Ron Berger —
The critically acclaimed Hamilton: An American Musical, which opened off-Broadway in February 2015 and on-Broadway in August 2015, has been heralded as a cultural phenomenon that has rekindled interest in this important “founding father” of the United States. Based on the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the musical has garnered numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, famously picked up the book at an airport bookstore and quickly began envisioning it as a stage musical.
One of the innovative features of the production is the racially and ethnically diverse cast, with people of color playing historically white figures. As Miranda has said, “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional. It’s a way of … [making] the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.”
Last November, 10 days after the presidential election, Hamilton: An American Musical made political news when Vice-President Mike Pence attended the play. At the curtain call, Brandon Victor Dixon, the black actor who plays Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president and man who killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804, called out to Pence: “We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us. We truly hope that our show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Dixon’s rebuke brought forth an expected partisan response: liberals liked it and conservatives did not. But, as Richard Kreitner points out in a recent issue of The Nation magazine, what was lost on most observers was that “Dixon’s message for Pence obscured an uncomfortable reality: The real Alexander Hamilton’s ‘American values’ were more like those of Pence and his boss than the ones endorsed by the musical.” By this Kreitner does not mean that Pence is like Hamilton in favoring a strong central government (although Donald Trump may), but that they share a faith in and deference to economic elites as worthy of their superior status vis-à-vis the less fortunate.
And this is the rub, because the Chernow book upon which the musical is based entails a rather charitable treatment of Hamilton that is not universally shared. In contrast to biographies that are more critical of his legacy, Chernow aimed to “set the record straight” and show that the ideas he championed, “wildly disputed during his time,” were integral to what has made America great. Most notably, Hamilton was a pamphleteer for the American Revolution, served on General George Washington’s military staff during the Revolutionary War, wrote treatises that underpinned the political philosophy of the nation (and were compiled in The Federalist Papers), and worked to ratify the U.S. Constitution. He served as Secretary of Treasury during Washington’s presidential administration and in that capacity allowed the federal government to assume the wartime debt that had been accumulated by the states and laid the groundwork for a national market economy based on manufacturing, banking and credit, and stock markets. In other words, according to conservative political columnist David Brooks in his New York Times review of Chernow’s book, Hamilton was the central architect of an economic system in which “energetic government doesn’t oppose market dynamism but is organized to enhance it” and that has left us with a legacy of “capital markets that are today the engine of world capitalism.” Brooks also accepts Chernow’s view that Hamilton “sought to smash the aristocratic fiefs enjoyed by Southern landowners like [Thomas] Jefferson and to replace them with a diversified market economy that would be open to immigrants and the lowborn.”
But there is, as I have suggested, another side of the story, which emanates from those who are more critical of Hamilton. Richard Kreitner is one of these critics.
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The backdrop of Kreitner’s critique of Hamilton’s contribution to the U.S. republic is the contemporary city of Paterson, New Jersey. Kreitner is personally familiar with Paterson because he grew up in the nearby suburb of Wayne. The city is located, in Kreitner’s words, “where the Passaic River rolls in from the New Jersey uplands and crashes 77 feet into an ancient gorge—the largest waterfall east of the Mississippi other than Niagra.”
Hamilton first came to Paterson, which is located just 15 miles from Manhattan, New York, in July 1778 as a young soldier on Washington’s military staff. Years later, while Hamilton was serving as Secretary of Treasury, an office he held from 1789 to 1795, he made Paterson the cornerstone of his vision of a burgeoning capitalist economy.
To situate Hamilton’s contribution to the city in broader perspective, Kreitner highlights some of his more unflattering qualities, such as his opposition to the Bill of Rights, support for jailing journalists who were critical of the republic, and support of “the Alien and Sedition Acts of the late 1790s, which made it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and threatened thousands of alleged subversives with deportation.” In 1783 he also “conspired with army officers to threaten a military coup unless Congress coughed up enough extra pay to establish them as a nascent aristocracy” after the Revolutionary War.
Additionally, Kreitner characterizes Hamilton as a “system-rigger extraordinaire” and discusses his role in creating the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SEUM) “to build a new industrial metropolis” in Paterson, or as Hamilton called it, a “national manufactory.” The location was ideal because “the Great Falls of the Passaic offered a steady supply of water for a system of canals … that would wind down a hillside to power a city of mills.”
SEUM was essentially a public-private partnership that was chartered by New Jersey’s governor William Paterson—which is how the city got its name—to grant manufacturers “exemptions from state and local taxes for 10 years, the power to construct public improvements, and perpetual rights to every drop of rain collected in the Passaic River’s watershed.”
In the Report on the Subject of Manufactures that Hamilton submitted to Congress, he argued that industrial manufacturing would indirectly benefit the masses precisely because it directly benefited the elite few. In other words, in today’s parlance, Hamilton was a proponent of trickle-down economics.
To advance his vision of the industrial order, Hamilton hired William Duer, his cousin by marriage, to head SEUM. Duer was the son of a wealthy Caribbean bean planter who had served as Hamilton’s assistant Treasury secretary until Hamilton dismissed him when “his habit of privately investing public funds [for his own benefit] became a political liability.” As head of SEUM, Duer used its resources for shady stock schemes, which created a financial bubble that nearly “took the entire economy down” when the bubble burst in the nation’s first financial crash.
Although Hamilton was not implicated in Duer’s malfeasance, Duer and several associates were imprisoned. In terms of Hamilton’s legacy, however, Kreitner thinks the incident suggests the kinds of problems that can “develop from an urban-industrial complex built on privilege and lacking in public accountability.” Indeed, John Adams, with whom Hamilton had collaborated on the The Federalist Papers, was worried about the prospect of a government, in his words, “substituting the motive of private interests in place of public duty; converting its pecuniary dispensations into bounties to favorites, or bribes to opponents; accommodating its measures to the avidity of a part of the nation instead of the benefit of the whole.”
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Hamilton’s vision of a capitalist America based on manufacturing is often presented, as in Hamilton: An American Musical, as diametrically opposed to an economy based on slavery. But, the potential success of Hamilton’s vision for Paterson was, in fact, intimately tied to slavery. Drawing upon the insights of eminent historian Edmund S. Morgan, Kreitner observes that what eventually rescued Paterson “after its initial fall was the technological refinement of the process”—Elie Whitney’s cotton gin—“that took slave-picked cotton and made it into goods that American consumers could afford to buy.” Under the leadership of the colorful tycoon Roswell Colt, Paterson became known as the “Cotton Town of the United States,” and later much more.
According to journalist Christopher Norward, who authored the book, About Paterson: The Making of an American City, “It is impossible to think of any other city whose products cut so deeply into the texture of the United States.” It became an industrial center for locomotives, including the engines that were integral to the transcontinental railroad, as well as engines that powered Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis that flew to Paris and the Enola Gay that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. It also became a center for silk production, which led to a five-month strike by workers protesting the transition to a system in 1913 that would have doubled the number of looms each worker was responsible for, hence cutting the workforce in half. The strike failed, as thousands of workers were arrested, and the city was punished as industrialists began withdrawing their investments and looking elsewhere for greener profit-making pastures.
Today, Norward argues, Paterson is “a living metaphor of an American urban crisis.” Its notorious Fourth Ward, as Kreitner points out, is among the most blighted, violent, and drug-infested areas in the nation, a place where one resident says “the vast majority of our people are just barely surviving day to day.” More broadly, the city has an unemployment rate that is almost double the nation’s average and nearly 30 percent of its 146,000 people live in poverty. People in the neighboring suburb of Wayne, the community in which Kreitner grew up, are generally insulated from these problems unless “the appalling conditions spread outward along the thoroughfares originally designed to bring raw materials to the city’s mills.”
Kreitner adds that Paterson’s “contribution to its own misery” may be also attributed to Samuel Colt, cousin of Roswell, who in 1836 “patented the mass-produced repeating revolver, which allowed shooters to fire bullets into flesh with greater ease. His factory folded a few years later, and Colt really made his name in Hartford [Connecticut], but the promotion of the gun as an emblem of American culture began here, with the Colt Paterson .28.” Colt was also the first person to explicitly claim that the ownership of guns was a necessary condition for the preservation of personal liberty and freedom.
Kreitner notes that pro-Hamilton biographer and conservative National Review editor Richard Brookhiser has called Paterson the “Bethlehem of Capitalism, … ground zero of modern America.” In Kreitner’s view, however, the history of Paterson shows that industrialists were enamored with the city only as “long as it made no claims on their wealth, and abandoned [it] as soon as it did.”
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As for the future of Paterson, gentrification is the only solution on the table. Part of this program entails a plan to establish the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park (GFNHP) in a 118-acre area where two-thirds of residents currently say they are afraid to go out at night. The Hamilton Partnership for Paterson aims to capitalize on Hamilton’s “rising stock” engendered by the musical to raise money for the park and its proposed visitors’ center, the Alexander Hamilton Center.
According to GFNHP proponent Bill Pascrell Jr., an 11-term Democratic congressman and former mayor of Paterson, the project, besides celebrating the legacy of Hamilton, will “awaken the economic engine of our region that [he] envisioned years ago.” In Kreitner’s view, however, park boosters seem to assume that “money poured into the park, like the water that plunges over the falls, will trickle down through the city to irrigate bone-dry neighborhoods like the Fourth Ward.” Kreitner agrees that Hamilton’s vision of Paterson may be viewed as “a microcosm of the country at large,” and for this reason he does not think a celebration of its founder’s legacy will be of much benefit to the people who have been left suffering in its wake.
Richard Brookhiser. 2000. Alexander Hamilton, American. Simon & Schuster.
David Brooks. 2004. “Creating Capitalism.” The New York Times (Apr. 25).
Ron Chernow. 2004. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin.
Richard Kreitner. 2017. “Paterson: Alexander Hamilton’s Trickle-Down City.” The Nation (Mar. 13).
Edward S. Morgan. 1975. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial America. W.W. Norton.
Christopher Norwood. 1974. About Paterson: The Making of an American City. Saturday Review Press.
5 thoughts on “In Hamilton’s Wake”
Pertinent weighing in on not-always-welcome complexities & mythologizing elements of history. Interesting and informative.
In her recent (2016) book “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” Nancy Iverson notes the thrust of Colonial & Revolutionary powerbrokers (“the elite few” noted above) to engage in such system-rigging as Hamilton did, writing “schemes … built on privilege and subordination … The generation of 1776 certainly underplayed that fact. And all subsequent generations took their cue from the nation’s founders.” Through “position, education, and wealth [these leaders] would … expand, innovate, and create” to secure their natural right to run things.
No earth-shattering news or insights there, but what we tend to overlook or ignore are the preponderance of consequences that, significantly because of this, have woven class gaps into the American social, economic, & political fabric. Legacies built on Haves and Marginalized and Have Nots tend not to have happy outcomes for the masses, as Ron cites Kreitner stating in the piece’s concluding paragraph.
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While it is true that once proposed, Hamilton strongly campaigned on behalf of the Constitution, I find it interesting that Chernow downplays Hamilton’s original position at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Hamilton’s position there has been labeled, “Aristo-Monarchical.” Hamilton proposed a governmental structure with a strong centralized national government with a bicameral legislature. The senate would be composed of the few, that is, the rich and would have life terms. The lower house would be elected by the many (the poor) and would serve only for short durations. The executive would be indirectly elected, that is, not by popular vote, would serve for life, and would have absolute veto over all legislation. Thus, while Hamilton may have been insightful about the need for a strong central government for economic prosperity, he was no fan of democracy.
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Filling in the record a bit more, consider what Richard Alan Ryerson, author of “John Adams’ Republic: The One, The Few, The Many,” recently wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer:
In the 1780s, Adams “became alarmed at the ambition and avarice of many of [America’s] wealthy men. This led him to three broad conclusions: Aristocracies of birth, wealth and talent existed in every society. The ambition of many aristocrats threatened the political stability of every republic, and the talents of aristocrats could be safely employed by republics that developed ways to control their natural avarice and ambition.”
“Looking to the future, Adams vacillated between predicting disaster for an American republic that refused to recognize and control its aristocracy and hoping that America could develop this essential control. Most of his revolutionary colleagues … denied that the new American republic, whose federal constitution forbade the creation of titles of nobility, still had an aristocracy …”
“Moving into today, one can readily imagine that of all of the Founders, Adams would be least surprised … to see the citizens of our republic become so vastly unequal in wealth, as men of great fortunes have come to dominate the executive branch, the Senate, and even the House of Representatives. [And] since the 1970s America’s aristocracy of wealth has become as powerful as ever.”
“Adams probably would be surprised to see how thoroughly the executive branch, which he hoped would be America’s principle guardian against aristocracy, has become increasingly enmeshed in that same power. But he would still teach us there are only two broad defenses against this perennial threat: as effective and universal a system of public education as we can possibly devise, and an eternal vigilance against the powers of an aristocracy—whether we call it an oligarchy, a plutocracy, or a power elite—that most Americans still refuse to acknowledge.”
Observations &/or comments?
The “founding fathers” were indeed an interesting lot. My point of departure was the cultural impact of Hamilton that can be attributed to a popular musical. John Adams might have made a better subject from my political-ideological viewpoint, but Lin-Manuel Miranda either did not read a book about Adams and/or he did not find him as colorful to create a play about him.
Thought I’d add this additional critique of “Hamilton” to this thread: “Historians Irked by Musical ‘Hamilton’ Escalate Their Duel.”: