Of the frontline Founding Fathers, we New Yorkers claim Alexander Hamilton. Yet, though he appears on the $10 bill, Hamilton remains far less known than Washington, Jefferson, Adams, or Franklin. The Catholic and public schools I attended in Chicago in the 1960s taught me all about the
Virginians and the Adamses of Massachusetts. Not until college, when I read "The Federalist Papers," did I really come to know Hamilton. Perhaps that's how it ought to be for the man of whom the British historian Paul Johnson wrote: "Hamilton was a genius - the only one of the Founding Fathers fully entitled to that accolade."
Hamiltoniana abounds in New York. Yet none of it is on the tourist itinerary. Imagine going to Philadelphia and leaving unaware of Franklin. Yet 99.9% of visitors to New York never even think of Hamilton while they are here. They do not make a beeline for Hamilton's grave in Trinity Churchyard, nor do they travel uptown to his home, Hamilton Grange, on Convent Avenue.
Against this background, the New-York Historical Society is offering a splendid exhibition called "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America," organized by Richard Brookhiser, James Basker, and Mina Rieur Weiner, and designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates. As the society endeavors to broaden its mission from New York history to national history, it's hard to think of a better subject than Hamilton, who, I am inclined, after seeing this exhibit, to think was the most important of the Founding Fathers.
Why all the attention to Hamilton now? (Ron Chernow's important biography was also published this spring). This year is the 200th anniversary of Hamilton's death. He died, as most people know, soon after being shot in a duel with the vice president, Aaron Burr. In a marvelous bit of serendipity, 1804 was also the year of the founding of the New-York Historical Society. That's relevant, because much (though by no means all) of the material in the exhibit comes from the society's incredibly rich collections.
Outside the first of the three main galleries of the exhibit are a pair of new bronze statues by the Santa Fe-based sculptor Kim Crowley. One is of Hamilton, the other of Burr. They face each other, pistols drawn, in an unexpected tableau of the duel. In a display case on the wall behind the figures we find the actual dueling pistols that they used. Interestingly, these pistols come from the collection of JPMorgan Chase. Interesting because Chase Manhattan Bank evolved out of the Bank of the Manhattan Company, founded by Aaron Burr in 1799 as a competitor to Hamilton's Bank of New York.
The duel sets the stage for the society's stupendous overview of Hamilton's life and career. The first gallery contains portrait paintings of people Hamilton knew - friends, colleagues, and enemies. It's an amazing assemblage. John Vanderlyn's portraits of Burr and of his remarkable daughter Theodosia, Gilbert Stuart's Robert Livingston, Joseph Wright's John Jay, Rembrandt Peale's portraits of George and Martha Washington, Ralph Earl's Elizabeth Schuyler (Mrs. Alexander) Hamilton, and much more - these alone are worth the price of admission.
The next gallery presents the meat of the exhibit. Here along one wall are display cases devoted each to a different facet of the life and career of Hamilton - his youth, his military career, his law career, his career as an economist, his life as an "activist" (including an 1801 manuscript letter to Jefferson from Burr, accusing Hamilton of being "mad with spleen and envy"), and his role as a "futurist." (The "Economist" case features a backdrop of the estimable Francis Guy's oil painting [c. 1800] of the Tontine Coffee House on Wall and Water Streets. When will someone mount an exhibit of Guy's marvelous topographical paintings?)
On the wall opposite, screens run films pertaining to Hamilton and his influence. The gallery also has several freestanding display cases. These - as do the categorized wall cases - feature a breathtaking selection of historical documents, mementos, and pictures. The history buff will swoon as he gazes upon such treasures as Hamilton's handwritten notes for the 1784 case of Rutgers v. Waddington, or Rufus King's handwritten notes on Hamilton's speech at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It's always a bit of a shock to look at such things, for it is amazing that they exist at all; and they do cast an aura.
A final gallery - a corridor, actually, leading us into the gift shop - contains a carefully constructed timeline of Hamilton's life.
In recent years, much not previously known, or known for fact, about Hamilton's life has been nailed down with certainty by historians and biographers. For example, the exhibit tells us that Hamilton was born in 1757. The current edition of Oxford's American National Biography still renders his birth year as "1757?." He had, as Edith Wharton might have written, "murky antecedents." This exhibit (together with some recent books such as Richard Brookhiser's and Ron Chernow's) dispels the old myth of Hamilton's half-Jewish parentage. Born in the West Indies, Hamilton was the illegitimate son of a Scotsman, James Hamilton, and Rachel Lavien, a Huguenot. Yet some biographies report her as Rachel Levine, a Jew. This background gave rise among Hamilton's enemies to such innuendoes as that he was a Creole or a Jew. One almost wishes he had been, just so we could say, "so what?"
During the Republican Convention I led a walking tour on political history in New York. One of my guests was a young Englishman of anarchistic per suasion. He asked me why I thought the United States, since its founding, had never experienced a political revolution. Since he had earlier asked me why New York had so many statues of "dead white males who raped and pillaged the land," I presumed he wanted me to say that our political placidity resulted from "corporate brainwashing" or "manufactured consent." The only pithy answer that I could come up with was that we have a good Constitution. This is true. But I might just as well have answered: "because of Alexander Hamilton." The least romantic of the Founders was also the one who placed the new nation on a sound footing - philosophically and financially. I do not know that if I were alive in Hamilton's day I would have liked him, or supported all his policies, but I do think the historical society's title gets it right: He was the man who made modern America.
Thanks to this wonderful exhibition, many more people will think this as well.