Ramblings on Michael Lind’s Interpretation of Robert Merry’s Interpretation of William McKinley


Michael Lind is among the greatest American historians alive and writing today, combining illustrative historical imagination with sophisticated categorization and systemization into some of the most readable syntheses in print. In terms of reading pleasure, he’s the only broad, whole-of-American-history interpreter (with the notable exception Walter McDougall) whose prose approaches the quality of that of pure biographers like Ron Chernow and Jon Meacham. I personally think a lot of this comes from a sort of historical romanticism of Lind’s, whereby he identifies with his characters even as he tries disinterestedly to understand them; some of his favorites, like George Washington, Henry Clay, and Lyndon Johnson, were “Southern Hamiltonians” like himself. (And to think that on top of his history-writing he makes time for highly technical, but equally brilliant, treatises on everything from political theory to economic modernization, and poetry besides…)

Anyhow, enough mush. One of my ongoing questions about Lind (whom I know and occasionally correspond with) is where his historical-political loyalty lies. It may be that it shifts with the tides of contemporary political history- note that in a few years he’s gone from being a columnist at Salon and a fellow at New America to an occasional contributor to National Review and an editorial board member of American Affairs. (As he suggests in Up From Conservatism, though, that’s not so much his wobbling as it is the tides of American politics ebbing and flowing around him, he being the old vital centrist/first-generation neoconservative/New Dealer/etc. he is.)

A cursory reading of his Hamilton’s Republic suggests that the “choice of ancestors” is somewhat Manichaean- you’re either Hamiltonian, or you’re not, and there’s no tradeoff between being a Theodore Roosevelt Republican, an Alexander Hamilton Federalist, a Henry Clay Whig, or a Franklin Roosevelt Democrat. But reading some of his other works, the nuance starts to seep in; after all, despite the shared “nationalism” between the Roosevelts, there’s a reason one led the Party of Lincoln, and the other the Party of Jackson, right?

Lind explores this very openly in What Lincoln Believed. The passage is worth quoting at some length:

Lincoln’s America took shape between 1860 and 1877, and was replaced by a different America between 1932 and 1965… The Third Republic of the United States, in the mature form it assumed between the 1960s and the end of the twentieth century, was the opposite in many ways of the Second Republic. The North dominated the Second Republic, the South and the Sun Belt the Third. Midwestern states like Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio provided most of the presidents of the Second Republic; Southern and Western states like Texas, California, Georgia, and Arkansas sent their citizens to the White House in the Third Republic. In the Second Republic, agrarian interests were sacrificed to those of manufacturing; in the Third, agribusiness in the South and West had more clout in Washington than the declining manufacturing industries of the “rust belt.”” …

…“The Second Republic of the United States founded by Lincoln and his allies during the Civil War and Reconstruction reached its maturity in the 1920s… Between the Great Depression and the end of the Civil Rights revolution in the 1960s, the America of Lincoln crumbled and was replaced by the America of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal and its aftershocks… and the civil rights revolution were part of a Third American Revolution that transformed the United States as much as the Civil War and Reconstruction had done. In many ways the Third Republic of the United States was based on the repudiation of the ideas and policies of the Second….” Etc., etc., etc.

In a nutshell, Lind and many of his followers, myself included, call both Lincoln and FDR “Hamiltonian.” But Lincoln and FDR pursued and advanced at times contradictory policy legacies, perhaps with some similar aims, but generally with different worldviews, coalitions, and policies.

One begins to realize, upon reflection, that “Hamiltonian” is in some ways as relative and relational as it is concrete and principled; Hamiltonian nationalist policies in one age, that is, may not necessarily be Hamiltonian nationalist policies in the next. And in a fluid institutional and party system like that of the post-Civil War United States, this constant redefinition is both unavoidable and necessary. (By the way, given that we appear to be going through both the Fourth Revolution and the Seventh Realignment, it’s more important now than ever before in our lifetimes that diehard Hamiltonians figure out what “Hamiltonianism” means in 2018 and onward, lest the “neoliberal globalists” and “white nationalists” and progressive neosocialists and libertarian fundamentalists, among other anti-Hamiltonian foes, steal the political and policy momentum and worse, cloak it in the mantle of Hamilton for themselves.)

The time to think anew as our times are anew is now; timeless principles and visions can help, but some kind of concrete application is necessary if the term is to mean anything.


Anyhow, this has been an excessively long prolegomenon to a shorter reflection- on the legacy of President William McKinley. Robert W. Merry, editor over at The American Conservative and former editor of The National Interest, just published what looks like an interesting biography of the twenty-fifth President of the United States, a biography which Lind reviewed in last month’s issue of TNI. I’d recommend anyone reading this post to read Lind’s take, if for no other reason than to read its quite compelling brief history of the continuity of continentalist grand strategy in American foreign policy.

I’ll just share the most important and memorable part of the review- the introduction of McKinley’s presidency Lind opens with- 

“OF ALL American presidents, William McKinley suffers the most from the gap between his historical significance and his public reputation. The twenty-fifth president of the United States, he was elected in 1896 and assassinated by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in 1901, six months into his second term in office. Few presidencies have been as consequential. 

 In domestic politics, his election in 1896 and reelection in 1900 marked the decisive defeat of the Jeffersonian agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan in favor of the Hamiltonian vision of an urban-industrial society organized on the basis of corporate capitalism. He inaugurated four decades of Republican domination of the federal government, a political realignment on the scale of those that followed the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He led the United States in the Spanish-American War, gaining Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines as American protectorates; obtained the annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory (which became a state in 1959); and laid the groundwork for the construction of the Panama Canal. The “Open Door” policy of his administration was followed in time by America’s commitment to defending China’s territorial integrity against Japan in World War II. A former arch-protectionist, as president he began the pivot away from infant-industry import substitution toward a strategy of reciprocal trade liberalization that was more appropriate for the United States, which had become the leading industrial economy in the world. McKinley, in short, presided over the transition from Lincoln’s America to the America of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.” 

That last line, in a nutshell, is in my view why McKinley’s legacy should be interesting to Hamiltonians nowadays. The America of Barack Obama ended on November 9th, 2016, and the chaos of the current Trump Administration would seem to be creating a new set of problems for the next Presidents and Congresses to deal with.

Against the backdrop of those crises and problems, which are forming now, future Hamiltonians will construct their own early-to-mid-21st Century identity. Now’s not the best time to start thinking about that- we’re a few years too late- but might as well get on with it. And the McKinley Presidency can be one place to look for insight and inspiration.

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