The Right Coast

December 21, 2004
Alexander Hamilton: The Man who Made Modern America-n Lefties Go Bananas
By Gail Heriot

On Saturday, I posted on item on the New York Historical Society’s Alexander Hamilton: The Man who Made Modern America exhibit. I commented on the New York Times’ odd little article asserting (incorrectly as it turns out) that the show is not attracting crowds. It seems that I had only touched the tip of the critical iceberg.

Professional historians on H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online have been discussing the show for more than a month, sometimes in terms that seem almost paranoid. Among the criticisms:

* The show “inexorably leads to the re-election of George Bush.”

* The title of the show suggests an “archaically hagiographic approach” to history, “which is coming back into style in Bush’s America.”

* “[T]he right-wing agenda comes right out in your face, starting with that huge $10 bill” depicted on the banner announcing the show.

* In the opening video, Thomas Jefferson’s voice was depicted as “haughty and aristocratic;” John Adam’s voice was depicted and “whiny” and “kvetchy.”

I don’t know what to make of the first of these criticisms–that the logic of the show compels the conclusion that George Bush ought to be re-elected. All I can say is that the elderly ladies in the coffee shop after the show seemed to enjoy the exhibit, but did not seem to have been put through a life-transforming experience. “Manhattan Democrat” was still written all over their faces. But maybe they (and I) are just dense and unable to recognize when they have been brainwashed.

The second criticism is at least a little more understandable given the show’s title. But that title was intended to be taken as hyperbole. Obviously, Alexander Hamilton did not literally make modern America. But it’s fair to say that he foresaw it and worked towards it in a way that most of his contemporaries did not. How much of an effect upon did he have individually? We’ll never know, since history does not disclose its alternatives. But if it is “archaically hagiographic” to believe that individuals can and do have an effect on history, then I guess I’m archaically hagiographic. And if the author of these criticisms is convinced that individuals do not have an effect on history, why is he so obsessed with George Bush?

I laughed at the third criticism. Those darn right wingers are so obsessed with money that they put a ten dollar bill on banner announcing the show. But for goodness sake, Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury, and responsible for standardizing American money. What portrait of Hamilton would be more fitting?

Finally, we have the voice criticisms. Thomas Jefferson’s voice was depicted as having a Southern accent. I didn’t notice that it was “haughty” or “aristocratic,” and I rather suspect that the author regards all Virginia accents that way. I don’t recall the sound of the Adams voice, but let’s face it: I’m a big Adams fan (there I go being archaically hagiographic again), but he really was “whiny” and “kvetchy.” Depicting Adams as he was makes him more endearing, not less, so I hope this criticism is accurate.

Again, the real reason for these criticisms has nothing to do with the Hamilton exhibit and everything to do with the identities of the New York Historical Society’s major benefactors–Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, described in one of the posts as “two rich right wingers.” The title to the post that opens the discussion is, “Are Gilder and Lehrman Tilting American History to the Right? A Case in Point.” You can almost hear the sinister music playing in the background. Oddly, one of the chief complaints offered against them is their inclusion of historians who do not share their conservative views in their many historical projects, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Says the author, “Gilder and Lehrman are buying legitimacy by buying historians, giving money to Yale and to the Organization of American Historians, constructing a board with some stellar left-liberal types on it (what is with this, guys?).”

I guess it’s hard to please some people.