Is David Brooks a Good Historian?


Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley. As an undergrad she studied history at UW-Madison with George Mosse, William J. Courtenay, and Brian Peterson (of Florida International University), among others. Her mother is Virginia Vanderveer Hamilton, professor emerita and the author of biographies of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and Alabama Senator Lister Hill. Her website is A longer article on George W. Bush appears here . She is writing a historically informed book about politics (and looking for a publisher).

In his New York Times columns, David Brooks often makes confident, if glancing, references to American and European history and historical figures.  Too often these allusions are problematic, closer to received ideas than informed historical opinions.

On May 8, 2007, for example, Brooks wrote, “Adam Smith put his faith in the collective judgment of the market.”  This is a gross simplification of Smith’s work; all the average Republican seems to know about it is the “invisible hand” metaphor. In Liberalism John Gray refers to Smith as “one of the great classical liberals,” calling attention to Smith’s support for “a constitutional order in which civil and political liberties are guaranteed.”  And John Kenneth Galbraith observed:

Adam Smith detected a dismaying tendency for sellers to combine in order to raise prices and thus destroy the regulatory power of the market. He was also very suspicious of joint stock companies, now called corporations, which, besides being strongly inclined to monopoly, he also thought not very efficient. He would have allowed them only a limited range of large tasks. Many people who now yearn to resurrect Smith will find him a scathing enemy if they succeed.1

In his October 5, 2007, column, Brooks declared that “neoconservatives and others [other conservatives] built a creed around the words of Lincoln and the founders.”

There’s nothing Lincolnesque about the contemporary Republican Party. Illinois, where Lincoln got his political start, is now a Democratic stronghold.  Although he wanted to preserve the Union, Lincoln finally took a stand against slavery, whereas the current Republican Party infamously deploys the “Southern strategy” to dismantle Affirmative Action, effectively abolish Brown vs. the Board of Education, and retain the loyalty of too many white Southern voters.  

In an October 12, 2007, column, Brooks wrote that Lincoln “championed roads, canals and banks so [that] enterprising farm boys like himself could ascend and prosper.” If so, Republican priorities have shifted radically. The contemporary Republican Party lets our domestic infrastructure, like that bridge in Minneapolis, fall apart, while it spends a trillion dollars (300 million a day) on the war in Iraq. 

More subjectively, there’s that look of profound sadness in Lincoln’s face, a personal awareness of tragedy, of compassion for the human cost of war —- a look that is utterly lacking from, and unimaginable on, the faces of Bush, Cheney, and their Republican supporters in the Senate.

David Brooks has also been claiming Alexander Hamilton for the Republicans, and this too is problematic. Hamilton was, in effect, the founder of capitalism in this country, but the chief economic rival at the time was plantation slavery—a prime reason, as Daniel Lazare has pointed out in the Nation, for Jefferson’s hostility to Hamilton. Until Republican politicians were given some history lessons during the New York convention in 2004, they were eager to replace Hamilton’s face with that of Reagan on the ten-dollar bill. Hamilton’s Federalist Party had its stronghold in the Northeast —- now, like Illinois, a Democratic stronghold. In his Cooper Union speech, Lincoln listed Hamilton as one of “the [three] leading anti-slavery men of the day” [the Founding period].

Hamilton believed in a powerful federal government, and he wanted the taxes to pay for it.  Contemporary Republicans decry the federal government; they woo voters with promises of lower taxes. Hamilton was the first “loose constructionist” of the Constitution; contemporary Republicans claim to be strict constructionists. If Hamilton ever had a Republican constituency, it was a breed of moderate, cosmopolitan, urban Northeastern Republicans, now virtually extinct. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who lost his Senate seat in the 2004 election, was probably the last of that tribe.

In 1778, young Hamilton warned, “When avarice takes the lead in a state, it is commonly a forerunner of its fall.” To his friend John Laurens, he confided, “I hate money-making men.” “An indifference to property enters into my character too much,” he cautioned his future wife. And in 1795, when his friend Robert Troup offered him a chance to invest in property, he replied, “I don’t want to be rich.” Of taxation itself, he said in his 1792 address to the Congress:

Taxes are never welcome to a community. They seldom fail to excite uneasy sensations more or less extensive. Hence a too strong propensity, in the Governments of Nations, to anticipate and mortgage the resources of posterity, rather than encounter the inconveniences of a present increase in taxes. But this policy, when not dictated by very peculiar circumstances, is of the worst kind. Its obvious tendency is, by enhancing the permanent burdens of the people, to produce lasting distress, and its natural issue is in National Bankruptcy.

Since Reagan’s presidency, however, Republicans have been running for office on a platform of small government and low taxes, even when the latter drives the country into massive debt.

In the past, Brooks claims, the Republican Party was a home for “the working-class dreamer who longs to make good.” His third example of such a figure is, strangely enough, a Brit and a Tory, Margaret Thatcher.  Brooks describes her as a “young striver" who “gave the British working class access to homes and property so that they would become more industrious and independent.”  Well, that’s one way of putting it. You might also say that she doubled unemployment and made war on the labor unions.  “Independent” is a clever selection among less attractive word choices.

The people Brooks does not lay claim to are also significant. He makes no reference to Teddy Roosevelt, an iconic Republican president.  Teddy was a “trust buster” and an environmentalist. Contemporary Republicans are trust builders and environment busters.  In 1903 TR declared, "The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us"—a view radically at odds with that of the current Republican Party, whose pronounced libertarian streak and Social Darwinist attitudes manifest themselves in contempt for unsuccessful “strivers” and discouraged workers.

Since 9/11, many Republican politicians have regarded the presidency as sacrosanct and its critics as subversively unpatriotic. Contrast such attitudes to these sentiments from Teddy Roosevelt’s editorial in the Kansas Star in 1918.

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else [italics added].

It’s a good thing that David Brooks is pondering how the Republican Party has strayed from its origins. It’s a bad thing that Brooks is misrepresenting history to do so. Historical figures like Lincoln, Hamilton, and Adam Smith are not baseball cards to be collected as if they were members of one’s favorite team. They are complicated, even self-contradictory, and their conventional reputations rarely match up with their biographical complexity.

1 John Kenneth Galbraith, Almost Everyone’s Guide to Economics, 14-15.