Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America
New-York Historical Society, New York, NY. Project director: James G. Basker; historian curator: Richard Brookhiser; guest curator: Mina Rieur Weiner; exhibit design: Ralph Appelbaum Associates Incorporated
September 10, 2004-February 28, 2005
Someone whose portrait is engraved on a billion and a half $10 bills probably deserves a blockbuster biographical exhibit, and the New-York Historical Society has obliged handsomely. Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America portrays the life and times of a figure central to the creation of our nation, a man of strong appetites averse neither to deep thought nor drama. The society has matched the scale of an exhibit to the scale of its subject, and exhibit visitors are clearly thrilled with the results.
In the course of his life (1757-1804), Hamilton suffered regular vicissitudes and enjoyed regular successes, each a mix of his own doing and the influence of others. He lived under a persistent cloud of questions—beginning with his origins ("A bastard Brat of a Scotch peddlar," in the opinion of John Adams) and ending with his impulsive and fatal duel with Aaron Burr. At many points in between, he shone radiantly as one of the creators of the unprecedented United States of America.
So what is "modern" regarding Hamilton? His foresight resulted in many institutions within which we live today, including a federal system of shared authority among a central government and the states, central currency and banking, and an economy diversified far beyond agriculture. Hamilton's vision on such matters was original, genius, and enduring.
The timeline and story may be familiar. Born on the West Indies island of Nevis, Hamilton emigrated alone to New York and entered King's College (now Columbia University) in 1773, published his first political essays ("A Full Vindication" and "The Farmer Refuted") in 1774 and 1775, joined a militia company of student volunteers in 1775, and became a captain of a New York artillery company, a colonel on General George Washington's staff, and a commander of light infantry. In 1780 he married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of an old and comfortable upstate New York family. Hamilton then pursued a law, political, and business career. In 1782 Hamilton was elected delegate to the Constitutional Convention. In 1784 Hamilton was part of a group of investors who founded the Bank of New York ("He offered ideas, not money: he owned only one share of stock …").(1)
In 1785 Hamilton and others founded the New York Manumission Society dedicated to ending slavery, a vision that was active but delayed for nearly 60 years. During 1787 and 1788 Hamilton and colleagues published the 85 essays known as the Federalist Papers towards persuading New York to ratify the proposed Constitution. While authorship is still disputed, most scholars accept that Hamilton wrote 52 of the essays, James Madison 28, and John Jay 5. The essays explained "the utility of the union to your political prosperity"(2) and why a federal union was the best choice for the United States. The Federalist Papers are considered "the one product of the American mind that is rightly counted among the classics of political theory."(3)
In 1789 Hamilton was appointed Secretary of the Treasury in the newly constituted government and served until 1795. In 1790 Hamilton published his "Report on a National Bank" and "Report on Public Credit," promoting the Federal Government's fiscal responsibilities. In 1791 the Federal Government assumed the states' Revolutionary War debts in exchange for centralizing major aspects of the national economy (and politics). In 1792 Hamilton led the formation of the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures to promote a diversified national economy through skilled trades and industry: "When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigor of his nature."(4) In 1798 the United States faced the possibility of war with France and Hamilton reentered military service with a commission from President Adams as Inspector General of the Army, second in command to President Washington.
In the 1800 presidential election, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied and the decision went to the House of Representatives, Hamilton fatefully urged Federalists—"In a choice of evils …"—to choose Jefferson. In 1801 Hamilton founded the New-York Evening Post, today's New York Post. In 1802 Hamilton began construction on the Grange, his rural retreat in upper Manhattan. In the summer of 1804, Hamilton and Burr dueled to settle an escalated series of political and personal slights. Hamilton shot high and wide. ("I have resolved…to reserve and throw away my first fire," Hamilton wrote in a farewell letter to his wife.) Burr's shot was fatal.
Later in 1804 Hamilton's peers founded the New-York Historical Society. The Hamilton exhibit is a fitting bicentennial celebration of the society and a hometown favorite son. To bring the story alive, the New-York Historical Society draws on many collections, but primarily its own. The challenge for this exhibit: Hamilton's archive legacy far outstrips his artifact legacy. Few clothes, little furniture, no artifacts as interesting as the fabled wooden teeth at Mount Vernon. But "Hamilton changed the world through writing"(5) and, with substantial help from the designer's craft, the exhibit appropriately and very successfully tells a dramatic story chiefly through dramatic documents.
The exhibit focuses on His World, His Vision, His Life, and The Duel, opening with two walls lined with portraits of prominent contemporaries and a film produced by the History Channel. The portraits and film drive home both that it is who you know matters and that Hamilton was a star in the histories, comedies, and tragedies of the period. In His Vision, the core of the exhibit, unique period documents and small objects and contemporary videos tell the story of Hamilton's ideas and accomplishments. His Life is a timeline relating Hamilton's life—by turns solid and evanescent—to what was happening in the colonies, the United States, and the world, ending with a letter from Hamilton's sister-in-law to her brother: "… General Hamilton was this morning wounded by the wretch Burr." The Duel is a simple vignette of life-size bronzes of Hamilton and Burr standing poised to shoot, in front of an exhibit of the actual pistols.
The story continues throughout the society's other exhibit spaces, with special labels for other Hamilton-related artifacts that further demonstrate Hamilton's deep influence on the early and continuing history of the United States. The federal union was Hamilton's seminal achievement, an opinion seconded with popular enthusiasm. In 1788, the Society of Pewterers carried a painted banner in a "Federal Procession" in New York with a verse that assented to the political innovation devised by Hamilton and his colleagues: "The Federal Plan Most Solid & Secure/American's Their Freedom Will Endure/All Arts Shall Flourish in Columbia's Land/And All her Sons Join as One Social Band." Between 1787 and 1790, each of the former 13 colonies held processions to celebrate its ratification of the Constitution. The pewterers' is the only procession banner known to survive. With the beautiful presentation of hundreds of rare and powerful objects such as this banner, Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America tells a compelling and comprehensive story of a man devoted indeed to the enduring and flourishing success of the United States.
The story of the exhibit is amplified in a tabloid-style exhibit catalog disguised as a special issue of the New York Post, complete with predictable hyperbole and breathless telegraphic writing; in a website (www.alexanderhamiltonexhibition.org); and in a new play, "In Worlds Unknown: Alexander Hamilton and the Invention of America." Not withstanding the glow of exhibit and stage lighting, Hamilton and controversy will remain entwined. For other views of Hamilton and the exhibit, readers might begin with www.gothamcenter.org/hamilton.
National Park Service
1. Exhibit text.
2. Federalist Papers, www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/ federal/fed01
3. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist Papers (Reprint; New York: New American Library, 1961), vii.
4. Hamilton, "Report on Manufactures," 1791.
5. Exhibit text.