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September 10, 2004

The two bronze figures are meant to be encountered at the end of the "Alexander Hamilton" exhibition that opens today at the New-York Historical Society. They are its biographical climax, their tragic impact amplified by what has been already seen: portraits of Hamilton's contemporaries, rare documents, handwritten letters, artifacts of an era in which the nation was coming into being. But since the figures are also just inside the newly opened Central Park West entrance to the venerable institution, they are more likely to be the first things to catch a visitor's attention. This, too, has an effect: they cast a shadow over what is yet to be seen.

The life-size sculptures, barely 5 foot 7 inches in height, stand sideways at floor level, just 10 paces apart. Out of the corner of one's eye, they can inspire double takes, as if they were a pair of oddly dressed gallerygoers. Except that they are pointing pistols at each other.

A spectacled Hamilton, nonchalantly rests one arm on his waist while leveling an English-made pistol with the other. But his aim is off; he is pointing high and to the right. Aaron Burr, on the other hand - for indeed it is he - is absolutely focused. His pistol is aimed dead on. A few seconds later on that morning of July 11, 1804, Hamilton will be carted from the duel site in Weehawken, N.J., across the river to Greenwich Village, where he will die at the age of 47 - a former secretary of the Treasury of the United States murdered by the country's vice president.

Kim Crowley's sculptures are so vivid that one is tempted to intervene in this twisted drama - to quiet the unbridled passions and prideful sense of honor that led to this moment. But the bronze figures stand immobile and the lobby area between their pointing pistols seems like some endangered, charged space, through which one warily walks.

Charged space: that is what this exhibition has come to inhabit as well. It marks an ambitious transformation of the financially troubled New-York Historical Society. It has also inspired its own controversies as some historians and Society staff members have worried over a possible conservative tilt. The exhibition's curator is the historian Richard Brookhiser, author of "Alexander Hamilton, American" (1999) and a senior editor at the conservative National Review. As it turns out, politics is not the problem. There are serious flaws in the exhibition. But they seem caused mainly by its designers; the irony is that these flaws may not be totally unrelated to some of Hamilton's ideas.

Controversy, at any rate, may be unavoidable given the subject, for Hamilton always weaved between opponents' volleys as the federal government was formed and American political culture took shape.

But his accomplishments can almost seem effortless. A Caribbean-born orphan, Hamilton was appointed to Gen. George Washington's staff in the Revolutionary War at 20; he became a lawyer and a New York delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention; with James Madison and John Jay, he wrote the classic "Federalist Papers." As Washington's Treasury secretary he created the American banking and tax systems. And in his construction of financial institutions, his defense of a strong executive, his arguments against slavery, his belief in a diverse manufacturing economy, he could plausibly be called, as the exhibition's subtitle puts it, "The Man Who Made Modern America."

But his enterprise was neither effortless nor preordained. Hamilton was ambitious, argumentative, relentless. He was himself a party to 10 different challenges that involved the threat of duels. A few years before his death, his son was killed in a duel defending Hamilton's honor (using the same pistols). Hamilton confessed to an adulterous affair while secretary of the Treasury, an affair that led to his paying hush money to a conniving swindler. And he was roundly detested by some of the most considerable figures of the day. John Adams said Hamilton was "the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world."

Hamilton was accused of being a monarchist, of plotting to restore British rule, of harboring disdain for democracy. In fact, Hamilton's successes as Treasury secretary may well have been the catalyst for the two-party system in American politics leading to a decade of vituperation and machination that makes the current era look pastoral.

The exhibition, in claiming a central role for Hamilton, also takes a stand in the charged space of contemporary American politics and does so on a big scale. More than $5.7 million was raised for the exhibition; two-thirds of its items come from the Society's own collection, with materials on loan from such sources as the Library of Congress, the Museum of the City of New York and even Credit Suisse First Boston.

The show is also meant to have an expansive presence. The Society is offering a series of lectures by major Hamilton scholars. A traveling exhibition (displaying reproductions, not originals) will be seen in 40 cities over the next three years. A Hamilton curriculum will be distributed to 40,000 teachers along with a gallery guide, a documentary by Ric Burns, a DVD of a play about Hamilton by Don Winslow and copies of Mr. Brookhiser's book along with the Library of America's Hamilton volume. A Web site,, provides information and will expand over time.

By Society standards, the show, which will run through February, is a blockbuster, all the more imposing because it is being presented by an institution that once faced financial ruin and has been reconstituting itself with a new board and a new president, Louise Mirrer.

Some of the controversy, though, has arisen over that new direction. A year ago, Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, wealthy businessmen, joined the board, lending the Society their extraordinary collection of historical documents, building a $1 million vault to store it and moving the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History into the building. James G. Basker, the president of the institute, is the Hamilton exhibition's project director.

This has led to concern over undue influence, as if the donors, like Hamilton with his establishment of the American banking system, were instituting an economic regime in which capital was displacing more genteel forms of commerce. And indeed, the Society's financial goals have increased; so have ambitions for attendance.

And just as Hamilton's views inspired political opposition, so too has Mr. Gilder's and Mr. Lehrman's involvement; they have been accused of steering the society toward their version of political conservatism even in the choice of subject. Hamilton, partly because of his creation of the institutions of American capitalism and partly because of his philosophical ideas, has become the favored Founding Father for contemporary conservatives.

But all this has very little to do with the achievements and failings of the exhibition. The achievements, in fact, aside from the sheer accumulation of artifacts and portraits, are in Mr. Brookhiser's thematic outline of Hamilton's career and its influence. The failings have everything to do with a populist ideology and a straining for sensation that the designers of the exhibition, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, have brought to bear.

This gives the exhibition a somewhat schizophrenic quality. Its central gallery, for example, is lined with sober, thematically titled display cases. "Immigrant" includes a copy of Hamilton's school exercises, with Greek sentences from "The Iliad." "Soldier" includes such items as a July 1776 printing of the Declaration of Independence; "Lawmaker," a drawing of a float honoring Hamilton in the parade celebrating New York's ratification of the Constitution.

But on the opposite wall of this gallery, as if drumming home the point that "we live in the world he made," are gargantuan video screens, each of which also heralds a theme like "Rule of Law," "A Free Press," "The Economy." The videos are little more than stock film of newsprint presses, commuters in Grand Central Terminal and Times Square stock tickers. It is as if by simply overwhelming the senses, Hamilton's influence could be established.

In such a duel between media, what hope do old documents have, particularly when textual explanation is deliberately minimized? Even in the portrait gallery - in which the paintings are not laid out to be easily viewed and glare reflects off many - the labels are so compressed that one doesn't often understand how these Hamiltonian ghosts interact. There, too, videos fill up two screens with actors reading quotes about Hamilton by historical figures in the portraits, providing little context. And bafflingly, despite the exhibition's treasures on display, there are no printed transcriptions of the handwritten documents.

As a result some of the most subtle debates in American history have to be elliptically suggested on brief cards that provide too little for the knowing and not enough for the less informed. One display tells us that Hamilton supported a strong central government, but why was it opposed? Such an explanation would have required more words, indeed an exhibition organized around words, not around flashing images. And that, presumably, would not have satisfied the organizers nor would it have promised sufficient attendance.

But this may, inadvertently, touch on one of Hamilton's great themes. Men, Hamilton writes, "are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious." And most famously, in Federalist No. 15, he asks: "Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint." Indeed, Hamilton, like many of the Founders, feared democracy because of the risk that passions would be left with few restraints.

But his preoccupation with this theme, at a time when popular passions were most directed toward the overturning of authority, made him seem more anti-democratic than he was. At the same time, though, by arguing against slavery, by devising institutions that acknowledged both authority and passion, he ended up giving the democratic citizen more respect than some of his colleagues.

Unfortunately, this exhibition, championing democratic taste, actually respects the citizenry less than Hamilton did. It is designed against its texts. It wants to be an unbounded celebration of sensation and democratic sensibility, free of Hamilton's somberness while still invoking his aura for authority. But Hamilton, who relished the drive of argument and bore no illusions about the struggle required, would probably blanche at this aesthetic and its inherent condescension.

So one has to come to this exhibition already prepared. First read Mr. Brookhiser's elegant book or Ron Chernow's engrossing biography of Hamilton and then work through the displays. The issues will become clear. As for sheer sensation, only one image will deservingly endure: the dueling bronze figures and their contested space.

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