Commonplace Book #93

[Albert] Gallatin matters greatly.  It is nearly impossible to describe the practical progress of liberal republicanism in early America without focusing on Albert Gallatin, yet in virtually all narratives involving the founders, he never seems to be more than a supporting player.  He would become, under Jefferson and Madison, the longest serving treasury secretary in American history.  His relationship with Burr in the 1790s tells us much about the coalescence of the northern Republican element: both Burr and Gallatin favored an independent economy (free from foreign, especially British, dependence), supporting commercial growth and western expansion.  Influenced by the Enlightenment, they fashioned themselves as rational Republicans, social liberals, independent thinkers.  They saw politics as a thinking person’s game, in which rational planning was essential to partisan victory.  His greatest political strength, as Gallatin said about himself, was the intensive research he conducted into political-constitutional issues–such as he and Burr displayed when they defended his right to be in the Senate.  Cut from the same intellectual cloth, Burr and Gallatin were natural allies.

Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 134-135.

Commonplace Book #92

The personal dynamic between Burr and Hamilton has inspired virtually all of the accounts of the circumstances that ultimately led to their 1804 duel.  But Hamilton’s real reason for wanting to destroy Burr’s career, at least in the early 1790s, was political: Burr’s growing support in New York.  Hamilton’s lieutenants, such as Nathaniel Hazard and Robert Troup, had been watching Burr, and observing his increasing popularity.  Burr had acquired a political base.  He had been assembling a team of influential men, such as Melancton Smith, who could help him organize his own “popular party.”  And despite what Hamilton claimed, the men around Burr were attracted to his principles: his belief in promoting commercial opportunities for the middling sort, his advocacy for liberal legal reform, fair elections, and freedom of speech–the last evidenced by his moral stand to defend the silenced and censured printer Thomas Greenleaf.

In letter to close friends, Hamilton held nothing back in condemning Burr, but in correspondence with casual acquaintances he cleverly pretended that he had only heard rumors disparaging Burr’s behavior.  Less than three weeks after Hamilton had written in one letter that Burr was “unprincipled, both as a public and private man,” and in another letter that he was an “embryo Caesar,” he disingenuously wrote to Congressman John Steele, a  moderate Federalists, that his “opinion of Mr. Burr is yet to form…Imputations, not favorable to his integrity as a man, rest upon him, but I do not vouch for their authenticity.”  Here is clear evidence of Hamilton’s political gamesmanship.  He wanted to undermine Burr and to pretend that he had nothing to do with it.

–Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 119-120.

Commonplace Book #91

In 1793, when Burr had first discovered the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he called it a “work of genius.”  None of his make peers, or the women he occasioned to meet, agreed.  He revealed to his wife his frustration with these people: “It is owing to ignorance or prejudice that I have not yet met a single person who had discovered or would allow the merits of this world?” As Burr conceived the nature of the world around him, unenlightened opinions ultimately did not matter.  He knew, and harbored no doubt, that women could contribute to the growth of knowledge–to the spread of liberty–which was essential in a modern republic.  This was Burr at his most idealistic and his more progressive: The Enlightenment encompassed a radical transformation of women’s minds.  His daughter’s special calling was to prove that Wollstonecraft was right and that women were as capable as men of genius and reflection–that, indeed, “women have souls.”

Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 83.

Commonplace Book #90

But we don’t see the passions and ideals behind Hamilton’s politics [in the musical Hamilton].  We don’t see his desperate desire to strengthen the national government–to an extreme degree.  We don’t learn that his vision of a centralized New World government was grounded in his admiration of Old World Great Britain.  We don’t learn of Hamilton’s impulsive habit of seeking military solutions to political problems.  We don’t see his deep distrust of the masses and his doubts about democracy.  Until his dying day, Hamilton believed that the American republic was bound to fail.  Hamilton doesn’t dig that deep.

Nor does it need too.  Hamilton is a musical, not a work of history, and as such, it focues on human drama above all else, following the biographical lead of its main source, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton.  This isn’t to say that playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t to his research.  Although there are errors, and much is missing from the play, or simplified to the point of abstraction or near visibility (for example, the impact of slavery on the new nation), it contains a remarkable amount of history for a piece of musical theater.  Not many Broadway  shows tackle topics like the national assumption of state debts, or set a president’s Farewell Address to music as Hamilton does in “One Last Time.”  

Joanne Freeman, “‘Can We Get Back to Politics? Please,” in  Renee Romano and Claire Potter, eds., Historians on Hamilton, 42-43.

Commonplace Book #89

Of course , nations rarely commemorate their disaster and tragedies unless compelled by forces that will not let the politics of memory rest.  One should not diminish the profoundly meaningful experiences of the [Gettysburg] veterans themselves as such a reunion; the nation, through the psyches of old soldiers, had achieved a great deal of healing.  But the 1913 [Gettysburg] “Peace Jubilee,” as the organizers called it, was a Jim Crow reunion, and white supremacy might be said to have been the silent, invisible master of ceremonies.  At a time when lynching had developed into a social ritual of its own horrifying kind, and when the American  apartheid had become fully entrenched, many black leaders and editors found the sectional love feast at Gettysburg more than they could bear. “A Reunion for whom?” asked the Washington Bee.  Only those who “fought for the preservation of the Union and the extinction of human slavery,” or also those who “fought to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery, and who are now employing every artifice and argument known to deceit and sophistry to propagate a national sentiment in favor of their nefarious contention that emancipation, reconstruction and enfranchisement are a dismal failure?”  Black responses to such reunions as that at Gettysburg in 1913, and a host of similar events, demonstrated how fundamentally at odds black memories were with the national reunion.  In that disconnection lay an American tragedy not yet fully told by 1913, and one utterly out of place at Blue-Gray reunions.

David Blight, Race and Reunion, 9-10.

Commonplace Book #88

The car and the family vacation was one of the best expressions of family “togetherness.”  By 1963, 43 percent of all American families reported averaging six hundred miles on extended annual vacations.  For a week or two families could exercise complete control of their lives as they entered the vast system of American highways.  Considering the break with the past Americans faced, it was no coincidence that historic sites predominated as destinations.  Vacations to historic sites not only allowed parents to control family leisure for didactic purposes, but also served the purpose of raising patriotic future citizens.  At the same ti me, historic restorations at Disneyland, Sturbridge, Williamsburg, Mystic Seaport, or Gettysburg entertained members of a visual culture on the road just as on television and in the movies.  Few, perhaps, realized that family-centered consumption of goods or travel to historic sites supported American family values and aided Cold War supremacy.  On the road, as in the ranch house, supermarket, or church, Americans acted out of their nation’s freedom and abundance as a counterpoint to godless communism.

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, 156.

Commonplace Book #87

The [Gettysburg] Chamber [of Commerce] also…attempted to revive the lucrative nineteenth-century rituals of monument building and reunions.  Hoping to nurture the Southern trade, the Chamber encouraged governors of Southern states to erect monuments to their fallen heroes.  Appreciating the power of wizened veterans to draw media attention, the Chamber invited the GAR for “one glorious encampment once more” in 1926 and the United Confederate Veterans for a seventieth reunion of the battle in 1933.  The onset of depression appears to have dampened these initiatives along with tourism, but in casting for ways to revive the sunken industry, the Chamber tried again in the late 1930s as tourism resurged.  With Americans clinging to their past for reassurance during the economic crisis, the Chamber launched the enormously successful seventy-fifth anniversary celebration in 1938.  A mix of patriotism and spectacle featuring doddering veterans and what the Philadelphia Inquirer called a “monster military parade” of whippet tanks, bombers, and other military hardware, “The Last Reunion of the Blue and Gray” flooded half a million visitors into the town lavishly adorned by a decorator who had festooned every presidential inauguration since Woodrow Wilson’s.  More important, as a national festival illuminating a dreary decade, the spectacle that featured the upbeat President Franklin Roosevelt thrilled the media.  Over one hundred print and broadcast journalists set up camp and required thirty-five miles of wiring to churn our radio, newspaper, magazine, and newsreel features.

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, 133-134.

Commonplace Book #86

Those who attended the [Gettysburg] reunions left with happy thoughts and fraternal feelings.  “I spent four days with the boys in blue,” a Virginia veteran wrote following the 1888 reunion….These symbolic acts of reconciliation were grounded in deeper changes.  From postwar America’s rapid transformation emerged shared feeling among veterans that all who had proved their manhood during the war were worthy comrades in arms.  As “alien strains” of Eastern Europeans, certified as inferior by the science of the day, poured into the country, veterans could share pride in the myth that Anglo-Saxon heroism forged a powerful new America. At the same time, relentless industrialization bred nostalgia for the passing of agrarian life that helped Northerners lament the Old South’s demise.  And from the psychological perspective of aging, the green and salad days of robust youth, however unpleasant when lived, increase in happiness proportionately with advancing years.  Thus individual and collective memory shifted with time, and by the 1880s veterans North and South could celebrate martial valor without any discussion of the knotty issues that causes the war or their outcome….In its report of the fiftieth anniversary reunion, the state of Indiana termed the celebration “just one glad season of forgetfulness of the trials and hardships of the past.”  Trials and hardships disappeared among former enemies in banter about glory days; the war was reduced to an achievement in which only the exclusive club of Northern and Southern heroes could share.

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine106.

Commonplace Book #85

A variety of cottage producers as well as peddlers of Gettysburg bric-a-brac came and went between 1884 and the 1920s.  John Good, who at the turn of the century produced wooden pistols, jewelry boxes, and statues, made batches for large excursions in advance after determining what type of souvenirs the excursionists might purchase.  Like vials of water from the Jordan River or letter openers made from Mount of Olives wood, many Gettysburg souvenirs bore direct association with the sacred ground itself.  Tiny glass viewers containing different park scenes were placed inside minie balls; small cannon were fashioned from battlefield metals and wood; battlefield clay furnished raw material for miniature monuments, cannons, or canteens.

The view that such kitsch profanes sacred spaces fails to consider the social and psychological function of such goods.  G[rand] A[rmy of the] R[epublic] posts prominently displayed Gettysburg relics and used gavels, inkstands, and podiums crafted in Gettysburg for conducting rituals.  Souvenirs widened Gettysburg’s access as much as improved transportation did.  In an era enjoying an effusion of consumer goods, souvenirs seemed all the more precious because they were special commodities connected with a sacred place.

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, 70.

Commonplace Book #83

Gettysburg provides an opportunity to pin faith in the sacred to a tangible place, whose borders the faithful assume they are defending against the barbarians of commercialism. Yet we only have to reflect on how Gettysburg has been experienced to begin to see the situation differently.  The making of Gettysburg transpired as the nation underwent dramatic change in an industrializing America.  Within little over three decades after the battle, the United States became the world’s greatest industrial power and soon turned the corner from producer to a consumer nation . A new commercial culture penetrated the heart of American life, combining merchandising with intangibles such as holidays, religion, and national purpose.  The unfolding of this commercial culture paradoxically created sacred space to escape it.  Like Christmas or civic celebrations, it was precisely Gettysburg’s perceived transcendence of the marketplace that both enhanced and masked its position as a commodity.  In other words, the making of Gettysburg into an icon did not simply happen because a great Civil War battle had been fought there.  Rather, a commercial web often entwined with ritualistic activity packaged it for a consuming public and continually repackaged it for new generations.  Its chief producers in the marketplace have not been not only entrepreneurs, but those organizations dedicated to perpetuating the battle’s memory, including federal, state, and local government, Civil War veterans, reenactors, and preservation groups.  To achieve its central position in American culture, Gettysburg had to be brought within the cultural hub of American life, the marketplace.

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, 7-8.

Commonplace Book #82

Many of the lies and exaggerations that obscure the real [Aaron] Burr focus on his relationship to Alexander Hamilton.  Historians have been too trusting of Hamilton’s portrait of Burr, discounting his partisan motives in blackening Burr’s name.  Only half of the story has been told.  Hamilton, an extremely motivated political thinker, was also a master of backroom politics .  He was known for his poison-tipped pen, viciously attacking anyone he believed stood in the way of his political  dominance.  When it came to his sense of Burr as a competent rival, first in New York politics and later in presidential politics, Hamilton overreacted.  He systematically sought, over a period of many years, to ruin Burr’s chances through insults, slights, and writing campaigns.  The great irony is that Hamilton routinely accused Burr of lacking a moral compass, when no evidence exists that the self-possessed Burr ever insulted Hamilton.

The essential problem in Americans’ understanding of the Burr-Hamilton relationship is that it has only been described to them in personal, pathological, or sexual terms. The relationship  has been removed from politics, where it rightly belongs.  To put it succinctly, it was not any issue relating to moral character, but Hamilton’s aggressive style of politics that led to his duel with Burr.  At the dueling ground itself, Hamilton gave Burr every indication that he intended to fire in earnest; not waste his shot, as Hamilton apologists continue to insist to this day.

Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 10.

Commonplace Book #81

Curiously enough, twenty-five years later, apparently without realizing the significance of his own statement, Burr himself confirmed that  Hamilton’s bullet had hit the tree overhead.  In his seventies, he returned to the dueling ground with a young friend and relived the dramatic encounter.  Of Hamilton’s shot, he remembered that “he heard the ball whistle among the branches and saw the severed twig above his head.”  Burr thus corroborated that Hamilton had honored his pledge and fired way off the mark.  In other words, Burr knew that Hamilton had squandered his shot before he returned fire.  And how did he react?  He shot to kill, even though he had a clear shot at Hamilton and could have just wounded him or even stopped the duel.  The most likely scenario is that Hamilton had fired first but only to show Burr that he was throwing away his shot .  How else could he have shown Burr his intentions?  As he had written the night before, he wanted to give Burr a chance “to pause and to reflect.”  He must have assumed that, once he fired, Burr would be too proud or too protective of his own political self-interest to try to kill him.

Ron Chernow,  Alexander Hamilton, 704.

Commonplace Book #80

Throughout his affair with Burr, Hamilton evinced ambivalence about dueling. In light of his extensive history of affairs of honor, it may seem disingenuous for Hamilton to have stated that he did not believe in duels.  But with his son Philip’s death and his own growing attention to religion, Hamilton had developed a principled aversion to the practice.  By a spooky coincidence, in the last great speech of his career Hamilton eloquently denounced dueling.  During the Harry Croswell case, he argued that it was forbidden “on the principle of natural justice that no man shall be the avenger of his own wrongs, especially by a deed alike interdicted by the laws of God and man.”  In agreeing to duel with Burr, Hamilton claimed to be acting contrary to his own wishes in order to appease public opinion.  As his second, Nathaniel Pendleton, later wrote, dueling might be barbarous, but it was “a custom which has nevertheless received the sanction of public opinion in the refined age and nation in which we live, by which it is made the test of honor or disgrace .”  In 1804, Alexander Hamilton  did not think he could afford to flunk that test, though many friends would fault him for bowing to this popular prejudice.

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 685.

Commonplace Book #79

As he pondered an amorphous comeback–he never spelled it out–Hamilton struggled with the conundrum that while Republicans might be “wretched impostors” with “honeyed lips and guileful hearts,” they had won the public’s affection.  How could this be?  Hamilton thought that Republicans appealed to emotion, while Federalists relied too much on reason.  “Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by their passion,” he told James Bayard , and his controversial solution was something called the Christian Constitutional Society.  The charge of atheism had been a leitmotif  of Hamilton’s critiques of Jefferson and the French Revolution.  Now he hoped that by publishing pamphlets, promoting charities, and establishing immigrant-aid societies and vocational schools, this new society would promote Christianity, the Constitution, and the Federalist party, though no necessarily in that order of preference .  By signing up  God against Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton hoped to make a more potent political appeal.  The society was an execrable idea that would have grossly breached the separation of church and state and mixed political power and organized religion.  Hamilton was not honoring religion but exploiting it for political ends.  Fortunately, other Federalists didn’t cotton to the idea.  As he drifted into more retrograde modes of thought, Hamilton seemed to rage along in the wilderness, and few people listened.

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 658-659.

Commonplace Book #78

If given to dispirited musings, [Alexander] Hamilton could never completely withdraw from politics.  His dismay over Jefferson’s success only added urgency to his desire to reverse the Republican tide.  In “The Examination” essays, Hamilton undertook a broad-gauge assault on [president] Jefferson’s program. The tone was captious and lacked the large-minded generosity that had distinguished his earlier work.  Jefferson wanted to abolish the fourteen-year naturalization period for immigrants, and Hamilton insinuated that foreigners, not real Americans, had voted the Virginian into office; he predicted that “the influx of foreigners” would “change and corrupt the national spirit.”  Most amazing of all, this native West Indian published a diatribe against the Swiss-born treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin. “Who rules the councils of our own ill-fated, unhappy country?”  Hamilton asked, then replied, “A foreigner!” Throughout his career, Hamilton had been an unusually tolerant man with enlightened views on slavery, native Americans, and Jews.  His whole vision of American manufacturing had been predicated on immigration.  Now, embittered by his personal setbacks, he sometimes betrayed his own best nature.

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 658.

Commonplace Book #77

Chafing at the stinginess  of his co-Republicans when it came to public expenses, [George W. Bush speechwriter Michael] Gerson struggled to resist the antigovernment, antispending, “leave us alone” coalition in the administration and the Congress.  But his hopes for a massive AIDS relief campaign in Africa, for massive new foreign aid grants tied to improvements in health and education, and (perhaps most quixotically) for establishment of a tax-subsidized savings account for each American child born in poverty were blocked or radically whittled down.  For all the talk of a new nationalism and a new citizenship, markets and politics had by now become more radically intertwined.  Governance operated more and more through acts of contract: marketizing, outsourcing, and incentivizing the supply of public goods.

Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture,  265.

Commonplace Book #74

Nowhere had the line between rituals of church and state been more blurred in the post-1945 years than in the way in which the presidential speech making capitalized on the forms of Protestant preaching.  The resemblance ran much deeper than the references to God sprinkled heavily throughout presidential speeches  or the benedictory forms with which they closed.  Adaptation of sermonic authority  and sermonic cadence was integral to the high presidential style.  The people gathered together–preacher and congregation–to hear their civic creed reaffirmed.

Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture, 31.

Commonplace Book #73

The first breaks in the formula that joined freedom and obligation all but inseparably together [in the United States] began with Jimmy Carter.  From the start he brought to the presidency a markedly different language shaped not only be his outside-Washington experience but, still more, by his immersion in Protestant evangelical culture…The idea of the nation as a gathered congregation of faith saturated Carter’s rhetoric.  He talked easily of the “common good” and the “beloved community.”…The antigovernment line that Carter articulated–“government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define vision,” he admonished in 1978–was premised on the assumption that the “new spirit among us all” ultimately mattered more than politics.

Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture, p.20

Commonplace Book #72

Across the multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to  conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire.  Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones.  Imagined collectives shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out.  Viewed by its acts of mind, the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.

Daniel T. Rogers, Age of Fracture, 3.

Commonplace Book #71

Historians of the Revolutionary era typically stress that the extralegal committees put a high value on resolving  differences within their local communities, and that they “attempted as best as they could to avoid physical violence. ”  Yet, even if many committees did push for renunciations and apologies, and even if they displayed concern with at least the appearance of due process, we need to recognize that creating solidarity always relies on excluding others, often through violent means.  As even those historians who emphasize the committees’ restrain admit, membership was “certainly not an activity for the faint of heart.”  If we consider incidents of abuse and violence as mere “unpleasant exceptions,” we risk failing to do justice to the full range of American experiences during the Revolutionary period.

Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, 36-37.