claude Bowers, and William E. Dodd absorbed the undercurrents circulating in the 1890s and incorporated these themes into their later works.”
Nonetheless, Hamilton continued to ride high in the earliest years of the twentieth century. Knott notes that Theodore Roosevelt was surely the most zealous of Hamiltonians to occupy the White House. Herbert Croly, likewise, owed an intellectual debt to Hamilton, and the same might be said of Walter Lippmann. As one moves into the 1920s, one finds Hamilton continuing to enjoy warm support from both Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
But with the Great Crash, admiration for Hamilton fell along with the market, and this provided an opening for the progressive historians’ attacks on him. Contempt for Hamilton was also common among a number of Northern poets, including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Stephen Vincent Benet, Carl Sandburg, and John Dos Passos. Knott concludes that “with poets and novelists voicing the despair of depression-era America and Hamilton branded as the cause of that despair, the 1930s witnessed a hemorrhaging of his reputation the likes of which had not been seen since the age of Jackson.” Yet things would get worse.
As partisan as these historians and poets were in their treatment of Hamilton, more unbalanced still was the fanatical devotion to Jefferson among the next generation of early American historians. This is where Knott’s account has the greatest bite. Indeed, it is at the pinnacle of the historical community that one finds some of the most passionate political actors writing in the service of their politics and in devotion to its preferred symbol. The writings of Merrill Peterson, Julian Boyd, Dumas Malone, Adrienne Koch, and Henry Steele Commager, to say nothing of the more honest zealotry of Howard Zinn and Staughton Lynn, are filled with anti-Hamilton partisan rancor, and Knott is quite effective in exposing it.
Among the most egregious of these historians was Koch, who “viewed Hamilton as Curtis LeMay in a waistcoat and breeches.” A glaring exception to this consensus was the iconoclastic Forrest McDonald, who “challenged, in a rather blunt fashion, much of the accepted wisdom surrounding Hamilton and his great adversary from Virginia” and showed that “it was Hamilton who sought a social revolution to overturn the power and privileges of the ‘oligarchs who dominated the American republic.’” On balance, though, the historiography of the latter two-thirds of the twentieth century seems to be among the most polemical in the nation’s history.
Yet, for Knott, by the end of the century, “there were indications that Hamilton’s long national nightmare might be over, that a balanced reassessment of his importance as a founder was under way.” Importantly, Knott believes that this has occurred because the scholarship of “succeeding generations of Straussians and neo-Straussians rejected the distorted Hamilton of Bowers, Boyd, and other progressive historians.” Knott, therefore, ends his historical survey on a relatively optimistic note.
In his final remarks, Knott outlines a skeletal rebuttal to the charges leveled against Hamilton by the prominent politicians and historians surveyed in this work. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that almost all we value today in America results from the prescience of the first Secretary of the Treasury, for “the America that explored the outer reaches of space, welcomed millions of immigrants, led the effort to defeat fascism and communism, produced countless technological advances, and abolished slavery and Jim Crow is Hamilton’s America.” But, particularly when offered as a string of assertions, is this assessment any less polemical than those of the historians that Knott rightly criticizes for excessive partisanship?
The problem with such statements is that they implausibly exaggerate Hamilton’s influence-and thus fall prey to the same kind of partisan distortions as those who wrongly trace the greed and materialism of modern America to him. Apparently Knott has failed to take account in himself of the very flaw he rightly finds so frequently in others. By this, however, I don’t mean to suggest that one can transcend all political attachments when doing history. Nevertheless, it is likely possible to do better than Knott has in providing a dispassionate evaluation of Hamilton and America’s early national history.
Knott’s partisan defense of Hamilton leads him, for example, to miss a singular feature of the historiography he examines: the propensity to conflate democratic or popular aspirations with liberal individualistic ones-and, conversely, to assume that all nonliberal political thinking is necessarily hierarchical. The reality is that democracy and liberalism enjoy distinct essences and have enjoyed separate histories in America. That is, democratic and nonliberal aspirations have worked together in America at least as often as have democratic and liberal ones. Similarly, hierarchical sympathies could be conjoined to liberal economic and political goals, as they clearly were for many Loyalists and Federalists. American historians and public figures value both democracy and liberalism, and are doggedly committed to keeping all good (and bad) things together. As a result, historians-and here Knott doesn’t do much better-have tended to ignore the reactionary sentiments closely linked to the Jeffersonian Republicans as well as the modern, liberal features of Hamiltonian Federalism.
Still, these shortcomings take little away from the quality of Knott’s book, which should be read by all who are interested in the historiography of the Founding. However future debates about the Founding’s meaning might unfold, Knott’s fine book has made an important and lasting contribution to them.
Barry Shain teaches political theory at Colgate University and is the author of The Myth of American Individualism.