How do you bring to life the founder who shaped the modern world but did it mainly by pen?
With the advent of an impressive exhibition devoted to Alexander Hamilton, the editors asked Richard Brookhiser, a biographer of Hamilton and the historian curator of the show, how he went about rendering his subject in three dimensions.
Alexander Hamilton lived by the pen. He published his first journalism, a description of a hurricane, when he was a teenager in his native West Indies, and he wrote his last political advice, a letter pleading for national unity, the night before his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. The Federalist papers (51 out of 85 by him) are in every good bookstore and on many college reading lists. How do you explain such a verbal man in the visual medium of a museum exhibition? On September 10 the NewYork Historical Society will commemorate its own bicentennial, and the bicentennial of Hamilton’s death, by opening “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America” (the show will be up through February 2005 and then go on tour).
Great shows need great objects, and we will have a full quota, from the New-York Historical Society’s holdings, from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, now on deposit there, and from loans from other institutions. Hamilton attended the Constitutional Convention, and we will show a first draft, an eyes-only printing for the convention, with the cross-outs and marginal notes of another delegate, Pierce Butler. (The preamble of this version begins, clunkily, “We the People of the States of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations,” and so on through Georgia.) What committee memo was ever more important? Among the many nondocumentary objects—paintings, busts, weapons, money, furniture—perhaps the most unusual is a pair of slave shackles from around 1800. Hamilton was a lifelong advocate of manumission, and here is what he was up against in its most wrenching form, for these shackles were made to fit the wrists of a child.
Objects are experienced in space and must be presented with flair. Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the design firm, devised a one-two punch for one of the best-known yet most opaque events of Hamilton’s life, his duel with Vice President Burr. In the middle of the main room, the very pistols the gentlemen used will rest in a case, displayed like the chic killing machines they are (their .544-caliber bullets weighed an ounce apiece). On either side will stand two specially commissioned life-size bronze statues of the duelists, bronze arms raised, bronze pistols pointed, only 25 feet apart —the distance Hamilton and Burr were. It will be dramatic and alarming.
Original minds, proud of their ideas, create conflict, and exhibitions must reflect that. Hamilton helped found the first American two-party system, Federalists versus Jefferson and Madison’s Republicans (ancestors not of the GOP but of today’s Democrats). They fought over constitutional construction, foreign policy, and Hamilton’s financial program, and like all politicians, then as now, they found themselves taking strange positions. We will show a copy of Hamilton’s pamphlet assailing President John Adams, nominally the head of his own Federalist party, on the eve of the election of 1800, and a letter to his fellow Federalist Harrison Gray Otis, written after the returns were in, giving Hamilton’s solution to the Electoral College deadlock that had ensued. “In a choice of Evils,” he wrote, ”. . . Jefferson is in my view less dangerous than Burr.”
An exhibition can show wonderful things in a striking setting and throb with passion and debate. But if it is all about the past, why did we come? The theme running through the Hamilton show, like a bass line, is that the exhibition is not contained solely within the walls of the New-York Historical Society. When we leave and return to modern New York and America, we are still in Hamilton’s world—the world of opportunity and danger that he saw, the world of work, wealth, liberty, and national strength that he hoped to create. Inside, among the jottings, pamphlets, and personal items, we will show, on screens, continuous loops of footage of our world: men and women in uniform, newsrooms, the Stock Exchange. Outside, if we have done our job well, the visitor will see a great city and country and think that if Hamilton could see them, he would say, “This is what I worked for; this is what I came here to build. Now use it.”