OUR FATHER THE MODERNIST
BY EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
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
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,
alexanderhamiltonexhibition.com, 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
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
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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