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ALEX THE GREAT: The New-York Historical Society pays homage to an underloved founding father

September 23-30, 2004 - Time Out New York

After Ronald Reagan's death earlier this year, there were movements to get the Gipper's face attached to everything from Mount Rushmore to the dime. One of the proposals that's gained the most momentum is the plan to get Reagan's mug on the $10 bill, replacing that of Alexander Hamilton.

With all due respect to the 40th President (himself a Hamilton admirer), a flawed but fascinating new show at the New-York Historical Society makes a powerful case that America's first treasury secretary most assuredly deserves to keep his spot on the sawbuck. Indeed, "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America"--the central exhibit celebrating the NYHS's 200th anniversary-suggests that if it weren't for the efforts and ideas of Hamilton, America would be a very different place.

The exhibition opens with "His World," a large gallery featuring portraits of Hamilton and his contemporaries, including George Washington, John Jay and Thomas Jefferson. The wall text is minimal, but the images show that Hamilton's circle of friends-and enemies-included some of the most important figures of the American Revolution. A short film created by the History Channel is also playing in this gallery: On two large screens, many of the same images that hang on the walls appear while actors read facts and quotations. It's fun to see portraits of Jefferson and Hamilton looking stately while voiceovers spit out insults traded by the two men.

The next gallery, "His Vision," is the most impressive, and does the most to justify the show's subtitle. The long, beautifully laid out room features 13 cases containing letters and documents, including drafts of the Constitution and Hamilton's personal correspondence. Unfortunately, there are no transcripts of the handwritten items, and they are faded and difficult to read. Still, it's worth leaning in close to read Hamilton's elegant prose.

Along one wall of the gallery, Hamilton's words are projected onto large screens, juxtaposed with scenes from contemporary American life, showing how several of the ideas he championed-including a free press, the importance of urban centers and a manufacturing-based economy-have become the basis for our modern society. The short films themselves are not especially compelling, but they do underscore the fact that Hamilton was often alone among the founders in his beliefs. It's tough to imagine what our modern economy, landscape and media might look like without Hamilton's influence.

The opposite wall is lined with cases containing artifacts, including additional letters, copies of the Federalist Papers (written by Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison), portraits, maps and illustrations. The wall is divided into sections tracing Hamilton's life from a turbulent childhood in the Caribbean-he was born out of wedlock, abandoned by his father and orphaned by his mother at age nine-to his triumphant adulthood as a soldier, journalist, activist and economist. As the nation's first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton would help pay off America's debts and set up its banking and taxation systems. He was also one of the only founders to speak out against slavery. Locally, he founded the Bank of New York and the New York Post (then the New-York Evening Post). The exhibit's program is cleverly designed to resemble a modern-day version of that paper, complete with a Page Six featuring items about George Washington and Elizabeth Schuler Hamilton.

Don't bother lingering in the dull and easily crowded "His Life" hall, and instead make your way to a small installation dedicated to Hamilton's fatal duel with Aaron Burr. Several interesting items are contained here, including the pistols used by the two men, the correspondence that led to the duel and a letter Hamilton wrote to his wife to be opened in the event of his death. Also on view are a pair of life-size bronze statues of Hamilton and Burr dueling, crafted by sculptor Kim Crowley.

Since "Alexander Hamilton" relies so heavily on artifacts, many visitors may find themselves yearning to know more about the man (the bookstore helpfully contains several Hamilton biographies, including one by curator Richard Brookhiser). Still, the show provides an excellent introduction to a figure who, until recently, was largely overshadowed by his peers. It's not surprising that the NYHS has chosen to celebrate its bicentennial with an homage to Hamilton; he is truly one of the most important architects of America. And isn't that worth at least ten bucks?

Copyright 2004 Time Out New York