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Dr. James G. Basker, 2004 stands beside
Alexander Hamilton, 1804

“Alexander Hamilton:
The Man Who Made Modern America” at
NY Historical Society

By Dorothy Davis

Education Update Publisher Pola Rosen and I toured the blockbuster Alexander Hamilton exhibit at the New-York Historical Society one recent morning with James G. Basker, who was wearing his hat as its Project Director. Under his other hats Dr. Basker is President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University. As he stood beside the five foot six inch sculpture of Alexander Hamilton in the Historical Society’s main hall, Basker explained that “the average height of men in Revolutionary times was 5’7”. George Washington at over 6’ towered above most others.”

Hamilton, recreated by New Mexican sculptor Kim Crowley, stands before us in the last instant in which he will draw a pain-free breath, raising his dueling pistol high, aiming at Éeternity. He wears tinted glasses. Basker said, “This is the only statue you’ll see of him in glasses. He was facing the rising sun.”

He is bronzed as though glowing in its light that long ago morning, July 11, 1804, which Basker pointed out meant that 2004 was the Bicentennial year not only of Hamilton’s death, but also of the founding of the N-YHS, in November 1804. Hamilton’s friends, including his physician Dr. David Hosack, who attended him at the duel, were its founders. “Hamilton would have been one of the founders too,” Basker assured us.

Across the hall at the required number of paces stands a bronze Aaron Burr, also 5’6” tall and also sculpted by Kim Crowley. He was vice president of the United States under Jefferson, but felt he would have been president if Hamilton had not written letters against him to Federalist members of the House of Representatives, who had to break an Electoral College tie. “Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr,” Hamilton wrote. “Burr loves nothing but himselfÉand will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands.”

Burr’s pistol is aimed directly at Hamilton. The bullet that he is about to fire will not only kill Hamilton but will ruin Burr’s reputation for all time. “Hamilton went into that duel knowing that whatever happened Burr was finished,” said Basker. “If he killed Burr, Burr would be done as a divisive political force in America and if Burr killed him he was also done politically.”

“What if they both missed?” asked Pola. “Good question,” said Basker who opined that Burr was probably anyway in political eclipse.

The actual pistols fired in the duel, manufactured in about 1797 and modernized in the 1830s or 40s, were displayed on the wall behind the duelers, on loan from JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The rest of the fascinating exhibition, which includes an original play, is filled with such things as videos; artifacts, including the tiny leg irons of a 5-year old slave; original documents and letters, such as Benjamin Franklin’s copy of the Constitution, and correspondence written by Hamilton as a teenager; and portraits. “The 35 portraits,” said Basker, “make this the leading portrait gallery of the American founders anywhere in America right now. There are more than $100 million worth of paintings in here. Eighty percent of them are owned by the New-York Historical Society.”

Among the portraits: Alexander Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, “who came from one of the richest landowning families in America,” said Basker. Her sister Angelica Schuyler Church, “who was rumored to be romantically involved with Hamilton”. George Washington and his wife Martha, and James Madison and his wife Dolley. “Although Madison and Hamilton were enemies, their wives later spearheaded the movement for the Washington Monument and for the building of great monuments in Washington, D.C. John Marshall, the most famous Chief Justice in the history of the Supreme Court who said his own legal mind compared to Hamilton’s was like a candle next to the sun.” John Jay, “famous in many ways, who with Hamilton co-founded the Manumission Society, the Abolition Society, in 1785. Hamilton and Jay were very ardent opponents of slavery.” Albert Gallatin, “a Swiss immigrant who became Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson [Hamilton had been Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury] was asked by Jefferson to find the nefarious schemes and illegal things he was sure were going on within Hamilton’s work. Gallatin said, ÔI can find nothing wrong. Hamilton’s systems are all perfect.’ It must have really annoyed Jefferson politically but ironically Jefferson’s Presidency benefited from Hamilton’s strong treasury because the most important thing he did was the Louisiana Purchase, and he could never have done that without a strong presidency and a treasury that could fund the purchase.”

“This exhibit deals with American history, not a new direction for the New-York Historical Society, according to Basker. “This institution was founded as the historical society in New York. Its founding mission statement says it was to collect and preserve the history of the United States and New York, meaning the state. It doesn’t mention the city. About twenty years ago they started to do more New York centered things, but that was actually a deviation from its mission. The Museum of the City of New York was founded to focus on New York City.”

We happened to run into Susan Getting, Assistant Principal of Townsend Harris High School who was enthusiastic about the show, “It’s one of the best exhibits I’ve ever seen and kids are crazy about Alexander Hamilton. They come away thinking he was terrific. It’s nice to have an exhibit that enables students to embrace history,”she said.

The Hamilton exhibit runs through February 28 and will tour the country for three years (with facsimiles of the documents). This show is a must see for teachers and students. Background multimedia and multipurpose kits are available.#

For a virtual exhibition and supporting resource, go to
www.AlexanderHamiltonExhibition.org. For more about school visits, publications, and all N-YHS programs, contact 212/873-3400 ext. 293, e-mail schoolprograms@nyhistory.org. or visit the N-YHS online at www.nyhistory.org. For the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History go to www.gilderlehrman.org.



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