Beneath the Powdered Wig

Reinterpreting the life of our trendiest Founding Father

Detail of <em>Alexander Hamilton</em>, 1806, by John Trumbull (Wikimedia Commons)
Detail of Alexander Hamilton, 1806, by John Trumbull (Wikimedia Commons)

Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons From a Misunderstood Founder by Christian Parenti; Verso, 304 pp., $26.95

Since Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical became a Broadway sensation and made the 1804 Burr-Hamilton duel “of the moment,” the field of Revolutionary and early republican American history has found itself caught in the crossfire. For those who prefer it that way, the men in powdered wigs are no longer dead white guys; they’re streetwise. It all sounds new, but it’s not. Every generation has refashioned the Founders in its own image, mixing patriotic lore with filiopietistic tales to enshrine America’s cherished ideals. After his death, George Washington was revered as a demigod and saint, with his Jesus-like apotheosis captured in art and eulogy. New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned Paul Revere into a democratic symbol of the common man. In the middle of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial to celebrate the author of the Declaration of Independence as a beacon of democratic idealism. That same year, 1943, Broadway’s The Patriots presented Hamilton as the champion of an aristocratic (code for fascist) class. The first secretary of the Treasury stood in for the widespread fear (as voiced by then Vice President Henry Wallace) that self-satisfied industrialists might sell out America for profits. Political theater has long elevated one favored Founder over another.

At the moment, we have a thriving cottage industry touting Hamiltonian revisionism. This fall, Cornell University Press will release Hamilton and the Law: Reading Today’s Most Contentious Legal Issues through the Hit Musical, in which legal scholars “embrace Alexander Hamilton as the trendiest historical face in American civics.” Since 2015, not one but three novels have been written about the fallen duelist’s widow, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, one of which is said to be “a juicy answer to Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton.” A romance writer has churned out a trilogy for teens on the Hamilton and Eliza love story. There are a coffeetable photographic album of the musical and—God forgive us—adult coloring books.

As Hamilton continued to flood the marketplace, the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis unleashed waves of iconoclastic outrage over monuments—and not just the Confederate brand. Protesters perversely took aim at the abolitionist Marquis de Lafayette in Washington, D.C., and beheaded Christopher Columbus in Boston. And in Albany, the mayor issued an executive order to remove a prominent statue of Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s wealthy, slave-owning father-in-law.

In the contest over “who tells your story,” Christian Parenti, a journalist with a PhD in sociology and geography from the London School of Economics, has added a new book, Radical Hamilton. Though Parenti invokes some of the tropes of the musical (boy prodigy, poor immigrant made good), he is playing not to theater fans but to policy wonks and the think tank crowd. Parenti’s mission is undisguised: he aims to reclaim both the real and the symbolic Hamilton from conservative writers such as Ron Chernow and Richard Brookhiser. To Parenti, they are wrong to see Hamilton as a prophet of free-market capitalism.

Parenti argues that the centerpiece of Hamilton’s policy-savvy philosophy is the Report on the Subject of Manufactures (1791). This puts him squarely in the dirigiste camp. Though Parenti never offers a precise definition of dirigisme, he means that Hamilton believed in a strong national government that actively intervened in economic development. Parenti’s title is part marketing ploy (tapping into the hipster image of Miranda’s musical) but more accurately reflects the author’s political agenda: rescuing Hamilton from Wall Street.

Parenti’s “economic lessons” focus on war as the engine of change. First (and most important) are Hamilton’s experiences during the Revolutionary War and the Confederation era that immediately followed. The economic dislocation of the war, combined with a postwar depression, made Hamilton into a problem solver. Parenti’s Hamilton sees strong, centralized government as the means of saving the country from economic fragmentation. Following in the footsteps of historian Max Edling, Parenti recognizes that Hamilton’s design was grounded on the British “fiscal-military state.” In fact, the national bank was based on the Bank of England, established in 1694. Hamilton’s avid support for manufacturing also drew heavily on British thinkers and established British policy of the industrial-capitalist-mercantilist school, which explains his critique of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Parenti is right to see Hamilton as an unabashed advocate of state intervention. The author’s detailed discussion of the economic disarray brought on by the Revolution is a vivid reminder of the eight-year war’s material costs, which have been routinely airbrushed from our collective memory.

Even so, Parenti falls into the same trap as Chernow by bending over backward to defend Hamilton. First of all, he doesn’t adequately acknowledge that Pennsylvania political economist Tench Coxe was Hamilton’s indispensable collaborator on the Report, if not its coauthor. He brushes aside Hamilton’s numerous critics in cavalier fashion, beginning with General Horatio Gates, commander of the most important Revolutionary victory, the 1777 Battle of Saratoga. Parenti writes off Gates as a “general who had gone rogue,” simply for having challenged Washington. (He grudgingly admits that Hamilton forged Washington’s orders.) He likewise takes an odd swipe at Abigail Adams for her “rent-seeking parasitism” and caricatures Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as mouthpieces for the southern slavocracy. The most outlandish, ill-informed, one-sentence putdown is reserved for John Adams: “The second administration, which Hamilton was not part of, was even worse, for it bore the character of its central figure, the mean-spirited, begrudging, and self-regarding John Adams.” Fact: Hamilton’s militarism was most pronounced during Adams’s administration, when he held a powerful position as inspector general and second in command of the New Army. Fact: Hamilton actively supported and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts. It is irresponsible to ignore the ways in which Hamilton attempted to subvert U.S. foreign policy through allies in Adams’s cabinet—men held over from Washington’s cabinet.

Like many popular writers, Parenti makes strained arguments in order to clean up Hamilton’s image for a modern audience. His unconvincing defense of Hamilton’s advocacy of child labor is a case in point: “Brutal? Yes. But child labor and widespread child poverty were then accepted as facts of life. Hamilton himself had started full-time work at age twelve or thirteen. In Hamilton’s view, waged work for children and paupers was better than the alternative, no work and hunger.” Can anyone imagine a contemporary writer making this sort of argument about slavery? Hamilton was not helping paupers find work; he saw children as an untapped resource to be exploited more efficiently. And Hamilton wasn’t alone: colonial America relied heavily on child labor. Benjamin Franklin earlier proposed that instead of slavery, Anglo-American settlement across the continent might exploit the labor of wives and large broods of children.

Parenti’s larger agenda is for a “green Hamilton.” Aggressive intervention may well be a sane solution to climate change, but is Hamilton really the poster child? Presentism has obvious pitfalls: one could as easily see Hamilton as the father of the military-industrial complex, or the progenitor of industrial child labor. Such labels are catchy but invariably incomplete.

There is nothing radical about Hamilton. Can’t we admit that the 18th-century Hamilton carries with him unpleasant baggage, as all the Founders do? The past is messy, people are flawed, then as now. We always learn more by examining the whole life, warts and all.

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Nancy Isenberg is the author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of  Class in America, Fallen Founder : The Life of Aaron Burr, and Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. Her most recent book, written with Andrew Burstein, is The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality. She is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University.


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