The Right Coast

December 18, 2004
The Man Who Made Modern America
by Gail Heriot

On Sunday, my friend John Fund and I went to see the Alexander Hamilton show at the New York Historical Society. It was a thoroughly enjoyable Sunday outing. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Just yesterday I complained that I had been working so hard that I had been unable to blog for weeks. How could I have had time to spend an afternoon at a museum? It’s this way: Last weekend I had to be on the East Coast for a National Association of Scholars Board of Directors meeting; I figured that, given my interest in Hamilton, it would be negligent to come home without seeing the show.)

Its title is "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America," and it is bringing in record crowds to the New York Historical Society–until recently a beleaguered little museum that had come dangerously close to bankruptcy. In this age of blockbuster museum shows, I would call the Hamilton show refreshingly human scaled. (Indeed, the statues of Burr and Hamilton in dueling mode remind one that in 1804 "human-scaled" meant something different from what it means today. At a hair shy of 5' 9", I was significantly taller in my flats than either of them.) But though smallish, the show is chock full of interesting information about Hamilton and his times. I had a great time.

Weirdly, the folks at the New York Times must not have had such a great time. On November 22, 2004, they ran an article entitled, "Big Hamilton Show Fails to Draw Crowds." When I saw headline, I wondered why in the world a newspaper would consider the failure of a small museum to draw a large crowd to be newsworthy. That kind of thing must be happening all over the country, seven days a week. But then I scanned the article and understood: One of the New York Historical Society’s major benefactors is Richard Gilder, chairman of the conservative Club for Growth and no doubt an arch-villain in the New York Times’ rather extensive pantheon of villains. Without Gilder, the New York Historical Society’s rescue might have been impossible. With him, it will never get an even break from the New York Times–not in this lifetime anyway. The article is full of dark hints that something sinister is happening at the Society. (It took the Society’s president, Dr. Louise Mirrer, to point out in a letter to the editor that the crowds attending the show were in fact record breaking.)

By the way, it’s a stretch to argue that Hamilton must be classified as a "red" hero rather than a "blue" hero. Sure, Hamilton was a champion of commerce and industry and an advocate of a strong military (as well as a passionate foe of slavery), but he was also an ardent advocate of a strong national government–not a position taken by many conservatives these days. It’s too bad the New York Times is so busy working up a fever about the vast rightwing conspiracy to see that.