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REVIVING THE OVERLOOKED 'PATRON SAINT OF NEW YORK': Paul Sullivan
enjoys a sparky but controversial blockbuster celebration at the New-York
Historical Society of the life of Alexander Hamilton, a savvy immigrant who
helped shape the nation


BY PAUL SULLIVAN

September 21, 2004 - Financial Times (London, England)

Alexander Hamilton is New York's man-about-town. Sure, he died in Greenwich
Village in 1804, but after two centuries of being overlooked for the other
founding fathers he is finally getting his due. With the New-York Historical
Society's blockbuster exhibition - a phrase that would have brought gales of
laughter with any previous show at the formerly fusty Upper West Side museum -
the savvy, self-made immigrant is getting the full multimedia treatment.

   The introductory video is produced by The History Channel with a level of
polish not associated with such projects, while the audio guide takes a unique
approach to narrating the exhibition's highlights: keying in a number on a blue
square gives a typical museum narration, complete with violin music, while
calling up an orange square introduces "Mr Tabloid". Often in conversation with
"Mrs Hamilton", Mr Tabloid is the archetype of the ink-stained city hack,
working the angles and holding forth in Brooklynese. It's a clever device to
appeal to children but also appropriate since Hamilton founded The New York
Post. The newspaper itself created a 20-page mock edition that chronicles the
key moments in the first treasury secretary's life, including his numerous
dalliances with women who were not his wife. ("1797 - Tell your bookseller to
put aside a copy of ex-Sec. Treas. Alexander Hamilton's latest, Observations on
Certain Documents," says the gossip column. "Dull title, hot stuff . . . the
nation's former No. 1 money man will tell a sordid tale of sex and blackmail.")
And if you happen to wander in on a weekend, there is a 38-minute, two-actor
play, commissioned for the exhibition. The museum is pulling out all the stops
in its record-setting Dollars 5m exhibition.

   Yet all of this would be smoke and mirrors if Hamilton's life were not so
fascinating and little understood. Born illegitimate in the West Indies,
Hamilton was sent by patrons to New York to study at what is now Columbia
University. By 20, he was on George Washington's revolutionary war staff. As a
young lawyer in Manhattan, he wrote two-thirds of the 85 Federalist Papers,
which convinced states to ratify the Constitution, and went on to become the
first treasury secretary at the age of 32. Fifteen years later, he was shot dead
in a duel with the then vice-president, Aaron Burr, leaving behind his wife who
had had his eight children.

   To tell this story, there is a marvellous room filled to the ceiling with
portraits of Hamilton's contemporaries, followed by a sumptuously lit hall,
created by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the designers of the displays for Bill
Clinton's presidential library. It is here that Hamilton gets the full Manhattan
treatment through an impressive collection of rare documents. There is a copy of
the Declaration of Independence printed in Boston in July 1776, Benjamin
Franklin's signed copy of the constitution, sections of Washington's farewell
address that Hamilton wrote for him by hand, and, perhaps most intriguing, the
fateful exchanges between Hamilton and Burr. At the end of the exhibition, the
pistols used in the duel (courtesy, somewhat oddly, of J.P. Morgan Chase's
collection) sit between scale statues of the two men facing off: Burr's aim was
straight, Hamilton's was high and right.

   "He saw cities as the social unit of the future," says Jim Basker, the
project director for the exhibition and a professor of English at Columbia.
"Hamilton, as an immigrant, saw that the agrarian society (of Thomas Jefferson's
dreams) was locked in time. He is sort of the patron saint of New York City."

   Fittingly for Hamilton's outsized life, the exhibition has already caused a
dust-up. Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, museum trustees with an impressive
collection of historical documents and a good deal of Wall Street wealth, sped
along the creation of the show to coincide with the bicentennial of both
Hamilton's death and the New-York Historical Society's founding. For this the
two Republicans have been thanked with charges that they are steering the museum
to the right - a paranoia heightened by the choice of curator, Richard
Brookhiser, author of Alexander Hamilton, American and a senior editor at the
conservative National Review.

   The name-calling, as the Revolutionaries would have said, is shaping up to be
a flash in the pan. If only Hamilton had been so lucky.

LOAD-DATE: September 20, 2004

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