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
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
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