Historic Force of New York City Is Expressed in Two New Monuments
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Having just spent four pleasant months in New York City, it was my misfortune to have to leave just before the opening of two historic sites that demonstrate the longstanding, dramatic importance of that city.
The relocation and renovation of Alexander Hamilton’s house, the Grange, reminds us that New York has been an influential city in the world since before Napoleon was emperor of the French. The house was built in 1802, two years before Hamilton died in the still hotly debated duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. It is, as one reviewer said, not Mount Vernon or Monticello — but then, Hamilton was the illegitimate son of a wandering Scot from the Caribbean island of Nevis, not a member of one of the First Families of Virginia, rich in land, slaves, and connections. But, from pictures, one can tell that it is a somehow surprisingly well-proportioned, airy, cheerfully colored and situated, and gracious home, now very close to its original location on Hamilton Heights in northern Manhattan, on the greensward that is left of its original 32 acres overlooking the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.
Hamilton was rivaled in his time as the most important New York political figure by Burr and nine-term governor George Clinton. Burr tried to pretend that the electoral votes cast for him in the 1800 election were for president and not vice president, as they were not differentiated at that time, and he drew with the real presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson, and both came ahead of the incumbent president, John Adams. Hamilton and Adams, despite their dislike of Jefferson, judged him morally more suited to the office, and eventually put him across in the House of Representatives. Jefferson ditched Burr and amended the Constitution to avoid this anomaly, and selected Clinton for vice president. In 1808, Clinton had the distinction of running simultaneously for president and vice president, and therefore against himself (as the same person cannot hold both offices), and was defeated by Madison, whom he then served as vice president. The other great New York public figure of the time was John Jay, a prominent federalist in constitutional discussions, the first chief justice, Washington’s emissary to complete peace terms with Britain, and governor of New York, but never a man with a great deal of political traction.
Though Burr and Clinton were as politically prominent as Hamilton, they were not as esteemed and were far from being founding fathers of the country. As Washington’s chief of staff in the Continental Army, principal spokesman for New York at the Constitutional Convention, principal author (next to Madison) of the Constitution, and first secretary of the Treasury — the man who gave the United States sound money, a high national credit rating, and sophisticated fiscal institutions, and foresaw and facilitated the mighty industrial development of the nation — Hamilton ranks with Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson as one of the principal founders of the United States. It is certainly right that his home should be restored, and a bonus that it is so easily accessible to so many in the middle of the nation’s largest city. The renovation and relocation (by 250 feet) of Hamilton’s house required five years and $14.5 million.
Hamilton was a turbulent man and an unfaithful husband, with undemocratic and even slightly Bonapartist tendencies (who wished to lead armies of liberation, i.e. conquest, across Latin America), and it is enlightening to see that at home he was in a tasteful, semi-rural place of calm and refinement, where he played a fine piano (still there) with his daughter. He worked better as a chief collaborator of Washington’s than autonomously, and was prone to tactical lurches and improbable schemes, and his impetuosity undercut Adams and helped to destroy their Federalist party. He inadvertently was instrumental in delivering the country to Jefferson, whom he regarded, with some reason, as a prototype limousine liberal selling a rustic and patrician vision of America that was self-serving primitivist moonshine. Like Adams and Franklin, he was effectively an abolitionist.
Hamilton was a historic giant, who, though only 49 when he died, changed the world. He was regarded by France’s chief foreign-policy architect for nearly 40 years through a kaleidoscope of constitutional regimes, the timeless and cunning Talleyrand, as (with Napoleon and Charles James Fox) one of three men of genius he had known. (Talleyrand never met Franklin and was not much impressed by Jefferson; when he was in America fleeing the Terror of the Committee of Public Safety, Washington refused to receive him because he was openly cohabiting with a black woman.)
At the other end of Manhattan, at the site of the World Trade Center Towers, the memorial to the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks opened to the public the same week as the Grange. This is admittedly harder to assess while relying entirely on photographs, television, and others’ descriptions. But I must dissent from the somewhat negative comments of several knowledgeable critics. Designer Michael Arad was given a difficult brief to work with, as it had been resolved that nothing could be built over the fallen towers, and his initial plan for a ramp down from the planned eight-acre plaza was judged impractical and too expensive.
Altering his initial design, Arad has produced two stark, square granite depressions at the bases of the old towers (and encompassing the site of the initial bombing in 1993), 200 feet on each side and 30 feet deep, with the names of the 3,000 victims etched on a bronze plate around the edges, and a steady waterfall all around the two depressions. The water flows into deep squares in the centers of them, their depth too profound to be discernible from the sides. The eight-acre park has light-shaded stone pavements and apparently haphazardly placed oak trees throughout, that do, in fact, form orderly avenues after followed for a few yards, and will grow to produce a canopy, as is popular in more southern climes, such as Provence.
I find the concept and execution inspiring. The contrast between the accessible and commodious and tranquil green and stone park, at one of the densest points in the city, and the huge and gaunt openings, under the soaring and reflecting façades of successor buildings to the destroyed towers, promises to be a memorable unity of the peaceful and contemplative with a forceful allegorization of the enormity of what assaulted the site on that awful day.
At least one critic has bemoaned that the use of water is not the purifying and soothing burble more often found in monuments, but is noisy and distracting. But this isn’t a monument to a great statesman long dead, or to the sacrifices and victories of a war fought over a long period and far-flung areas. It commemorates the victims of a swift and horrible act of suicidal terror, premeditated and planned as an infamous gesture of nihilism, an unforgettably spectacular and repulsive massacre of innocents. For such an act, a division between the peace of the living and the dead, and the dramatic portrayal of irreplaceable loss to treachery and barbarism, is entirely appropriate. And the relatively constant and not-at-all-bucolic sound of always-appearing-and-disappearing water in vast, dark, square accesses to the bowels of the earth is a brilliant metaphor for what it commemorates.
The attack on the World Trade Towers was unlike anything else in American or modern world history, and what was required was appropriate measures of mourning, outrage, reflection, homage, and resilience, and from this distance, it seems that Michael Arad and the overall project planner, Daniel Libeskind, have done brilliantly.
These two historic sites also express the metropolitan historic force of New York City. The soft-colored, verandah-girt receptive retreat of a brilliant but tempestuous man who never recoiled, built much, and departed this gentle place for his violent and very unnecessary death, is the civility and sacrifice of the great man. The 9/11 memorial is to the patience, strength, and dignity of the people, savagely and mindlessly assaulted in the noiseless performance of their daily work, and to those who provide them basic services: firemen, policemen, and emergency medical personnel. These are the power and grandeur of the historic statesman seen in private, and the immutable strength of the ordinary people: the historic building blocks of America, at the geographic poles of Manhattan.
And as is so often the case with historic American men and events, from Hamilton to Lincoln, to the Kennedys and Martin Luther King and even Harvey Milk, to 9/11/01, both are defined by unprovoked violence nobly borne. This overbearing recourse to violence and tragedy is what mainly turns the importantly effectual and consequential, the historic staple of Boston and Philadelphia, of Faneuil Hall and Independence Hall, to the dramatic. New York, too, has been generating history for over 200 years, but producing great drama also, on a grand scale, and still does, and knows how to preserve the memory of it.
This dispatch first appeared at the National Review Online.