AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
The Statue Wars have returned. Or more accurately, the war waged by elements of the left on America’s historical memory never really ended, even as it receded from view.
This past weekend, the city of Albany, New York, removed a statue of General Philip Schuyler, a Revolutionary War hero, Senator, and founding father. The event might have gone unnoticed had it not been for an all-but-forgotten artifact of a different sort of identity politics: Schuyler was the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, and his three daughters were leading characters in Lin-Manual Miranda’s Tony-Award winning musical, Hamilton.
This recent statue controversy brings into relief the gap between an earlier generation of American liberals, who had sought to appropriate America’s traditions for their own vision of what the country should be (these are the ones who went gaga for Hamilton), and the newer generation, who see America’s past as inherently compromised.
There is an irony that almost all contemporary knowledge of Schuyler, whose monument is being removed due to his ownership of slaves, comes from a musical in which he and his daughters were portrayed by non-white actresses. Upon its release in 2015, Hamilton became a controversial culture war issue for its decision to tell the story of America’s founding fathers through the medium of rap, with the deliberate selection of a cast based on race.
Conservatives denounced the use of rap as disrespectful, and the casting as identity politics gone mad. Leftists in turn attacked the play for erasing the issue of slavery in the story of America’s founding. By casting figures who owned slaves with black actors and actresses, they argued, it caused audiences to view them as less racist.
Centrists and much of the cultural and social elite, by contrast, embraced everything about Hamilton, and it was performed at the White House for Barack Obama and his staff.
With the perspective of nearly a decade, it now seems like everyone overreacted. Hamilton was very good, but far from perfect, and the historical revisionism was more problematic in that it erased Hamilton’s own flaws, lionizing his centralizing, almost authoritarian approach to governance while caricaturing the opposition from Jefferson, Madison, and other critics who, contrary to what viewers see in the musical, were vindicated politically in his lifetime.
As for conservative criticisms, given the volume of actual hostility levied at America’s founders, a lack of solemn respect and the use of rap appears a minor offense.
The casting can be viewed differently in hindsight. It was not color-blind, but rather an over-the-top effort at integration by seizing historical figures for other groups – immigrants, African Americans, Latinos – rather than insisting that figures must be defined by their identity.
Hamilton was an assault on historical accuracy, but not on history itself. This is a key distinction, one not fully appreciated at the time. An assault on historical accuracy is an effort to advance a political agenda through the curriculum. It is a power-grab, and it rightly provokes opposition among the political opponents of those launching it. But it is not an assault on the identity of opponents.
Hamilton was a bid by American liberals to seize the association with America’s Founding Fathers from conservatives, not an effort to destroy them. George Washington, if anything, is more heroic in Hamilton than in most history textbooks. He is merely made a champion of Hamilton’s liberal, technocratic agenda.
This was a battle conservatives and liberals could fight, because by definition it meant agreeing that Washington was a great man, and the question then was what that greatness means today. While liberals favored Hamilton’s Washington and conservatives favored the more traditional academic portrayal of the first president, there was always a viable way to combine the two: Teach the debate. Teach George Washington, and then debate his views of Jefferson and Hamilton when it came to economic and foreign policy. This is constructive, non-adversarial, and promotes analysis and patriotism.
That is not the direction the post-Hamilton left has gone. Rather than the opening bid in a pitch to bring American culture and education into the 21st century, Hamilton is now viewed as elitist cringe. Schuyler was a slaveholder, and he deserves the fate of Confederate generals whose monuments are being torn down.
Instead of trying to assault historical accuracy, the modern left seeks to assault history itself. In Hamilton, Lin-Manual Miranda, to the pleasure of liberals and the fury of conservatives, suggested that the Founding Fathers agreed with the modern Democrat Party and that Barack Obama could be seen as the reincarnation of George Washington.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her 1619 Project, asserts the opposite. The Founding Fathers were not merely racist, she argues, but driven primarily by racism. They, like all white Americans since 1619, prioritized racism above all else, and their motive for the revolution against Britain was to protect slavery. Hannah-Jones recasts Hamilton and Jefferson’s debates over principle as debates over how best to promote slavery, and George Washington’s efforts to balance the two as an attempt to seek the best means of expanding slavery.
In short, whereas Miranda sought to argue the Founding Fathers would have embraced Obama, Hannah-Jones goes out of her way to argue that every respected figure in American history from Washington to Jefferson would have been repelled by him. Miranda told Democrats and liberals they were the successors of the founders. Hannah-Jones told them they were seeking the overthrow of the founders’ legacy. This is how Hannah-Jones’ approach led directly to efforts to remove the statues of Abraham Lincoln. Even those who sacrificed to change American race relations for the better – Lincoln, LBJ – ostensibly did so for cynical and racist reasons.
By painting the founders as irredeemably racist, Hannah-Jones and her allies told liberals that they could only be liberal if they destroyed the founders’ legacy. This inadvertently went beyond anything judicial originalists like Samuel Alito would argue about the Constitution being an inherently conservative document. For Hannah-Jones, of course it was.
Louis Antoine de Saint Just, seeking to justify the execution of King Louis XVI, declared that it is “impossible to reign innocently.” A similar Jacobin mentality drives Hannah-Jones’s leftism. To have wielded power in American history is to have advanced racism.
In Hannah-Jones’s telling, accomplished African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, Thomas Sowell, or Clarence Thomas are the “black face of white supremacy.” To try to portray historical figures as non-racist would merely redeem them. Instead, since American history is racist, there needs to be a full-throated assault on American history. Any American who celebrated a Founding Father was a racist. Any statue of such a figure was shrine to racism.
It is impossible to split the difference with such a movement.
The debate over the removal of Schuyler’s monument also occurred the same weekend that Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis called for “Fort Liberty” in Fayetteville North Carolina, to have its long-standing name of Fort Bragg, after Confederate General Braxton Bragg, restored. Liberals, many of the same ones complaining that Schuyler’s removal was “political correctness gone too far” were quick to accuse advocates of the “Bragg” name of lionizing a “traitor” and throwing in that he was a terrible general.
Moderate conservatives and liberals tried to split the difference with the left when it came to Fort Bragg. They accepted historical arguments about his status as a general, and the idea that a Confederate should not have a U.S. base named after him.
The problem is that the left wasn’t engaging in good faith. For Nikole Hannah-Jones and her allies, the real objection is to the presence of any historical figures. They do not see the difference between Schuyler and Bragg.
Rather, they see the similarity. Both were lionized. Schuyler and Fort Bragg both gained cultural resonance. Hosting more than 29,000 troops, Fort Bragg became the home of the 82nd Airborne after 1952, and units stationed there have played a key role in all of America’s conflicts since the Second World War. It is an important part of the identity of hundreds of thousands of veterans and millions of family members.
The problem for the left, then, is not that people were upset about Schuyler’s statue or Fort Bragg, but that they weren’t. Hamilton and the experience of decades of integrated military heroism had turned both names into symbols of respect. For the advocates of the 1619 Project, respect for any historical figure is akin to racism – hence the need to remove all monuments.
A nation cannot function without history. Hamilton was an effort to take ownership of that history. It was cringe, inaccurate, and had an agenda. But the removal of Schuyler’s statue reveals how different an effort to appropriate patriotism looked from efforts to erase the concept of patriotism entirely.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.