When I first heard that the New-York Historical Society was promoting its Alexander Hamilton exhibition by blanketing its block-long façade with a banner imprinted with an immense ten-dollar bill, it sounded like a wonderfully whimsical marketing device, a Barnumesque bit of barkerism on behalf of a Founder who eminently deserved a full bells-and-whistles show. But in the event, the gargantuan head and gigantic logo, “The Man Who Made Modern America,” proved all too consistent with the exhibit within: a glorification of Hamilton as hero. “Modern America” was not made by Alexander Hamilton, although a more modest case can be made for his contribution to the development of key financial and political institutions. Instead, in the interest of advancing a deeply anachronistic argument about Hamilton’s contemporary relevance, the show opts for one-sided, hagiographic boosterism.1
In the first room, titled “His World,” one is confronted with two huge TV screens (one bearing the History Channel’s logo) which display dueling quotations from rival Founders—chiefly Hamilton and Washington versus Jefferson and Adams. The juxtaposition of texts suggests that Hamilton was a pioneering and progressive American, albeit prey to a few humanizing peccadillos, while his contemporary opponents were racist hypocrites and “uncomprehending” men of limited vision. This battle of the blurbs—Adams excoriates Hamilton’s character, Washington defends him—is Founding Fatherology at its worst, with history reduced to biography and presented as a zero-sum catfight.
An introductory gallery might more profitably have claimed that Hamilton has been unjustly underappreciated, and invited the show’s viewers to participate in a reevaluation of his achievements. But this would have required a full and honest engagement with Hamilton’s ideas and projects, and some explanation of why so many of his contemporaries (and subsequent generations), rightly or wrongly, objected to them. That the show is deeply reluctant to do this becomes evident when the visitor enters its principal gallery space. Down its long left-hand wall are five giant video screens (each roughly seventeen feet by seventeen feet), each of which announces a subject (RULE OF LAW/FREE PRESS/ THE ECONOMY/NATIONAL DEFENSE/THE CITY), then alternates relevant quotes from Hamilton with a few short film clips. The screens are meant to represent the present—the America that Hamilton presumably “made.” As the printed gallery guide puts it, they offer “a series of filmed vignettes of modern American life, fading in and out with projections of Hamilton’s words: a continuous alternation of 18th-century plans and 21st-century fulfillment.”
Facing the screens, running down the gallery’s right-hand wall, are six glassed-in cabinets filled with objects—paintings, documents, artifacts, draw- ings—pertaining to Hamilton’s life. These, too, are arranged thematically: IMMIGRANT/SOLDIER/LAWMAKER/ ECONOMIST/ACTIVIST/VISIONARY. Representing the past, they are meant to lay out Hamilton’s vision. As the Historical Society’s Web site explains, “Cases on the righthand wall display objects—a musket, money, slave shackles—illustrating his concepts.”
Between the walls of past and present, on individual platforms running down the center of the hall, are thirteen glass cases containing documents, most written by Hamilton, bearing the words that presumably “made Modern America.” But it’s not easy to see these words, or much of anything else, since the entire gallery is kept dimly lit, partly to preserve the delicate documents, partly because, owing to the hall’s design, the video screens dominate the space and their oscillating light (they glow more intensely when the film snippets appear) makes the eighteenth-century material especially hard to read. While the moments of illumination serve to brighten the general gloom, it’s hard to understand why the curators chose to sacrifice the legibility of prized original manuscripts. Unless, perhaps, these documents weren’t meant to be read at all, but rather to be displayed as a hero’s relics. It might seem that the real point of the altar-like cases and sepulchral lighting is to induce a reverential attitude in visitors. But when one examines more closely the show’s depiction of the past, and its account of the present, a better explanation emerges of why the historical artifacts, the “Then,” have been subordinated to the “Now” portrayed on the screens.
Extracting Hamilton’s vision from the six artifact cases is impeded by more than low wattage. The objects in each are presented virtually without context, apart from wisps of text, and in a few instances an Acoustiguide briefly elaborates on the texts. This is all the more frustrating since the objects are meant not only to evoke Hamilton’s life but to elucidate his “concepts,” and how much “concept” can a musket convey without any explication?
These sins of omission, however, are less serious than the exhibit’s sins of commission. For example, according to the text and Acoustiguide message, as Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton “found a way to pay off America’s lingering war debts,” and to pay them “fairly,” over the “bitter objections of less progressive opponents.” By the time he retired in 1795, it is claimed, Hamilton had brought the nation “into the modern financial era”; forestalled the possibility of its becoming a “banana republic”; and left it “poised to become a major financial power.” Aside from the last phrase—under any reasonable construction of “poised,” it’s off by roughly a century—this package of propositions, presented as self-evident truths, finesses the most intense debate of the 1790s, one that nearly tore the young Republic apart.
Revolutionary War soldiers had been paid for their service with paper IOUs, whose postwar value plummeted in the 1780s as it seemed increasingly unlikely that the government under the Articles of Confed-eration would ever redeem them. Strapped for cash in hard economic times, many desperate veterans sold off their notes to speculators—mostly urban merchants well stocked with hard coin—who snapped them up for as little as ten cents on the dollar. These speculators knew that plans were afoot to strengthen the federal government, which would among other things improve its capacity to pay its debts. Many were themselves key participants in these initiatives, which came to fruition with ratification of the Constitution.
Speculation in the debt accelerated with the establishment of a new government, and again with Hamilton’s appointment as its Treasury secretary, since he was determined to fund the outstanding obligations by issuing new notes to replace the old at full face value, handing a huge windfall profit to those who’d bought the old notes on the cheap. One of the biggest speculators was William Duer, Hamilton’s second in command at the Treasury, who passed invaluable insider gossip along to his cronies. Another market emerged in notes issued by the individual states, debt obligations that Hamilton intended to have the federal government assume. Speculators in the know dispatched agents to backwoods regions to scoop up depreciated state paper from unaware owners.
Hamilton formally presented his Report on Public Credit to Congress in 1790, precipitating fierce opposition led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, precisely on the ground that his funding and debt assumption plans were not “fair.” Madison thought speculation in the debt was “wrong, radically & morally & politically wrong.” Jefferson believed “speculators had made a trade of cozzening [notes] from the holders by the most fraudulent practices,” and that “immense sums were thus filched from the poor and ignorant….” Both urged splitting the windfall profits between current and original holders. Hamilton responded that veterans who had sold out were entitled to nothing further, having shown insufficient faith in the country’s future, while speculators, having risked their capital, should be rewarded accordingly. He knew full well that their risk had been minimal, especially in the case of insiders, and that many had merely mercenary motives. But Hamilton was set on rehabilitating the fledgling country’s battered credit rating and regaining access to local and foreign capital markets. He believed this required guaranteeing “security of transfer”—the right of those who bought government paper to all subsequent profit or loss.
Hamilton’s position is defensible, especially if one uses a moral calculus that privileges the systemic over the individual, the long range over the short term, but that doesn’t mean his opponents’ claims to superior “fairness” can be ignored. Nor can his critics be dismissed as financial pre-moderns, fearful of money and credit, not least because their reservations were as much political as economic.
Those who denounced Hamilton’s proposals for funding and assumption of debt, as well as his establishment of a national bank, feared he was out to create a class of “paper aristocrats”—a financial elite, tightly linked to a powerful federal Treasury. (As Adams argued, “Paper wealth has been the source of aristocracy in this country, as well as landed wealth, with a vengeance.”) And they were right. Hamilton’s goal was to grapple to government a phalanx of the new nation’s wealthiest citizens, by giving them a powerful stake in its success and longevity. An understandable strategy, but, again, the fear of Jefferson and many others—that the government-backed rich might prove a menace to republican government—was equally understandable, and should have been acknowledged in the exhibition.
Finally, the claim that Hamilton’s financial program saved the country from becoming a “banana republic” is untenable. Certainly funding and assumption had important ramifications, particularly in opening the way for new foreign loans, though their immediate legacy was a mountain of debt that would soon have become insupportable had revenues—the byproduct of prosperity and economic growth—not arrived beginning in the mid-1790s, and increased dramatically in the late 1790s and early 1800s. But the influx of money was the result not of Hamiltonian wizardry but of the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in 1793, which generated strong European demand for neutral America’s grain, and of England’s burgeoning industrialization, which generated strong demand for American (slave-produced) cotton. Booming agricultural exports made growing imports possible, and with them an abundant flow of tariff-generated funds to the Treasury (customs duties comprised 94 percent of federal income in 1795). Here and elsewhere, the exhibit misleads by focusing too myopically on Hamilton’s life, and paying insufficient attention to his times.2
But the exhibition’s purpose is less to explain Hamilton’s era than to claim that he created ours, and it is in trying to make this case that the show goes radically wrong. The supersized video screens that display the present have been widely criticized, but while attention has focused on the medium, the message is more deeply flawed. First, these “filmed vignettes of modern American life” conjure up a cartoon present, utterly abstracted from today’s complex realities. For example, on the screen concerned with “National Defense” we see what appear to be outtakes from old recruiting films—leisurely pans over an aircraft carrier flight deck, views of fighter jets scrambling skyward, languorous shots of paratroopers tumbling earthward in slow motion toward…where? Vietnam? Grenada? A whirring helicopter picks up heavily armed GIs carrying a blanketed bundle (a dead buddy?), raising the question of where they are—Were those cornfields? Could this be Central America? All-white graduating cadets throw their hats in the air—but when was this? Hasn’t it been ages since the military tinted its Aryan Nation complexion? The cumulative effect these images of events without context seek to induce seems clear enough: the modern American military is a strong, benign institution committed to defense. And according to the array of quotes taken out of their eighteenth-century context, we have Hamilton to thank for it.
But the slightest confrontation with contemporary and historical realities sends these airy abstractions thudding back to earth. In the case of the twenty-first century, it’s only necessary to imagine the effect on N-YHS visitors had the designers inserted a “vignette” of George Bush strutting about the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in front of the “Mission Accomplished” sign.
Sorting out the eighteenth-century side of the proposed continuum requires that we recall a few aspects of Hamilton’s military career that didn’t make it into the “Soldier” case of artifacts on the gallery’s opposite wall. Hamilton’s service in the revolutionary army against an imperial occupying power brought him widespread acclaim, though he had also displayed a worrisome penchant for using the military for civilian purposes. When he urged Washington to use the discontent among the officer corps to goad Congress into bolstering public finances, the general told his aide that the army was “a dangerous instrument to play with.”
After the war, Hamilton’s proposal that the new country establish a peacetime army alarmed a great many people. Having suffered occupation by British troops, they remembered (and feared) the uses to which a “standing army” could be put, including enforcement of hated laws. Anxiety over the possible misuse of military power mounted when Hamilton, having funded the Revolutionary War debt, sought new revenues with which to repay it. Reluctant to further increase tariffs, especially since import duties would injure the seaboard merchants who were part of Hamilton’s social circle as well as his political constituents in New York, he won passage of an excise tax on wine and spirits that most heavily affected western farmers (who distilled their bulky grain into transportable liquor), in effect transferring wealth from country producers to urban bondholders. To enforce the law he dispatched squadrons of tax collectors, and when the farmers in western Pennsylvania revolted against the collectors’ bullying tactics in what was called the Whiskey Rebellion, a huge armed force was sent to suppress it. To a populace long touchy about taxes this seemed an ominous development.
Hamilton’s taste for military initiatives abroad was equally disturbing. Certainly he desired an armed force for national defense, but he was equally keen on using it to project US power overseas. Noting that England had successfully used its fleet to prosecute wars around the world and to maintain a global commercial empire, he urged that “if we mean to be a commercial people…we must endeavour as soon as possible to have a navy.” And in 1798, in line with his truculent position toward French seizures of American merchant ships—a sharp contrast to his placating response to English depredations a few years earlier—Hamilton pushed for and got authority to build a vast army, with himself and Washington at its head. When President Adams, to Hamilton’s dismay, decided on a diplomatic solution to the conflict with the French, Hamilton viciously attacked the President, helping to bring down his own Federalist Party and his political career. Abigail Adams feared that the man she called a “second Bonaparty” might take up arms and stage a coup d’état.
Virginia Republicans feared that Hamilton (“Our Bonaparte,” Jefferson called him) might march his Federalist-led army into the southern states, to intimidate his opponents, but he did not invade the Republican heartland. He did, however, contemplate going still farther south and seizing territory from Spain (“…we ought certainly to look to the possession of the Floridas and Louisiana and we ought to squint at South America,” he wrote to James McHenry). In his recent biography Ron Chernow considers this proposed “imperialist escapade” to have been “one of the most flagrant instances of poor judgment in Hamilton’s career.”3 Even Washington grew dubious about any continuing need for the new army. By 1800, according to President Adams, Hamilton’s military had become “as unpopular as if it had been a ferocious wild beast let loose upon the nation to devour it.” Congress authorized its dismantling, and Adams swiftly shut it down.
One might have thought Hamilton’s thirst for military glory merited at least some space in the exhibition. The case marked “Soldier” asserts that Hamilton was appointed inspector general of the army “against his own inclination,” though virtually all the historians I have read concur that he jockeyed frantically for the position.4 I’m not suggesting that the exhibit should have portrayed Hamilton as a militarist—this remains a subject of scholarly debate5—only that the show’s presentation is highly selective.
This selectivity is on display at the screen devoted to “The Rule of Law” as well. Here we get long, admiring, zoom-in-zoom-out images of the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court. The implicit argument, straight from a 1950s civics textbook, is that the separation of powers is the centerpiece of today’s political universe (though of course, in the real world, so are political parties, corporate lobbyists, the mass media, and big-money campaign contributors) and that this constitutional structure is another of Hamilton’s legacies. But Hamilton, notoriously, proposed to the Philadelphia convention a very different structure, centered on a president elected for life during “good behavior.”
Far from being “Visionary” and “Modern,” Hamilton hankered after an old order in which well-bred elites made decisions for less-educated citizens. And while he presented his public reservations about republican government in abstract terms—the diff- iculty of achieving a proper balance between “liberty” and “order”—in pri- vate reflections he fretted more straightforwardly about “the depredations which the democratic spirit is apt to make on property”; he was, Chernow notes, prey to “lurid visions that the have-nots would rise up and dispossess the haves.”6
Hamilton opposed the Bill of Rights. He favored transferring power from the states, as too accessible to the people, to a central government, better buffered against popular pressure. And for all his putative attachment to “The Rule of Law,” when in 1800 his opponents swept the New York City elections, Hamilton urged the governor, John Jay, to retroactively change the rules and reverse the results—“in times like these in which we live, it will not do to be overscrupulous.” Jay didn’t reply, noting on the back of Hamilton’s letter: “Proposing a measure for party purposes which it would not become me to adopt.”
The video-screen treatment of Hamilton’s effect on the economy is equally obfuscatory. It shows clips of a CNN stock ticker, a Times Square stock ticker, and a New York Stock Exchange stock ticker, along with a Wall Street subway station. There’s no sign of commerce or agriculture in these “vignettes of modern American life,” unless the glimpse of a Wall Street fruit-and-vegetable stand is meant as a stand-in for both. Nor is there any trace of manufacturing, for all the claims that Hamilton was its progenitor. This is a stockbroker’s-eye view of the economy.
One would never know from these sunny images that tickers record busts as well as booms, that Wall Street has been regularly swept by financial panics, that the American economy has repeatedly crumpled into recession or depression. With no downside to finance capitalism, the Man Who Made Modern America need bear no responsibility for its failures.
Things are similarly smiley-faced over at the “Free Press” screen, though we should note (as the show does not) that while Hamilton was the author of a legal argument defending a Federalist editor against Republican prosecution, which was indeed a milestone in the development of a free press, he also supported the Sedition Act of 1798, a milestone in its suppression. Hamilton backed the prosecution of Republican journalists, particularly immigrant editors, such as Scottish-born James T. Callender, who had not only skewered Federalists in general but exposed a sex scandal involving Ham- ilton in particular. Indeed, notwithstanding the exhibit’s praise of Hamilton’s cosmopolitanism (the supposed fruit of his immigrant status), his own opinion was that “the mass [of aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the country.”
The point is not that the exhibition should have drawn a different set of past-to-present lines, connecting unattractive Hamil-tonian policies to unappealing aspects of the present—though such an approach would have been at least as plausible as that of the present show. Imagine each giant screen retitled (PREEMPTIVE IMPERIALISM/ ELITE RULE/CRONY CAP-ITALISM/IMMIGRATION RESTRICTION), each displaying appropriate modern-America film vignettes, and each attributing at least some of the sorry status quo to Hamilton with apposite quotes—“Our real Disease… is DEMOCRACY.” The point, rather, is that thinking the country today can be profitably understood as the lengthened shadow of one eighteenth-century gentleman is a deeply misleading way of doing history.
Setting the present in an historical context—exploring how and why a particular aspect of the current scene came into being—requires attending to the vast number of actions and events which, over time, combined to create the mixture of constraints and possibilities within which today’s players have acted. Some factors emerged in the recent past, others are more remote, but nothing in the show will convince the visitor that the words and deeds of Alexander Hamilton are crucial for understanding contemporary issues.
February 10, 2005
I say “New-York Historical Society,” but responsibility for the Hamilton exhibition is attributed to the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, an organization founded by the recently arrived New-York Historical Society trustees Lewis Lehrman and Richard Gilder, a pair of right-wing businessmen (Gilder is co-founder of the Club for Growth). James Basker, Gilder-Lehrman’s president, is listed as project director, and the show’s curator is Richard Brookhiser, an editor at National Review and the author of a biography of Hamilton. The exhibition was in effect outsourced—or in-sourced, given the institute’s expanding presence within the society—with the N-YHS serving merely as host body. For a consideration of the degree to which the flaws examined in this review of the exhibition are related to its promoters’ politics, see my “Business-Class Hero,” available at www.gothamcenter.org/hamilton. ↩
Those interested in the scholarly debate on these issues can consult, among many other works: Whitney Bates, “Northern Speculators and Southern State Debts: 1790,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1962), pp. 30–48; Max M. Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the US Constitution and the Making of the American State (Oxford University Press, 2003); Max M. Edling and Mark D. Kaplanoff, “Alexander Hamilton’s Fiscal Reform: Transforming the Structure of Taxation in the Early Republic,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. 61, No. 4 (2004), pp. 713–744; Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (Oxford University Press, 1993); E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790 (University of North Carolina Press, 1961); John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford University Press, 2003); Dall W. Forsythe, Taxation and Political Change in the Young Nation, 1781–1833 (Columbia University Press, 1977); John M. Murrin, “The Great Inversion, or Country versus Country: A Comparison of the Revolutionary Settlements in England (1688–1721) and America (1776–1816),” in Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776, edited by J.G.A. Pocock (Princeton University Press, 1980); John R. Nelson Jr., Liberty and Property: Political Economy and Policymaking in the New Nation, 1789–1812 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); Edwin J. Perkins, American Public Finance and Financial Services, 1700–1815 (Ohio State University Press, 1994); Richard Sylla, “Shaping the US Financial System, 1690–1913: The Dominant Role of Public Finance,” in The State, the Financial System, and Economic Modernization edited by Richard Sylla, Richard Tilly, and Gabriel Tortella (Cambridge University Press, 1999); Robert E. Wright, Hamilton Unbound: Finance and the Creation of the American Republic (Greenwood, 2002). ↩
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2004), pp. 566–568. ↩
“For someone of his vaulting ambition,” Chernow notes, “the leadership of the new army was a shiny, irresistible lure,” and Hamilton proved “cunning, quick-footed, and manipulative” in extracting the post from a deeply reluctant Adams. See Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, pp. 554–560. See also Ferling, A Leap in the Dark, pp. 438–439. ↩
Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802 (Free Press, 1975) is critical; Karl-Friedrich Walling, Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government (University Press of Kansas, 1999) is appreciative. ↩
Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 219. ↩