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That Hamilton Man’: An Exchange

In response to:

That Hamilton Man from the February 10, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

I much admire the work of Professor Mike Wallace, but would like to correct a serious misunderstanding that could be conveyed by the first long footnote in his review of the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition on Alexander Hamilton [NYR, February 10]. My concern has nothing to do with the Hamilton exhibition or the New-York Historical Society, but rather with the invaluable Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which is emphatically not a right-wing or conservative organization, and which is surely not taking over the New-York Historical Society.

As a leftish Democrat (and a longtime contributor to The New York Review), I have worked quite closely with Dick Gilder, Lew Lehrman, and the GLI since 1994, teaching summer seminars on slavery and antislavery for high school teachers, co-editing a large “interpretive anthology” based on their extraordinary collection of documents (The Boisterous Sea of Liberty), and from 1998 to 2004 serving as director of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Despite our major political differences, I have never encountered even the most subtle attempt at ideological influence of any kind with respect to my teaching, writing, cocurating a national exhibition on slavery, or making proposals as a member of the Advisory Board of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The one time Mr. Gilder made a “political” suggestion, it was quite radical—he suggested that we add the word “Resistance” to the title of Yale’s center, after he learned that African slaves rebelled on about 10 percent of the Atlantic slave ships.

The vast majority of scholars who have agreed during the past nine years to teach GLI seminars are anything but conservatives. But they represent from coast to coast many of the nation’s most eminent historians: David Kennedy, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, Richard White, Patricia Limerick, Thomas Bender, Ira Berlin, Philip Morgan, and Jack Rakove, to name a few. Aside from the twenty-two summer seminars for high school and middle school teachers throughout the nation, the GLI has worked closely with the National Park Service and with public historians. At a time when the teaching of history has received diminishing public support, Dick Gilder and Lew Lehrman have helped to fund the creation of “history high schools” not only in New York City but in Savannah, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and other cities. And this has been done without any trace of a political agenda. It’s not surprising that the GLI is now receiving grants from a variety of other sources, or that in April the institute will be the first recipient of “The Friends of History Award” from the leading national society of American historians—the Organization of American Historians—at their annual meeting. Nothing could better symbolize our national and nonpolitical purpose to improve the teaching and understanding of American history.

David Brion Davis

Sterling Professor Emeritus Yale University Director Emeritus Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition

New Haven, Connecticut

To the Editors:

Mike Wallace’s dire review of the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Mod-ern America” displays a curious disregard of history. As Professor Wallace well knows, the most recent appointees to the society’s board include David Blight, Yale professor and specialist in slavery, resistance, and abolition; Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor and head of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute; the filmmaker Ric Burns; and Bernard Schwartz, a major supporter of the Democratic Party. These appointments hardly give evidence to the claim Professor Wallace makes about the ideological influences at the society. Professor Wallace also fails to take note of my own appointment as president and CEO of the society, last June. Happily, Professor Wallace’s views are not widely shared. I am fortunate to count on some of the best historians in the region for my academic advisory board (including my predecessor, Professor Kenneth T. Jackson, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.), and some of the best historians in the world for help in planning our upcoming set of exhibitions on slavery and resistance in New York—an important topic that truly indicates our current direction.

Louise Mirrer

President and CEO

New-York Historical Society

New York City

Mike Wallace replies:

I’m pleased that Professor Davis, one of the country’s preeminent historians, and N-YHS President Louise Mirrer, for whom I have the highest regard and respect, offer no objections to the substance of my critical review of the Hamilton exhibition. Nor do they suggest I erred in pointing out, in a footnote, that primary responsibility for that disappointing show belongs to the Gilder-Lehrman Institute (GLI) rather than the society itself. Their concerns go rather to what they believe are my claims that the GLI is a right-wing organization, and that it is taking over the N-YHS. But I made no such claims, either in the note to which they refer or in my essay “Business Class Hero” to which it directs attention (www.gothamcenter.org/hamilton).

On the contrary: in that piece I acknowledged that the institute “had done exemplary work in making historical scholarship accessible to wider publics”; hailed the many initiatives it had underwritten (including one of my own); and noted that the GLI “had been scrupulous in the past about not imposing a political litmus test on scholarship it supported.” I did refer to the “right-wing personal politics” of Messrs. Lehrman and Gilder, a characterization I based upon, among other things, Mr. Gilder’s role in underwriting Newt Gingrich’s career; his past chairmanship of the Manhattan Institute; and his cofounding of the Club for Growth, currently a leader in the fight to privatize Social Security.

Nevertheless, Gilder’s and Lehrman’s passionate commitment to history, their splendid document collection, their substantial fortunes, and their willingness to segregate politics from historical philanthropy made their arrival at the N-YHS seem (as I wrote) “a promising development, heralding great potential for finally creating a world-class institution dedicated to explicating New York’s past.” But then came the hagiographic Hamilton show, produced under their direct aegis, which I’ve argued bears all too clearly the mark of its promoters’ politics, and thus represents a breach in the wall they had hitherto admirably maintained.

Does their outsized involvement in that exhibition betoken an overweening influence in the future? They do seem determined to be activist trustees, able and willing to back their preferences with immense sums (they rounded up an astonishing $5.7 million from assorted stockbrokers and hedge fund operators for the paean to Hamilton), and it would be naive to assume they will not remain influential players. But I’m on record as being hopeful that “under the stewardship of Ms. Mirrer and an expanding and diversified board”—referring precisely to the estimable historians and citizens she cites in her letter—the society’s future course will not be unduly swayed by any particular trustees. I’ve also written of my delight that President Mirrer is “carrying on with a long-gestating exhibition on the History of Slavery in New York City.” Given that she has mobilized a crackerjack team of professional designers and historians, I’m betting that “Slavery” will be the blockbuster that “Hamilton” wasn’t, and that the latter will prove to have been merely an embarrassing blip in the two-hundred-year history of an institution in whose success I and many other New Yorkers are deeply invested.

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