He was one of the giants of American history: a hero in the American Revolution; the new nation's first Treasury secretary; architect of the nation's monetary system; an early and vociferous opponent of slavery. Yet recent history has often bypassed Alexander Hamilton's contributions to the formation of American society. Now, on the bicentennial of his death, a new multi-media exhibition aims to reassess the reputation of one the United States' founding fathers.
The New York Historical Society is calling its exhibition "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America." Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns, a member of the Historical Society's board, says none of the founding fathers is less well-known or more relevant to the contemporary world than Hamilton.
"He was in many ways the first modern American," he says. "He was a bastard from the Caribbean and an immigrant, a man who believed in and thrived on flux and change and new New York was the capital of those things. He was the ultimate upstart in the ultimate upstart city. He was a man who came to epitomize the spirit of the society that was coming to teach itself that who you were and where you came from, mattered far less than what you could do and where you were going."
The New York Historical Society building is wrapped in a giant $10 bill, the denomination that carries Hamilton's portrait. Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin are the only two non-presidents depicted on American currency.
Richard Brookhiser, the author of a biography simply called Alexander Hamilton, American, served as curator historian for the exhibition. He says Hamilton's importance in developing the U.S. financial system cannot be overestimated.
"He was the first Treasury secretary," he says. "Most people know that. They know that he was the money guy, the guy that put America's finances on a firm footing. I do not think they understand how important that was or how difficult that was or how little it was understood by Hamilton's great peers. The founding fathers who understood the emerging world of modern finance could be counted on one hand."
Display cases throughout the exhibit show artifacts tracing Hamilton's life, from his early years working as a clerk at a merchant house in the West Indies to his death at the age of 47 in duel with his bitter enemy, Vice President Aaron Burr.
Artifacts, videos and an audio guide also explain Hamilton's relationships with other founding fathers, including George Washington. During the Revolutionary War, he served as a top aide to General Washington. When Washington became the new nation's first president, he appointed Hamilton secretary of Treasury. After he left government, Hamilton remained a close confidante of Washington's and wrote much of his famous farewell address in 1796. The speech, which became a classic, warns against sectionalism and partisanship at home and permanent alliances abroad. A proof in Hamilton's handwriting is on display.
"The nation which indulges towards others an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is a slave," an audio guide explains. "It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and interest."
The exhibit's organizers leave no doubt that they believe Hamilton's reputation has suffered because he was ahead of his time. Ric Burns attributes the neglect partly to a general disillusionment with urban life during much of the 20th century and an idealized image of agrarian society. Now, Mr. Burns says, cities are recognized as great achievements.
"What I really hope takes place now is a recognition that we live in the world he made," he says. "When [Thomas] Jefferson was waxing philosophical and the planters were talking about the beauty of the American countryside, this guy was putting together the theory and the practical blueprint for creating an urban, commercial, democratic society. He thought on that kind of global scale. That was an astonishing genius."
Surprisingly, Hamilton's role as a leading opponent of slavery has also been largely forgotten.
"At the moment of independence, every one of the 13 states had slaves," Richard Brookhiser says. "The founders were aware of this as a problem. They knew that this was a contradiction to their own principles. What did they do about it? Jefferson agonized about it. Washington, in the last act of his life, frees all his slaves in his will. What Hamilton does is he joins other New Yorkers and he founds the New York Manumission Society to try to end slavery in his state."
Hamilton's legacy is very still much alive in institutions that he founded. The Bank of New York and The New York Post newspaper still exist. Among those attending the opening of the exhibition were 30 of Hamilton's descendants, including a fifth great grandson, Douglas Hamilton and his son, Alexander. Alex says his father is the family historian.
"He had me memorize Hamilton's biography by the time I was about five or six years old," he said. "So I have always grown up with an appreciation but to see this exhibit here, it is pretty unbelievable."
Letters exchanged between Hamilton and Aaron Burr can be seen in the exhibition along with the pistols used in the duel, which the historical society is showing for the first time. In addition, James Basker, the project director for the exhibition, says 280 previously unknown documents were discovered while preparing for the show.
"There is one in the exhibition, a letter from his sister-in-law, Angelica Church, to her brother, written he day that Hamilton was shot in a duel," he said. "She has just heard about it. She is describing what has happened. It is very rushed. You can see the emotion in her handwriting."
After it closes in New York in February, the Alexander Hamilton multi-media exhibition will travel to 40 venues across the United States for three years.