|Timothy Cole, Alexander Hamilton|
Artist’s proof of wood engraving, 1922
People have been expressing strong opinions about Alexander Hamilton since he rose to prominence as an aide to General Washington during the Revolutionary War. To some, he’s the archetypical American story, an immigrant who came from humble beginnings and achieved dazzling success; a brilliant political and economic theorist; and one of the few founding fathers who accurately foresaw the direction the new nation would take. But others had doubts about his Americanness and his commitment to democracy, accused him of being a secret monarchist, and questioned his moral character (he admitted publicly to at least one extramarital affair). Hamilton died in 1804, when he was only in his late 40s, while Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (two of his most prominent detractors) lived well into old age and were able to shape Hamilton’s reputation.
|Portrait medallion of Thomas Jefferson|
For the first half of the 19th century, Jefferson’s vision of America as an agrarian nation of independent farmers whose primary ties were to the individual states, rather than the federal government, predominated. But this started to change as tensions built between north and south leading up to the Civil War. Jefferson’s reputation suffered because of his authorship of the 1798 Kentucky Resolutions (which argued that each individual state has the power to declare that federal laws are unconstitutional and void) and because of his position as a slaveholder. Jefferson’s beliefs about the power of the states seemed to lead directly to the Civil War, while Hamilton was vindicated in his advocacy of a strong national government.
This view of Hamilton was supported by two biographies published in the post-Civil War period. John Torrey Morse’s The Life of Alexander Hamilton (1876) was highly critical of Jefferson while depicting Hamilton as nearly flawless. Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge published a best-selling biography of Hamilton in 1882 and edited the nine volumes of Hamilton’s writings that appeared in 1885-86. Lodge, too, argued that Jefferson’s view of the nation as a “confederacy” of states had led to war. It was Hamilton who had truly understood that the future lay with the federal government.
|Advertisement for The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds |
in Exhibitors Herald, 1918
So it seems that by the time Alice Miner was collecting items for the museum, Hamilton’s reputation had been restored, both as a politician and as a flawed but essentially good human being. But because he was so controversial and disliked in the early 19th century, he was never seen as a suitable subject for the kinds of commemorative prints, ceramics, and other household objects on which other figures of the revolutionary era appeared so prominently.
Douglas Ambrose and Robert W. T. Martin, eds., The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father (New York University Press, 2006).