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HONORING HAMILTON
KNICKERBOCKER
BY GARY SHAPIRO

September 9, 2004 - The New York Sun

"Shall we all raise our glass to Alexander Hamilton? May I say for the evening 'We are all Hamiltonians'?" Lewis Lehrman said, standing on a staircase at the New-York Historical Society at a reception Wednesday. Opening tomorrow is an exhibition called "Alexander Hamilton: The Man who Made Modern America," organized by historian Richard Brookhiser and Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History president James Basker. Filling the ground floor of the building, it is the centerpiece of the NYHS bicentennial celebration.

The show offers a comprehensive survey of Hamilton's dizzying array of achievements as force behind the ratification of the Constitution; founder of the Bank of the United States and the Bank of New York; lawyer and pioneer of the judicial review process; military hero of Yorktown; opponent of slavery, and founding publisher of the New York Post.

Mr. Lehrman recalled Robert Kennedy once saying, "Campaigns are not run on enthusiasm alone - they have to be financed." Mr. Lehrman then thanked the donors who financed the ambitious museum show including Julian Robertson, who had given four times the "princely sum" Mr. Lehrman had asked him to donate.

NYHS President Louise Mirrer spoke, and a buoyant Mr. Basker stepped forward soon after. "If I may," he told those gathered, "I'd like to take you literally into Hamilton's world." The group entered a room featuring more than 30 portraits of Hamilton and his contemporaries, two-thirds of which come from the New-York Historical Society collection.

Two sculptures - including the Houdon bust of Thomas Jefferson - posed, Mr. Basker said, the "fundamental binary of American history": The Federalist position of strong central government versus states' rights. Film screens offered opinions and arguments on issues Hamilton held dear. "We didn't want these portraits to be static," Mr. Basker said, adding that visitors should leave the room "with more questions than settled opinions."

Moving "from people to ideas," the next room focused on Hamilton's vision in shaping the nation. The room's crepuscular glow housed historic documents such as the Federalist Papers, Benjamin Franklin's personal copy of the Constitution, minutes from the New York Manumission Society, and Hamilton's handwritten drafts for sections of Washington's Farewell Address - an early ghostwriting job.

The ultimate aim, Mr. Basker said, was "to bring the modern world into the room. We wanted schoolchildren also to see the world they live in," he said.

The tour ended near newly commissioned statues of the dueling Aaron Burr and Hamilton; the latter is wearing glasses. Nearby are the actual pistols used in the duel.

In attendance that evening were Byron Wien talking with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was Mr. Wien's history professor at Harvard, and Lincoln historian Harold Holzer.

Dinner followed upstairs in the Luman Reed Gallery, where Mr. Brookhiser opened by asking, "Why Hamilton now?" He said that Hamilton's story resonates today. Hamilton came from "nowhere and nothing" and rose through brilliance, luck, and hard work. "Unlike some other self-made men, he didn't pull up the drawbridge"

Noting the city will be marking the third anniversary of September 11, 2001, this Saturday, Mr. Brookhiser said had he been alive today, Hamilton would have been angry, but not surprised, for he knew the world was dangerous. Hamilton, an orphan at age 10, wrote in Federalist #6 that "men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious." The audience laughed when Mr. Brookhiser added, "I'm not saying you could turn to him to find an Iraq policy."

The show was not one of hero worship. "We have to acknowledge his limitations," Mr. Brookhiser said, discussing the duel over honor. A week before the duel at the July 4 banquet of the Society of the Cincinnati (a group of Revolutionary officers), Burr had been silent but Hamilton sung. Mr. Brookhiser said there were two different accounts of what he sang. One was the upbeat melody "The Drum." The more somber alternative ended with the lyrics:

'Tis but in vain - I mean not to upbraid you, boys-'Tis but in vain For soldiers to complain. Should next campaign Send us to Him who made us, boys, We're free from pain. But should we remain, A bottle and kind land lady cures all again.

Copyright The New York Sun

URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/1492