“Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America” is an exhibit at the New York Historical Society. I haven’t seen this exhibit, nor do I intend to. Mike Wallace’s scathing review in the NY Review of Books was enough to convince me that it isn’t worth the time of day. And not for ideological reasons, but because the show sounds like it barely meets the standards of the History Channel, one of the sponsors of the show. (I actually like the History Channel, which occasionally produces decent fare without sucking the life out of it like PBS.) While the NYRB review is not freely available online, there is a longer version available on Wallace’s own web site. While less well edited than what was printed in the NYRB, the online version has the advantage of including Wallace’s extended discussion of the politics behind the exhibit. This is a fascinating bit of history, as it lets us peek into one battle in the ongoing culture war.
First, a bit about the exhibit. This excerpt, about how the exhibit handled Hamilton’s contribution to the development of the U.S. Armed forces gives you a sense of the exhibit as a whole:
But the exhibition’s heart is not really in explicating Hamilton’s era, but rather in claiming that he created ours, and it’s in trying to make this case that the show goes radically wrong. The supersized video screens that constitute the domain of the Present have been widely criticized but insufficiently understood, as the critiques focus on the medium, not the message — with which there are two big problems. First, these “filmed vignettes of modern American life” conjure up a cartoon Present, utterly abstracted from the complex realities of our moment. Second, this Present is depicted as being the “21st-century fulfillment” of the Hero’s (misrepresented) “18th-century plans.” Setting aside for the moment the deeply ahistorical assumptions underlying the posited causal connections between Past and Present, let’s examine the videos seriatim.
The “National Defense” screen sutures together what appear to be outtakes from old recruiting films — leisurely pans over an aircraft carrier flight deck, views of fighter jets scrambling skyward, languorous shots of paratroopers tumbling earthward in slo-mo toward . . . where? Vietnam? Grenada? Inquiring minds wanted to know the provenance. A whirring helicopter picking up heavily armed GIs carrying a blanketed bundle (a dead buddy?) set visitors to debating possible venues — Were those cornfields? Could it be Central America? All-white graduating cadets throw their hats in the air — but when was this? Hasn’t it been ages since the military tinctured its Aryan Nation complexion? Whenever. Wherever. The cumulative effect these detemporalized, decontextualized images seek to induce seems clear enough: the Modern American military is a strong, benign, defense-oriented institution. And — according to an array of quotes disembedded from their eighteenth century context — we have Hamilton to thank for it.
Wallace points out that Hamilton advocacy of a peacetime army and support of military initiatives abroad were widely criticized at the time. “Abigail Adams, for one, feared the man she called a ‘second Bonaparty’ might take up actual arms as well and stage a coup d’etat.” It is quite remarkable that the exhibit seems to skip over so many important aspects of Hamilton’s career — such as the Whiskey Rebellion:
Where is the exhibition on all this? AWOL. One might have thought Hamilton’s thirst for military glory merited at least some attention, given Brookhiser’s worries about banana republic-hood — defined in my dictionary as a country both dependent on a single crop and “governed by a dictator or officers of the armed forces.” Yet the Whiskey Rebellion rates barely a mention. The analogous Fries Rebellion — a protest, also put down by massive force, against taxes imposed to pay for the new Army — isn’t mentioned at all. And while the “Soldier” case includes (along with flags, muskets, cannonballs and grapeshot) a document labeled “Alexander Hamilton’s Commission as Inspector General of the Army,” the laconic label suggests that Hamilton was appointed “against his own inclination.” This is a decidedly minority view among historians (even Brookhiser’s book doesn’t advance it) and Chernow’s position — that Hamilton jockeyed frantically for the position — is much the more compelling. “For someone of his vaulting ambition,” Chernow notes, “the leadership of the new army was a shiny, irresistible lure,” and he proved “cunning, quick-footed, and manipulative” in extracting the post from a deeply reluctant Adams. There’s one additional reference to this episode — a cryptic Time Line notation (“1800: He disbands the army at Congress’s direction”) with zero explanation of its significance. I’m not suggesting that the exhibit should have portrayed Hamilton as a militarist — this remains a subject of scholarly debate … — only that the show’s presentation of its Hero is deeply selective.
So what is happening at the NYHS? Well, it turns out that the exhibit isn’t really by the NYHS at all.
Responsibility for the Hamilton exhibition is explicitly attributed to, and proudly claimed by, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, an organization founded by recently arrived N-YHS Trustees Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman. James Basker, Gilder-Lehrman’s President, is listed as Project Director. The exhibition was in effect outsourced — or in-sourced, given the Institute’s expanding presence within the Society. The N-YHS served merely as host body.
And who is Richard Gilder?
Gilder helped underwrite Newt Gingrich’s revolution, and is credited with being among the top ten monetary backers of Newt’s Capitol Hill career — though he was not an uncritical supporter. When Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin got Republicans to agree to limit a new capital gains tax cut to investments held longer than eighteen months — thus favoring long-term investors over quick-turnover speculators — some called Newt a traitor and bayed for his ouster. Gilder disgustedly (but one assumes drolly) remarked: “I don’t know why we are Republicans. I am going to quit the Republican Party and join the Communist Party and really have a revolution.”
So what is the ideological motivation for the founder of the Club for Growth to do an exhibit on Hamilton? And how did they take over the New York Historical Society? I can’t do justice to Wallace’s lengthy history, but a few points should be mentioned: First off, he does not see a fit between Hamilton’s ideology and that of the Gilder-Lerhman Institute. Although he does make a historical argument for a link between New York City capitalists and the Hamiltonian legacy, the real point here seems to be to move the New York Historical Society away from hosting exhibits on lynching to hosting a series of exhibits on the founding fathers and other “great men” of American history.
with The Man Who Made America on the scene, I now have deeper concerns about Gilder’s professed intention to mount “mainstream” exhibits. History exhibits in museums, let’s remember, have been battlegrounds in recent years, and the definition of “mainstream” has been hotly contested. Since the 1960s, a generation of historians and curators has largely succeeded in throwing open the doors of many a marble mausoleum, and getting museums to embrace the experience of a far broader range of Americans than they had ever before been willing to represent. Not only are women and people of color now routinely depicted extensively but vast numbers of white males as well-the farmers and miners and sailors and steelworkers and clerks and professionals who had never before been deemed of sufficient stature to warrant inclusion in the halls hitherto stuffed with the portraits and possessions of “historically correct” statesmen and entrepreneurs. At long last the American past is as crowded and diverse and contentious and fascinating as is the American present, and the people packing into history museums, local historical societies, preserved historic places and National Park Service sites have been drawn in part by the novel presence of their forebears’ voices and stories.
History museums have also taken to exploring a far wider range of subjects than politics and finance-certainly important but hardly all-encompassing. They now tackle sexuality and consumerism, journalism and crime, architecture and cinema, religion and race relations, class conflict and foreign policy, among many other topics.22
These advances (I betray my bias) galvanized vigorous resistance from right wing ideologues, prominent among them being Newt Gingrich (that aegis most useful to Gilder and his colleagues). This is not the place to rehearse the last dozen years of combat, but just to remind readers that Gingrich has been a stalwart soldier in the history wars. He’s attacked the History Standards, assaulted the Smithsonian as “a plaything for left-wing ideologies,” and denounced this generation of historians as being too critical of America. As an antidote, Gingrich, who for a time offered a televised course called “Renewing American Civilization,” has proposed we stop “laughing at McGuffey Readers and laughing at Parson Weems’s vision of Washington” and get back to “teaching about the Founding Fathers”.
The takeover took place when Gilder and Lerhman “saved” the NY Historical Society from dire financial straits:
The 1980s-90s crisis concentrated the institution’s mind, and in 1993 it declared that, “the primary mission of The New-York Historical Society shall be to develop, preserve and interpret to the broadest possible public, material relevant to the rich history, cultural diversity and current evolution of New York City and State and the surrounding region.” When a new administration under Betsy Gotbaum sought permission from the Attorney General to deaccession some now-extraneous holdings to raise money, it was granted as being “consistent with the mission of the Society”.
The new regime got the place back on its feet, made necessary repairs, tapped some new funding sources, and mounted some interesting shows, but it continued to skate on thin financial ice. In 1996 several historians proposed a merger of the N-YHS and the Museum of the City of New York, the point being to pool resources in order to achieve long-term economic stability, and undertake bold new initiatives, like “a full-dress permanent exhibition that tells the history of the city in a truly comprehensive way.” When negotiations foundered they tried again, in 2002, noting that “if the Gilder-Lehrman Collection joined the new institution, and perhaps at a later date, the Municipal Archives were moved to the site as well, the new organization — already host to the Luce Center — would immediately become one of the premier research institutions of the City.”15
As this suggests, the possible arrival of wealthy new N-YHS trustees, passionately committed to history, was seen as a promising development, heralding great potential for finally creating a world class institution dedicated to explicating New York’s past. It seemed a renaissance was in store, and that Gilder and Lehrman might take their place alongside the civic patrons then refurbishing old landmarks like the Planetarium and the Museum of Modern Art. Indeed their arrival betokened the infusion of more than cash, as they seemed willing to bring along their significant collection of early American historical documents.
Vigorous public outreach strategies seemed newly plausible, as well, given that their Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History had done exemplary work in making historical scholarship accessible to wider publics: it had sponsored history schools, history programs within schools, research centers, teacher training programs, public lectures, traveling exhibitions, a web site, and an on-line journal, and had also established fellowship programs and two historical prize competitions. Nor had their rightwing personal politics led to imposition of a political means test before bestowing support; in 2001 they contributed to a conference on New York City History of which the Gotham Center for New York City History was a co-sponsor (we appreciated their assistance then, and we appreciate it still).
But then the new day dawned, and attached strings came dangling into view. The price exacted for depositing the documents, and the possibility of eventual support from their deep pockets, was the Society’s agreeing to abandon its focus on New York history, sniffed at as parochial. “Mr. Gilder acknowledged,” the Times reported, “that he and Mr. Lehrman were evaluating the society on the basis, among other things, of whether it fulfilled their desire to make its focus more national.” They built a million-dollar segregated vault in the N-YHS basement, for Gilder Lehrman documents only, and while they let some out to commingle in the Hamilton show, each was labeled “The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society,” as if to underscore the collection’s provisional status which Gilder had spelled out bluntly to the Times: “it’s the society’s to lose.”
… ”Dick and I are reformers,” says Lewis Lehrman. “We are not interested in insulating the status quo from new ideas.” Feisty words. But the Hamilton show betrays a musty reality. How likely is that such narrow gauge nationalists, focused on Founding Fatherology, will be open to what’s happening out in the wider world? It’s hard to imagine them sponsoring an international conference of city museums, much less helping New York City get involved in the broader urban heritage issues now being discussed in the global arena.
This is an important story, because it is one that has been repeated all over the country. While Liberals run around worrying about “framing” issues, Conservatives have been quietly taking over the institutions that allow for issues to be framed. Good rhetoric is useless to the Left without an institutional mouthpiece with which to voice it. I’m afraid that at this pace the cultural wars will be lost.