Over a decade ago, I watched a talk where Joanne Freeman, a historian of early American history, contributed to a panel discussion on Alexander Hamilton and controversy. In her introduction, she described the confused bewilderment of a colleague about her choice of subject – why, he inquired, would you want to study that man? His response, she seems to suggest, was not too unusual – for Hamilton has probably enjoyed the distinction of being the most hated “founding father” of American history. Indeed, although he falls in and out of favor – and whether or not he is smiled upon at any given moment often correlates, it has been noted, to the current trend in the GDP – his enemies, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, have benefitted until recently from a far more illustrious career of providing historians with alter egos and generally being given the benefit of the doubt, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
All of this came to mind recently while I composed lectures on the first party system for a course I am teaching this spring. As I wrote them, I realized I had somewhat forgotten just how much fun it is to teach early American political history – not because the elites who wrote the constitution and then engaged in a no-pulled punches squabble about what they even meant by it were brilliant, or foresighted, or virtuous, but because so much of the time, they were not any of these things at all. Indeed, it is hard to think of any detailed narrative drama of pitched political battle that is quite as much fun to relate as that of the first party system. Everyone was so astounded and concerned about what was happening to the new nation that it brought out, adorably, the worst in everyone.
Of course, when historians tell these stories we tend to pick sides, consciously or not. Personally, I’ve always preferred Hamilton over Jefferson – initially this was because I thought too highly of Hamilton, and now it is because I think more poorly of Jefferson. (With a significant shift in political perspective, even spending so much time talking about these guys feels a little gratuitous; doesn’t obsessing over who had the less elusive republic distract us from the racism and sexism the actual one was built on?) Yet when I think back to my undergraduate days of Hamilton fandom – which, believe me, was a thing – I believe it was partly because Hamilton has had his share of haters through the ages that I was drawn to his persona. For Hamilton is one of those figures which people just love to hate – and hating people, it turns out, seems to serve several useful functions for almost any intellectual community.
This thought occurred to me, oddly enough, while watching an ESPN documentary aired this week called I Hate Christian Laettner. To make a long story short, Christian Laettner was one of the best college basketball players in history – yet he also, unfortunately, played for Duke and, moreover, was quite a bully. Consequently, even a decade after the end of his less than spectacular NBA career, a small cottage industry of hating Christian Laettner still exists, and his place in sports history seems ensured as much as by the fact that people still despise him as by the fact that he set a multitude of impressive records.
Yet what is interesting about the popularity of participating in Laettner hate is how much fun it is. Although the agony of some hard core Kentucky fans – who lost the 1992 NCAA Championship due almost entirely to Laettner – might have been, at the moment of defeat, something akin to actual hate, for the most part despising Laettner seems to operate as some kind of healthy, silly and satisfying participation in tribalism. Indeed, hating Laettner is one very effective mode of identifying yourself as a member of the tribe; not everyone knows who this guy is, but any college basketball fan worth her salt will know.
Hamilton, it seems to me, operates very similarly for historians of American history. Obviously, Hamilton hate has been neither universal nor so explicitly stated through the historiographic ages, but in a thousand private conversations – those casual, occasionally booze-fueled feuds about duels, debt, and the British monetary system – we identify each other as sharing the same deep nerdiness, the same capacity to actually really care about whether or not it is fair to say, for example, that Hamilton could even possibly be useful to the contemporary left. (A claim, incidentally, which I think is near impossible to make, but I appreciate the bravery of the effort, nonetheless.) Because really, in these moments, we argue without any investment in being right – the conversation is not clearly relevant or important in any profound manner. We’re just plain having fun, and we’re having that fun together.
In fact, in order for this to work, the stakes cannot be too high. For this fun cannot be had about just anything, or anyone. As I Hate Christian Laettner went on to unpack, joyous hatred has to be, somewhere at heart, a little bit silly – one can not happily, playfully hate, for example, Lance Armstrong, who emotionally abused countless people and almost single handedly destroyed the reputation of an entire sport which countless people hold dear. Likewise for historians, who might jest over whether Hamilton or Madison had political economy right but are much less likely to be drawn into a cheerful conversation about which racist populist, Father Coughlin or George Wallace, is our favorite.
And this, in and of itself, is yet another way we communicate to each other the current consensus on the moral significance of what we study and how we study it. For this reason, I have to admit that I feel a little ambiguous about how much fun I can still have teaching the history of early republic elites, even if I do it through the politically respectable vehicle of thinking they were all ridiculous and deeply flawed human beings. Because even if I am no longer a fan of Hamilton – or of any of them – they can still make me laugh, smile, and gesticulate wildly. Probably they don’t deserve it, but perhaps they do – why don’t we argue it out?
 In American Slavery, American Freedom, for example, Edmund S. Morgan wrote, “Jefferson himself, whatever his shortcomings, was the greatest champion of liberty this country has ever had. As for giving loose to his passions, it has indeed been suggested that he carried on a passionate affair with one of his slaves; but, if he did, so little did he show his passion that the evidence for it is entirely circumstantial” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), 376. Also, somewhere on the list of Great Moments in Privileged Cluelessness, there has got to be this.