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 carolvanderveerhamilton.com. 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.

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Carol Hamilton - 11/19/2007

It is hard to imagine anyone failing to recognize Franklin or Washington. Ignorance, rather than stupidity, would seem to be the diagnosis. That or poor eyesight.

Carol Hamilton - 11/19/2007

You will at least concede that she was neither an American nor a Republican, making her inclusion in Brooks's column very odd.

Carol Hamilton - 11/19/2007

I tried expressing some of these sentiments in letters to the editor at the NYT. Although the Times had printed six of my letters on other subjects, it would not print any of my specific objections to the content of Brooks's columns.

Michael Glen Wade - 11/17/2007

This is a no-brainer question. David Brooks is not a historian at all, not by training or performance in his columns or books. He is evidence of the decline in what passes for public intellectuals. But please, don't take my word for it, read his columns. Then encourage the powers that be at the New York Times to do the same.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/15/2007

Is on video at Media Research Center, which comes in via Yahoo under Clinton Gore Monticello Visit. The date was Jan. 17, 1993, and the statues he fails to identify are Franklin, Washington and Lafayette, rather than Hamilton. (Which makes his stupidity even worse).

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/15/2007

The Gore story was on tape on the evening news all over America. I saw it with my own eyes. They were with many reporters when they went through Monticello. With a little searching you can probably find confirmation all over the web.

Siewert H. Ellens - 11/14/2007

That Margaret Thatcher made trouble with the labor unions is very unjust: it was the coal miners' Scargill who tried to get Thatchers downfall but he did not succeed. Britains economic survival since those days is Thatcher's result.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/12/2007

I see no comparison whatsoever between Hamilton and Lincoln Chafee. Hamilton was a womanizer, for one thing, which kept him out of the horse race for the presidency, and for another, he was a genius. Chafee was just his father's idiot son, in a land where they didn't repeal the laws of primogeniture until 2006.

Carol Hamilton - 11/12/2007

Jefferson liked to say about the two busts he set up in the entry way that the he and Hamilton were "opposed in death as in life." (There is no bust of Franklin in the entry way, and is that story about Al Gore very likely? Gore's father was a senator, and Al grew up in Washington, D.C., which is full of statues and busts.)

The "respect between the two" (AH & TJ) was grudging, at best,and Jefferson contributed to the negative mythology that still surrounds Hamilton--myths that Stephen Knott and Rin Chernow have worked to dispel.

Michael Green - 11/12/2007

Believe me, I could have gone on forever (my students think I do) about Lincoln and slavery. It's a complex subject, no question.

I also would like to say amen to the comment about the ineffectiveness of George McClellan.

I would note that Galbraith's views about economics certainly have done less damage to our society than the implementation of those of Milton Friedman.

Carol Hamilton - 11/12/2007

Quite right about Hamilton. The bust of Hamilton actually stands opposite the one of TJ himself in the doorway. I saw them as a child and again a few years ago (to my disappointment, the guide didn't bother to point them out).

Certainly Lincoln was not totally enlightened about race. In fact, Hamilton was more enlightened.

I'm surprised to find JKG so controversial. It's as if I had quoted Emma Goldman, um Gottes willen!

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/12/2007

Galbraith was a drole, unusually witty man. He was also wrong in virtually all his economic prescriptions and his books managed to brainwash a full generation of Americans, at least.

While Lincoln hated slavery, he did not look at the institution exactly the same way as we do today. In the debates with Stephen A. Douglas, for instance, I think at Freeport, he stated he was opposed to making jurors or voters of negroes.

While Hamilton opposed Jefferson on our policy toward France and on slavery, and the Whiskey Rebellion, his big political difference with him, solved by the capital relocation, revolved around how to have the federal government assume the debts of all the states... After he died, Jefferson kept a bust of Hamilton at Monticello--it is still there--and there was a degree of mutual respect between the two. (I believe the bust was standing next to a bust of Franklin; it was immortalized by the internet inventor Al Gore, who said, "Who are those guys?", when passing through with Clinton on their bus tour).

Andrew Johnson was selected because Lincoln needed a "war Democrat" to win his tough battle for reelection in 1864. George B. McClellan, and many other ineffectual Democrats, were given important commands early in the war because Lincoln desperately needed support from a majority of Democrats to prosecute the war at all.

Carol Hamilton - 11/12/2007

Thanks to Michael Green for that defense, and I love his last sentence.

As for Lincoln, I was merely suggesting that on racial issues the Republican Party has changed its stripes. Slavery and its abolition was the great 19th-century issue; segregation/integration was the great 20th-century issue.

I never said in this piece that "Lincoln was an implacable enemy of white Southerners." Where did that come from? On the contrary, I mentioned his compassion (which I intended in reference to both sides).

I can speak from experience about the latter. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Civil Rights movement. My county, Jefferson, was the first in the state to go Republican after decades of devotion to the Democratic Party. I remember how my (white) classmates and their parents hated the Kennedys because they had integrated the schools. My parents had different views; my mother's great grand-father was a Union officer, and that set us apart.

So quoting a liberal, but extremely famous thinker like JKG constitutes "bias"? That's a very strange notion to me. JKG is not a true leftist; I've read the works of real leftists (Marx, Godwin, Kropotkin, Proudhon, Rosa Luxembourg, et al.). To object to JKG strikes me as evincing a belief in Soviet-style censorship.

Michael Green - 11/12/2007

I am looking in the Galbraith quotation for anything, other than the word "dismaying," that suggests an opinion on his part. I don't see it. Smith liked something or he didn't. That's what Galbraith says.

Lincoln's early policies regarding white southerners reflected a misunderstanding of the depth of their commitment to the southern cause. Once it became clearer to Lincoln and other moderate Republicans that this policy was not working, note that Lincoln turned to the Emancipation Proclamation. Also, throughout the war, he sought a general, like Ulysses Grant, who would take the fight to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, not maneuver to try to win control of Richmond. The butchery that Grant was accused of reflected, to his and Lincoln's sadness, the policy they felt they had to pursue to defeat the South.

I think it also goes too far to suggest that Lincoln "chose" Johnson to build a white alliance of the kind the commenter suggests. Whether Lincoln actually chose him remains open to debate. And putting Johnson on the ticket was part of an effort to win over border staters and War Democrats--not southerners, since they were not voting in this election.

Lincoln made clear his hatred for slavery. That alone did not and could not govern his policies, for obvious reasons. I doubt that, if he had known he would be assassinated and Johnson would follow the racist policies he followed, he would have wanted Johnson on the ticket with him. We cannot know, but we do know that Johnson had a hatred for African Americans that Lincoln never had.

None of which should detract from the key point. David Brooks is as much a historian as I am a candidate to win the Miss America Pageant.

Jason Blake Keuter - 11/12/2007

HNN posted one on Paul Krugman that made token jabs at much of what Krugman writes but wasn't damning - was, in fact, flattering.

This one is damning.

Pretty biased.

As forthe post itself: there's little in Lincoln's Reconstrucion plans that suggested he was an implaccable enemy of White Southerners. In fact, his program was deemed too lenient by Radical Republicans who were anxious to take back Congressional Power they felt Lincoln had usurped during the war. In fact, most of Lincoln's Presidency was dedicated to getting moderate white Southerners to overthrow the friebrand secessionists whom he felt were a minority in the South. That explains his choice of McClellan and the overall, early, indecisive conservatism of his early war strategy.

To connect Lincoln's with affirmative action is utterly absurd. Lincoln was a free-soiler, a representative of what would later be called "white ehtnics" and thus a staunch enemy of slavery largely because slave labor competed with free white labor. To suggest he would somehow favor a policy that was racially unfavorable to working class and small farming whites is absurd. His selection of Johnson - a representative of non-slaveholding, Southern yeoman farmers - indicates that he was building a North-South alliance between free-soilers and yeoman Southern whites.

Quoting John Kenneth Galbraith on Adam Smith is a little like quoting Gary Becker on Marx - a clear sign of ideological bias.