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Con Men & Heroes
From the July 12, 2004, issue of National Review.


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Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828 by Walter A. McDougall (HarperCollins, 656 pp., $29.95)

This provocative book is the first of three projected volumes in Walter A. McDougall’s new history of America. At the heart of Freedom Just Around the Corner is the “hustler”: the driven, restless self-promoter, not always scrupulous about means but often cherishing noble ends in his heart. While some of America’s hustlers are, like the swindling trickster of Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man, bad guys out to bamboozle the world, other Americans, McDougall writes, are “hustlers in the positive sense: builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, engineers.”

McDougall’s idea makes for an interesting intellectual parlor game. Instead of distinguishing between the Paleface and the Redskin, the Cavalier and the Roundhead, or the Hipster and the Square, McDougall would have us pay attention to those Americans who hustle and those who don’t or can’t. FDR is clearly an aristocratic hustler, nursing the resentments of fallen gentlefolk; Adlai Stevenson, on the other hand, couldn’t sell lemonade on a hot day in July. Mark Twain could hustle, but Henry James couldn’t: He fled to Europe to escape the sharks. Jay Gatsby ( Gatz) knows how to dodge artfully; J. Alfred Prufrock doesn’t; Willy Loman tries but fails.

McDougall shows that the hustling tradition in America started early; there was no fall from pre-commercial agrarian grace. “Hustlers and speculators, merchants and developers,” he writes, “were there from the start.” William Bradford and the Plymouth Pilgrims were hustlers: They freely admitted that most men like to hoodwink their fellows. The Pilgrims’ “trick,” McDougall says, was to devise a system that made their “corruption creative.” Drawing on England’s market-based common-law tradition, the Pilgrim Fathers gave men the tools (such as private property) they needed in order to chisel their neighbors in ways that promoted the larger prosperity of the colony.

John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is another of McDougall’s hustlers, a pious Calvinist who was also a “shrewd lawyer” and progenitor of the Yankee, eager to exploit opportunity. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson–exiles from the Bay Colony–were “inveterate malcontents and hustlers looking for new opportunities.” “New England could not have expanded and prospered at such a frenetic pace,” McDougall argues, “unless a hustling spirit were present at its creation.”

Benjamin Franklin, whom McDougall calls a hustler for “good causes” who “also felt good about doing well,” is the classic 18th-century example of the idealistic grifter. Other examples include the evangelical preachers of the “First Great Awakening.” Revivalists like George Whitefield, William and Gilbert Tennent, and Theodore Frelinghuysen were spellbinders and manipulators; many of them, McDougall observes, used press agents to “sensationalize” their successes. They “baptized” commerce by “thrusting their clutches skyward to pull down heaven itself–down to America. You can’t help but do well and feel good about it, in heaven.”

When, in order to pay for Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War, the ministers at Westminster tried to replace the colonies’ flexible common-law system with draconian parliamentary statutes, Americans rebelled. They were inflamed by the government’s attempt to dismantle the very machinery that allowed them to hustle so effectively. As Westminster began to assert greater control over the colonies, Americans at first cooked up schemes to evade the new rules: They smuggled goods and fudged records. When Westminster refused to back down, Americans went for their muskets.

George Washington was one of the hustling colonists who drew the sword in defiance of King and parliament. A self-taught land surveyor who caught the speculative bug early–he yearned to make a fortune in western land–Washington was, McDougall argues, less austere in his public deportment than some historians have made him out to be: “He was reserved but in no way aloof, and was pleased to propose a toast, share in a song, or buy a round of drinks in the City Tavern.”

When Washington’s work was done, his spiritual heir, Alexander Hamilton–an archetypal “positive hustler” in McDougall’s sense–took the country in hand. America could not prosper, Hamilton believed, unless “people could be scared, bribed, bullied, or duped” into supporting a stronger national government. Hamilton was one of the “smart lawyers” who worked to make “vice the servant of virtue.” Together with that other intellectual Young Turk, James Madison (who brazenly challenged the political maxim that large republics are doomed to fail), Hamilton devised “a political counterpart to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’” McDougall’s phrasing, mentioned above, is that the Constitution and the Federalist Papers made “corruption creative.” McDougall takes Madison’s insight in Federalist 10–the notion that rigid virtue is not a prerequisite for a stable free state–and applies it to a large swath of American history in an ingenious and highly original way. For McDougall, the ideal state does not so much suppress the hustling energies of its people as channel them usefully.

This is all fair enough: but at times McDougall stretches the concept of the hustler to the point where it becomes a word game. Aaron Burr, though he is, for McDougall, a brilliant hustler, “impervious to danger” and willing to take risks, is also, we are told, a “negative” hustler: His “corruption was never creative, never devoted to the service of the nation at large.” But doesn’t hustling in the “service of the nation at large” sound a lot like virtue? Surely McDougall is right to follow the Federalists in arguing that corruption–acquisitiveness, selfishness, the hustler’s urge to stick it to his fellows–can be “creative.” But there is a reason our myths–from Washington’s cherry tree to the customer’s pennies Lincoln walked a mile to return–celebrate probity and incorruptibility. A phrase like the “moral imagination” may be a little threadbare now, and virtue is often a cloak for hypocrisy; but when we find the aging Henry Stimson becoming impatient with FDR’s ceaseless shenanigans (“I will not be lied to, Mr. President”), we root for Stimson, not the dissembling commander-in-chief. Hustling has its limits.

It is perhaps inevitable that an iconoclastic history like McDougall’s should exhibit hustling qualities of its own. In emphasizing the usefulness of the hustler, McDougall exaggerates the fecklessness of the non-hustler. Thomas Jefferson–at least in the early phases of his career–is the patron saint of the non-hustlers. He was not a go-getter: He was, McDougall writes, “bashful,” he shrank “from combat whether martial or verbal,” he was a malingerer who feigned “illness to avoid public debate.” He inherited a fortune instead of making one himself; and what he inherited he squandered on self-indulgent luxuries. McDougall finds even Jefferson’s greatest achievement, the Declaration of Independence, to be derivative and without the hustler’s panache. The “original passages in Jefferson’s draft declaration,” he writes, “are not good,” while the “good ones” are not original. In viewing America’s commercial spirit with trepidation, Jefferson and John Adams “missed part of what their countrymen were about.”

Only in the latter part of his life, when his natural shiftiness enabled him to become “simply the best politician in the early Republic,” does McDougall’s Jefferson attain the status of a hustler and a “model American.” Yet if we follow McDougall and drum the early, pre-partisan Jefferson out of the roll call of model Americans, we must reject a lot of other folks too. Surely Emerson must go. The founder of America’s self-reliance racket was only superficially an intellectual on the make: Emerson’s soul was as deep as that of a Brahmin of Benares. But McDougall’s formula leaves little room for America’s non-hustling idealists, its soul-probers, its spiritual agonizers–for the Emerson who adored the “over-soul” and the Jefferson who made Monticello into a temple of the spirit.

If you kick the early Jefferson out of the American pantheon and banish the yogi Emerson, then Herman Melville must go as well: He couldn’t have balanced a checkbook had his life depended on it. Out, too, goes much of the Adams family and (after the fortune was made) most of the Jameses. No amount of word-twisting can turn Hawthorne, Thoreau, or T. S. Eliot into hustling sharps. Even Hemingway–who might seem to embody the hustler-as-author–is only superficially a trickster: Jake Barnes, with his war wound, can’t hustle women–or anything else. The Sun Also Rises is as much a portrait of an American cast out of hustlerdom as The Education of Henry Adams is a picture of an American who was never able to enter it in the first place.

True, advocates of McDougall’s theory can always point to Norman Mailer, the great contemporary example of an American artist who is purely a con man. But McDougall himself would doubtless prefer to defend his theory of the virtues of the hustler in a different way–by arguing that America’s non-hustling geniuses were free to agonize and create precisely because their ancestors did their hustling for them. Hustling may not be enough to make a country great; but in this big, ambitious book McDougall makes a valid point when he says that without hustlers we would not have a country at all.

Mr. Beran is the author of Jefferson’s Demons.



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