211 years ago today, Aaron Burr (the Vice President) shot and killed Alexander Hamilton (the former Treasury Secretary and still leader of the Federalist Party) on a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey.
In addition to a) being a fabulous story, and b) playing a peripheral role in my book (mainly because Burr, under indictment for murder in New Jersey, undertook a bizarre Western “adventure” that had all sorts of consequences in New Orleans), this happens to be c) the first historical event I can remember having any specific awareness of.
It was like 5th grade or so, and I was reading my US history textbook in class — whether directed to, or surreptitously, who knows — and I came across a paragraph about the duel. Double take — wait — what? The Vice President shot the Secretary of the Treasury? Why? Where? How? He didn’t get prosecuted? What exactly was going on in this strange foreign world of this early American republic?
I don’t consider Burr a villain, nor do I make him out to be a hero as some of his contrarian advocates do. He was an interesting blend of democratic ideology and self-interested opportunism — in other words, a really good emblem of the early republic writ large. Hamilton, on the other hand, although he gets tons of great press lately, was basically Mitt Romney, an advocate for the banks and the wealthy, and a skeptic on democracy. (No wonder he gets lots of great press lately!) They’re both among the most interesting figures of this whole period, and reading about the Duel will teach you a lot, if you’re willing, about politics and society in Jeffersonian America.
I’d suggest Thomas Fleming’s Duel and while it is slightly eccentric and idolizes Burr way too much, Roger Kennedy’s Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character; also, if historical fiction is your bag, Gore Vidal’s Burr is a loose but entertaining treatment of the episode and Burr in general.
Some people (that I respect) feel that the whole conversation about flags and monuments is a distraction, a red herring, a superficial substitute for real change.
I find this argument understandable, but wrong. You want to have a substantive “conversation” about race (or economic equality, or marriage equality, in other contexts)? This is the conversation. The debate over monuments, memorials, flags, “mere symbols,” is the conversation that determines who we are and what we stand for. A city (or a state or a nation) puts up public commemorations as a way of reifying and declaring its values. The debate over monuments is exactly the debate we should be having.
Somewhere down the line, of course, values have to turn into laws and policies. And that’s a whole other conversation. But the conversation about values is where it all begins, and our public monuments and symbols are the language in which we have that conversation. The face we present to the world says who we are and what we believe in.
Mitch Landrieu has weighed in in favor of removing four prominent
white supremacist Civil War monuments from New Orleans, saying they “belie our progress and do not reflect who we truly are.”
Good for Mitch! They certainly don’t reflect who we are; and they only ever reflected who we were one the condition that we is taken to mean white New Orleanians only.
The four are the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee circle (certainly the most prominent NOLA landmark in the bunch), the Beauregard statue near the Art Museum, the Jeff Davis statue, and the White League monument behind the Aquarium — the latter being quite frankly a white supremacist monument with nothing really to do with the Civil War at all (read about the White League and all that in Justin Nystrom’s book).
I’ve had a problem with these monuments ever since living here. It’s not that I would object to some sort of battle memorial to honor Civil War soldiers on both sides. But these are not that; historically they date to the Lost Cause/Jim Crow period when elite white Southerners were very consciously and frankly trying to reclaim the narrative, build a new repressive racial regime, and turn the loss in the war into a win on the battlefield of historical memory (and doing it very successfully, with results we still live with today).
It’s also striking how this city has so few monuments to anything else; how this 58% black city with a rich history of black civic activism and cultural achievement still wears, on its public face, the look of the Lost Cause. Of course Louis Armstrong is everywhere. But what about Homer Plessy? He has a small plaque near the site where he boarded a whites-only streetcar. What about Albion Tourgee or Rodolphe Desdunes? I’d be OK with keeping Lee and Beauregard around if we could honor some of those who fought to make the South more, not less equal.
I’m OK with the Jackson statue; to me it represents unionism, which is an important value, and the very opposite of what the CSA stood for, obviously. (In the eyes of most visitors to the city, admittedly, the Jackson statue is probably of a piece with the Confederate ones.) I’m also OK with the John McDonogh memorial; just the bare fact of having been a slaveholder, when slavery was legal, should not be an automatic disqualification. The fact is that McDonogh not only developed a plan of self-purchase, emancipation, and re-Africanization for his slaves, which for all its flaws was more enlightened than anything 99% of Louisiana slaveholders at the time were willing to countenance. He also donated his vast fortune to endowing the public school systems of both Baltimore and New Orleans (his birth and adoptive cities, respectively) — and what stronger statement in favor of democracy and equality could there be than supporting public education? Would that McDonogh’s successors in the New Orleans business elite shared the same values.
Yeah, of course that flag should come down from above the South Carolina statehouse. It’s been an embarrassment for years. It sucks that it took a terrible, mind-numbing tragedy like what happened in the Charleston AME church in June, and it does not in a million light-years atone for that tragedy, but it’s still a good thing that it’s gonna come down.
It doesn’t represent your heritage, unless you’re talking about the “heritage” of being a racist yokel. It doesn’t represent freedom or some sort of romantic rebel pose. (Sorry, Lynyrd Skynyrd. I still respect your music.)
What does it represent? Originally it represented Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as they fought a war to destroy the democratic project of the United States and preserve the system of slavery. Over time it came to represent the Confederacy in general (though it was not the official Confederate flag). In the mid-20th century, it was repurposed to represent white resistance to civil rights, school integration, etc. In recent years it’s just been a symbol for dumb people, not all of them Southerners, some of whom ride motorcycles or wish they did, who vaguely want to show that they won’t bow down to The Man and don’t care about offending a few black people.
And you know what? I’m all for free speech. Free speech is a good thing; a free speech society has worked well for us. So let the ignoramuses proudly display the rebel flag on their bumpers, rear windshields, mailboxes, jean jackets, Chevy Camaros, duck blinds, 8 track cassette decks, garage workbenches, tool kits, survivalist magazines, and teenage bedroom walls. You want to advertise yourself as an idiot? Go ahead, this is a terrific way. It’ll save the rest of us the twenty seconds it would otherwise take to figure that out about you. But let’s not fly it over government buildings — because after all, in addition to being a symbol of racist violence and hatred, it is also a symbol of secession — of treason against the government of the United States — and has no business on government property.
And no, no, no, don’t go defending the Confederacy. It was not some noble project, it wasn’t about states rights or preserving a traditional way of life or resisting Lincoln’s tyranny. That’s all bullshit. The Confederacy was a bad deal, cooked up by bad people with a stupid plan, whose main motivation was to keep on making profits off the forced labor of slaves, and it ended up causing the deaths of — what was the latest estimate? — 750,000 people? — as well as nearly destroying what was, then, the only democracy on the globe.
By the way, I love the South. I love living here. I love the people, the food, the music, the history. But I’m afraid that this benign view that most white (and even some black!) Southerners have of the Confederacy and secession is pretty much baked into the culture at this point. They think Lee, well, he was such a gentleman, and Sherman, well he was a war criminal, and you know what, they were going to get around to phasing out slavery in their own good time until the Yankees interfered. I don’t know if this is taught in schools or around dinner tables or just absorbed through osmosis, but it’s not going to be dislodged anytime soon.
And so yes, it does take a terrible calamity to force change — like nine people being murdered in cold blood while they were attending bible study. And many of my friends online have pointed out that the removal of the flag is a pitifully inadequate response to the problems of a society that could produce a Dylan Root, that it is “only” a symbol, that it’s a shallow, easy, feel-good fix, that it allowed a Republican governor to grandstand, that it avoids more substantial issues — and while that’s all true, I can’t help feeling, as a historian, well, yes, but, that’s how change often happens. And it is often cosmetic or shallow or laughably inadequate, but that’s what you get, take it or leave it, and keep dreaming of more, and never forget those good people in that peaceful church before the shots rang out.
I’m not enough of an economist to judge whether acceding to the troika’s terms or bowing out of the Eurozone would be better for Greece’s people in the long run.
(And frankly, neither is anyone else.)
It seems to be that staying in is almost certainly accepting a crappy, but predictable, state of awfulness; while leaving would constitute a gamble, with possible results anywhere between relatively rapid recovery and total refeudalization into something like North Korea.
What I really do want to say, and fortunately many others, most notably Thomas Piketty, seem to be making this point is that Germany, of all countries, saying that Greece should not be granted economic assistance since that would be “rewarding bad behavior,” is really a bit much.
I will be coming up north for two weeks this July and August and squeezing in ONE show, that’s ONE SHOW ONLY, at Mexicali Live in Teaneck, NJ, just 10 minutes from the George Washington Bridge, Saturday night, July 25 at about 9:00 pm. There will be two sets, lots of classic GSW tunes, a whole bunch of recent tunes, a bunch of cool covers, and I hopefully will be joined by some wonderful surprise guests. Tickets are $12, CLICK HERE to get yours.
This is a profound, beautifully written, intelligent and moving book about the jarring changes in the New Orleans public school system since Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. As you may have heard, our Crescent City is now on the cutting edge of the school privatization/reform/charter movement that has been sweeping the nation, and has been cited by Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as a model for the nation. Those of us who actually live here tend to see things differently; in my own opinion, New orleans becoming a model for the nation would be a tragedy of the first order. In any case, what is really wonderful about Carr’s book is that she avoids the postage-stamp caricatures that both sides in the debate generally make of each others’ points of view. She explores all viewpoints with nuance and compassion, following a freshman at a KIPP high school, a young white teacher at Sci High, and an experienced black woman principal at O. Perry Walker school, through the ups and downs of a whole school year. While doing this she also considers the history of public education in the United States and New Orleans in particular, segregation and integration, No Child Left Behind and the quantification movement, Teach for America, and many other aspects of the subject. There are many books about these issues — I also like Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System — but Hope Against Hope is one of the best out there, a must read for anyone interested in education.