Patriotism and Profit

BOOK REVIEW: Patriotism & Profit: Washington, Hamilton, Schuyler & the Rivalry for America’s Capital City by Susan Nagel (Pegasus Books, 2021).

 

In Patriotism & Profit: Washington, Hamilton, Schuyler & the Rivalry for American’s Capital City, Susan Nagel recounts the drama surrounding the Compromise of 1790 and the protracted struggle over the location of the nation’s capital. In Nagel’s examination of this power struggle, she upends some long-standing assumptions about the Compromise of 1790 and its leading players that have persisted in the grand narrative of America’s founding. Contrary to what is often presented, Nagel contends that Thomas Jefferson did not have a central role. Furthermore, Nagel contends that George Washington manipulated his way to creating the nation’s capital city out of motivations that were often self-serving.

The narrative reads like a mixture of biography and political history. The first couple of chapters feature a survey of hundreds of years of history in an effort to lay a foundation, although it is slow going at the start. The pace picks up once the narrative reaches the point at which the lives of Washington and Philip Schuyler, and the political foundations of the country, are discussed. For those who are familiar with the early lives and biographical histories of the founders, there are sections of the book that will be relaying information that readers likely already know. Nagel’s biographical renderings are enhanced, though, by her emphasis on monetary and land assets and the ways in which Washington and Schuyler viewed these assets in light of their early lives, and the ways that the two men respectively came into their wealth.  Particularly, the idea of primogeniture as it governed their times had a particular impact on Washington and Schuyler, both of whom were raised by widowed mothers, learned the value of landownership early in life, and married women of significant assets. The link to land and wealth influenced Washington and Schuyler’s fight for the location of the city’s capital, each man wishing for it to be located nearest their land holdings and investments.

During this time period in which the selection of the capital’s location remained in flux and heavily debated, the government’s seat in New York City provides an interesting backdrop to the events. Nagel paints a picture of a city full of gossiping, flawed, and powerful characters who played their own roles the country’s creation. While the movers and shakers with whom modern audiences are familiar debated the merits and drawbacks of potential capital locations—primarily Philadelphia, the Potomac valley, and New York—other politicians passionately defended alternate locations.

Although Thomas Jefferson claimed a large role in the compromise in a dinner party held at his home, Nagel contends that contemporaries did not view Jefferson as an immediate player. There is disagreement among scholars over Jefferson’s possible inflation of his own role; Nagel asserts that Jefferson had in fact been more or less nudged out while Washington and Schuyler battled over the capital’s location, all the while leaving Alexander Hamilton caught between his father-in-law Schuyler and Washington, with whom he shared a similar, almost familial bond.

Despite Jefferson’s romanticized version of events, Nagel asserts that even Jefferson’s own letters from the time allude to the much more protracted struggle. The question then remains: why would Jefferson purposely alter the way these events were recorded and remembered? According to Nagel, there are a couple of reasons. Nagel ties the founding of America with the mythological tradition of the birth of civilizations centering on the creation or founding of a key city. In America’s case, Washington, D.C.’s creation out of the surrounding swamplands provided a link to that mythological tradition. In addition, it served to alter the ways in which the founding fathers’ reputations were remembered: George Washington’s reputation is protected and Thomas Jefferson becomes a mediator rather than one who was excluded and seething.

Considering such motivations behind a very purposeful sculpting of historical accounts serves as a reminder of the ways in which historical narratives have been created and persisted with specific agendas in mind. These narratives in turn become so persistent that they abound and are accepted as fact. In this instance, Jefferson’s rendition is so entrenched in America’s founding narrative that if one were to casually search for information about the Compromise of 1790, they will largely be presented with the story of Jefferson’s secret meeting. An accessible book that makes a thought-provoking argument that both generally interested and more serious students will find interesting, Patriotism & Profit not only adds to the conversation about Jefferson’s role but also presents a side of Washington with which readers may not be accustomed.

The book’s argument depends heavily on primary source material, especially letters written by the politicians involved in the Compromise of 1790. While the letters and other primary sources are meticulously researched and utilized, Nagel frequently inserts large block quotes that can be somewhat disruptive to the reading experience. Nagel combs correspondence from the time to provide evidence for the claims pertaining to the ways in which contemporaries viewed and dealt with the issues surrounding the location of the new capital. Whether or not readers will fully agree with Nagel’s interpretation, her approach certainly adds to the conversation surrounding this topic. Furthermore, the reasons given for the purposeful altering of events for posterity are certainly relevant to the constant reevaluation of the way in which America’s history is presented. This book fits in well with current scholarly trends of challenging the grand historical narrative and removing modern biases in favor of breaking down events to view them in the way that those involved would have, although it feels at times like Nagel pushes the envelope a bit too far in her effort to revamp reader’s perceptions of people and events.

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1 Comment

  • Kelly, interesting arguments. I have always wondered why Jefferson as a Secretary of State would have any influence over members of Congress. Congress guards their prerogatives jealously and would have done so with such a momentous decision.

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