That Hamilton Man

Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America

an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, New York City, September 10, 2004–February 28, 2005


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.