Alexander Hamilton and Cod

Not long ago, I read two good history books from alternate schools of history.
Willard Sterne Randall’s biography of Alexander Hamilton tells the life story of a “great man” — how Alexander Hamilton overcame poverty and social prejudice against his out-of-wedlock birth, through ambition, hard work, and what we’d call networking — to become a leading figure in the founding of the United States.
The catchy but shallow metaphorical “frames” of George Lakoff make one nostalgic for the good, old-fashioned Enlightenment. The 18th century world had slavery shadowing the rhetoric of freedom, and plenty of smaller vicious customs like tarring and feathering and duels. The politics of the time were often vicious, personal, and corrupt. Hamilton was vain, insecure, and contentious; biographies of other founding fathers reveal plenty of flaws.
But the bold and ultimately successful ambition of the founding fathers leave the student of history in awe. Alexander Hamilton made a comprehensive study of European economic and financial theory and practice, and drew up a blueprint for a nation’s financial institutions.
Following an election campaign in which George Bush’s indifference to ideas and facts was portrayed as a strength, and Kerry’s nuanced equivocation made intellect seem weak, it’s inspiring to read about founding fathers who were both smart and brave, and whose intellectual achievements were integral to their bravery.
The book is relatively weak on Hamilton’s contributions to the structure and philosophy of US government (he wrote most of the Federalist papers), and his role in creating the US financial system. Chernow’s more recent biography is probably the place to go for more substance on those topics.
The Hamilton bio is surprisingly strong on the twists and turns of the Revolutionary war. Battles and feints that come off as “one thing after another” in textbook accounts make sense as strategic moves and historical turning points. The sheer stress and uncertainty are brought to life.
In contrast to the old-fashioned individual and dramatic focus of “Alexander Hamilton”, Cod takes a broader, impersonal look at world history through the theme of the prosaic codfish, which supported economic life and cooking from Iberia to Scandinavia, Canada to the Carribean for hundreds of years.
The cod was part of the North America/Carribean/European trade that gave Alexander Hamilton his initial opportunity — as a teenager, he started as a clerk in a trading house on the Carribean island of Nevis. His bosses, New York traders, eventually paid his way to college and introduced him to New York business, political and social circles.
Cod was a core part of the trade economy that the American Colonists went to war to protect; taxes on molasses, and later on sugar and tea penalized the Carribean leg of the trade route. The New England cod trade was part of the painful irony of the American revolution — New Englanders defended their rights to be represented in tariff decisions, and voiced opposition to slavery on principle, but were silent about the role of slaves in the far side of their trade routes.
The story, in the end, is an environmental fable. North American fisheries have proven unable to refrain from destroying the cod population with factory fishing methods. By contrast, Iceland has managed to understand the danger, and reduce fishing to sustainable levels.
The decline of fish, soil and water are part of a current danger to civilization — Jared Diamond’s latest, on the role of environmental mismanagement in the fall of civilizations throughout history, is at the top of the pile to read next.
For Peterme who always asks for recommendations, the lively recounting of the revolutionary war is the strongest reason to read the Hamilton biography. Cod is a strong addition to the shelf of commodity-oriented social history, with an appealing system picture connecting food, politics, and the environment.
Neither book is brilliant, both are good and well worth reading.

One thought on “Alexander Hamilton and Cod”

  1. George Lakoff doesn’t deserve to be associated with the notion of ‘frames’, not even the debased version of it that he uses. Erving Goffman (Frame Analysis, 1974) is the best source on the original, more subtle version of this idea. For him and the other earlybirds on this, frames were unconscious shapers of perception and thought, difficult to tease out through observing reactions. The more recent, and I would say, debased version was largely confined to the media studies community, about which enough has been said. Now, thanks in part to Lakoff, never a deep thinker, it has been foisted on the political and concerned citizen communities. In his hands it really is nothing more than a pretentious way of looking at rhetoric and propaganda techniques. What Lakoff calls ‘frames’ are at best the observable effects of what the early scholars called frames. He doesn’t get beneath the surface. I speak here with whatever authority I get from being a retired linguistics prof who watched Lakoff’s career with little interest and less respect for decades. And by the way, one of Goffman’s other books should be read by everybody, especially since it’s a brief paperback: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Disclosure: I was an admiring junior colleague of his at Penn.

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