Miscellany: The making of modern America

The making of modern America

On February 28 one of the most thought-provoking recent US exhibitions closes – the New York Historical Society’s show on Alexander Hamilton.

The exhibition is sub-titled, The Man Who Made Modern America, and raises some significant questions about the long-running conflicts between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian views of US democracy.

Miscellany hasn’t seen the exhibition but has had many messages about it from friends who have, and has been following the coverage and criticism in various journals. Among the few disadvantages of living in Australia are the media, the Government and the fact that you miss so many interesting exhibitions. You can compensate for the first two but not the third – witness the despair felt by many at missing the recent London National Gallery Raphael show which managed to display a Raphael, a Leonardo and a Michelangelo all in the one room. But…… back to Hamilton.

Hamilton is famous for, among other things, being shot dead by Aaron Burr in a duel. His more enduring legacy is the dispute between the Jefferson-Madison axis wanting an exclusive democracy based on farmer-citizens (excluding women, blacks etc etc) and Hamilton wanting an even more exclusive democracy which resembled nothing so much as a plutocracy (excluding just about everyone who wasn’t rich)..

Mike Wallace, the co-author of the brilliant book, Gotham: A History of New York to 1898, has reviewed the exhibition for the New York Review of Books (10 February 2005).

Wallace sets out to debunk the curators’ claims on Hamilton’s significance accusing them of indulging in a bit of  “ Barnumesque …barkerism”. Not that Wallace disputes Hamilton’s significance and relevance, more the emphasis given in the show.

To simplify somewhat, Wallace focuses on some of critical disagreements with Jefferson and Madison and, while trying to avoid anachronism, basically suggests that Hamilton was not the father of the modern US.

But when you look at Hamilton’s career the exhibition sub-title’s claim is fairly robust. Hamilton’s handling of the redemption of Revolutionary War debts to soldiers was a giant scam which gave massive windfall profits to insider traders. He allowed huge consumer demand to be under-pinned by massive expansions in debt. He wanted to create a massive army – commanded by him and Washington – to create a US empire. Washington – a true Cincinnatus – scoffed and warned against the dangers of involving the army in civilian life. Hamilton supported the election of Presidents for life and when his supporters lost the 1800 New York elections he urged the Governor to change the rules retrospectively and reverse the result. He wanted all aliens deported and supported the notorious 1798 Sedition Act as well as backing the prosecutions of journalists who exposed scandals (including a sex scandal involving him).

To his credit Wallace’s real aim is to combat the increasing US emphasis on viewing current events through the prism of the 18th century Founding Fathers (absent their  Enlightenment deistic rejection of much religious fervour of course).

But as he describes the exhibition, interpolating incidents from Hamilton’s career, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the curators actually got it right.

Tony Judt and the NYRB

Incidentally the same NYRB issue contains a review by Tony Judt of NYU of a number of books on US-European relations.

During the height of the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” nonsense Judt produced a statistical comparison of the number of French killed in the First and Second World War with US deaths in all the many wars in which the US has been involved – mentioning in passing the 100,000 plus French who died after 1939 and before the US entered the War. The statistics managed to silence a few Australian and US friends wedded to the concept that the US had galloped – again and again – to the rescue of a people who refused to defend themselves. Judt was too polite to mention that, without French support, a number of US leaders (Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson et al) would have been hanged as traitors and murderers by the British. David McCullough’s biography of Adams has an illuminating description of Adams negotiating with British officers who had been instructed to capture and hang him.

Anyway, Judt does the same service in the NYRB with some detailed comparisons of economic, social and health indicators between Europe and the US which suggest that the conventional wisdom about Euro-sclerosis in comparison with US dynamism is a bit over-done.

What’s wrong with the arts (continued)

Miscellany has commented before on the Australia Council’s seeming inability to engage with English – preferring managerial gibberish.

Now it is curtailing a program which might have helped others, at least, to write better. The February issue of the Australian Society of Authors newsletter reports on changes to the Literature Board’s Young and Emerging Artists’ Initiative. In the past a proportion of funds available went to people under 35 ( and a proportion to people over obviously)  but now 100% of mentoring places under the program are to go to writers aged 30 or under.

As the ASA points out this discriminates against women, people from NESB backgrounds and anyone whose life experiences make it difficult for them to write until later. It also contradicts – quite directly – the Federal Treasurer’s campaign to encourage older people to develop new skills to help deal with ageing population problems.

Most importantly though, it probably reduces the talent pool in the unlikely event that that the Australia Council ever decides to employ people who can write clear, direct English rather than parodies of the excesses Orwell and Watson have brought to our attention.

Consistent with the track record of organisations which say they must encourage change, facilitate more business-like processes, achieve enhanced synergistic benefits etc etc etc etc , the Australia Council announced the eligibility rule changes two weeks after program applications closed.

Which is the bigger sacrifice?

A friend remarked to me over the weekend – following the item on the expelled Israeli diplomat – “Which is the bigger sacrifice already – Christmas lunch or lunch with Philip Ruddock?”

One hopes our diplomats don’t get given such awful choices and such demanding jobs.


With the decision to send more troops to Iraq there are two consolations.

First, we don’t to read the clamour (not sure if this is the right collective noun or not but it should be if it isn’t) of conservative commentators to know exactly what they are going to say.

The clamour who told us that Saddam had WMD and that our security depended on getting rid of him; then told us that the coalition forces would be welcomed with flowers and cheers; then told us how clever Howard was to have participated and then got out quickly; then told us how much progress the coalition was making in creating democracies throughout the Middle East; then told us how we had to stay the course; then told us a series of other things – all of them progressively proved wrong – will now be telling us this was a decision we had to make and what a sensible one it was.

The second is the delightful irony of changing times which produce headlines about how Australian troops are being sent to protect the Japanese.

Of course, the real issue is that we are going in simply because everyone else, other than Tony Blair and George Dubya US, want to get out.