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What Hamilton a modern liberal?

Friday, June 26, 2015
Of course not. Nobody serious, including Ron Chernow, thinks that he was. Look, I can appreciate William Hogeland's frustration with the Jefferson-Hamilton debate, and totally agree that we can't project our modern political divisions onto the founding generation. On the other hand, America is a Founding-obsessed country and we have to accept that fact. It might be annoying to scholars, but U.S. politicians and activists are going to continue to identify themselves with major historical figures in order to legitimate their policies. This is particularly important for liberals, who want to change things.

Hogeland is correct that Hamilton's involvement in the Newburgh conspiracy was stupid. And there is plenty of evidence that Hamilton wasn't much of a small-d democrat. However, when one looks at the total package of policies that Hamilton argued for, and his overall vision for American society, we see a capitalist, socially mobile, industrial society based on free labor; a country with a strong military and robust national powers. By comparison Jefferson's vision of a rural society of yeoman farmers and a weak state doesn't look all that attractive, especially when you consider Jefferson's complicity with slavery. So the question isn't really whether Hamilton was what we would call a liberal or not, but whether he was a modern. And by all reasonable accounts he most certainly was.

On another note, Hogeland trots out the tired idea that the nationalists were out to crush populist reforms. Oh boy, here we go with Beardian analysis of the critical period again. Here Hogeland is falling for the very mistake he criticizes others for - trying to slot previous generations into contemporary contexts. It's important to recognize that in evaluating historical figures & events we understand the set of problems they faced as they understood them. The nationalists were concerned that the republic was going to collapse into class conflict within states and territorial rivalries between states. This was a perfectly reasonable fear. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Shays rebellion was a major factor at the Convention & during the ratification (this is disputed by historians). To smear the nationalists as anti-democratic presumes that 1) democracy as we know it was much of a norm (it wasn't - the U.S. in 1789 was one of the most democratic regimes on earth), and 2) their evaluation of the "populist" legislation directed at capital was motivated by class interest. However, the problem with Shays Rebellion (and what scared the hell out of the country's leaders) wasn't the policies that the insurgents were proposing so much as the fact that they led an armed rebellion on a state capital and the national and state governments were impotent. The critique of republics was a tendency towards instability and disorder, which could ultimately lead to tyranny. The founders were worried that if they didn't make reforms the republic would collapse into a bunch of petty tyrannies. And they were probably right to do so.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:57 AM

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On the Possible Demise of a Symbol

Tuesday, June 23, 2015
I grew up under the confederate battle flag. Although I moved around quite a bit as a young man, it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I lived in state where it wasn't prominently displayed. It was everywhere you looked. And as a young man I didn't think much of it. I was distinct among many of my peers in that I considered it a good thing that the South had lost of the civil war, and I always understood that the War had been about the preservation of slavery. Maybe that was because I grew up in areas that were (by regional standards) fairly cosmopolitan, or because my parents were from the North, but then that didn't save many of my friends from falling prey to the glamor of the Lost Cause. The power of place is quite extraordinary. After a few decades good northern liberals can find their children becoming confederate sympathizers, and even detecting more than a bit of drawl in their own speech.

However, despite my resistance to pro-confederate propaganda, it took a very long time for me to link it to the stars & bars. I'm therefore somewhat sympathetic to those who are confused by the strenuous calls to expunge the battle flag from public life. If you don't see a necessary connection between the War to Defend Slavery and an idiosyncratic southern symbol, then it's hard to see what gets people to riled up. Of course, if the symbol is so innocuous it shouldn't inspire great resistance to its elimination, but people's views aren't always very coherent so I'll leave that be.

It took me a long time to realize that rather than a harmless symbol or a minor issue, the confederate flag is a gratuitous insult to the millions of people whose ancestors suffered under a system of oppression and still do. Despite the fact that I was (and am) a liberal, I still needed to be educated on this matter. It's no surprise then that unreflective southern conservatives (something of a triple redundancy) should take so long to come around.

I'm hopeful that the awful events in Charleston will finally result in the confederate battle flag disappearing into history. I hope that in a few decades it is as anathema to display that symbol as it is to wear the swastika. But I also hope that liberals realize that it will take a very long process of cultural education to persuade southern society that they have anything to be ashamed of. Getting rid of the battle flag would be an important victory, but the forces of evil that wield such influence in the South have suffered much more colossal defeats in the past and refused to give up the struggle for white supremacy. It's a siege, not a battle.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:22 PM

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