Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2005 Issue

Alexander Hamilton: On Exhibit in New York and Online

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Those freed from facing constant election battles would be freer to act in the interests of the nation and its people. It must be remembered that in those days, voting was primarily a privilege of the propertied, not a means for the “little guy" to assert his rights. Today these concerns don't seem so far fetched. Senators and congressmen to a large extent do effectively hold their positions for life, but the fundraising necessary to maintain their power forces them to become beholden to special interests. Just as Hamilton foresaw America's greatness, he could also foresee some of its weaknesses.

One more point needs to be made about Hamilton and his positions regarding the privileged versus the ordinary citizens. Hamilton has been adopted by people of more conservative leanings because of his strong support of the market system, a system which left unfettered by government restraint, can strongly favor the wealthy and powerful. In time, that would come to pass, but Hamilton lived in a different era. America was still an agrarian society. The powerful trusts Theodore Roosevelt would fight a century later did not yet exist. It was more likely to be wealthy landowners, people like Jefferson, who stood in the way of ordinary people's advancement. To Hamilton, the young capitalist system he embraced represented an opportunity for everyone, against a system stacked in favor of wealthy landowners. The ultimate irony is that the Virginia landowners, who spoke eloquently of freedom and democracy, were also slaveholders. Hamilton, on the other hand, was one of the founders of New York's abolitionist society. Hamilton's capitalistic views, like his abolitionist and pro-strong federal government opinions, were quite radical, not conservative, for his time.

The very existence of this exhibition by the New-York Historical Society was not without its controversy. The placement of the Gilder-Lehrman collection of Hamiltonia at the Historical Society led to debate over the role that the society should play. Some felt that focus on a national figure such as Hamilton was pulling the Society away from its role of preserving New York history. I, for one, am happy to see it playing a role in the rediscovery of the contributions of this man so many know only as the face on the $10 bill. For, while Hamilton was a national figure, this man born on the West Indies island of Nevis, was the quintessential New Yorker.

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