Friday, August 19, 2016

The Elusive Alexander Hamilton

Timothy Cole, Alexander Hamilton
Artist’s proof of wood engraving, 1922
Since the museum opened for the season this spring, a number of visitors who are fans of the musical Hamilton have asked if we have any Alexander Hamilton items in the collection. But while George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Thomas Jefferson are well-represented at the Alice, Hamilton is hardly to be found. You will see a portrait by engraver Timothy Cole in the ballroom, and a letter from Hamilton to his father-in-law Philip Schuyler (mostly concerning a horse) in the manuscript collection—and that’s all. I became curious about what Hamilton’s reputation among historians and the general public was during the period when Alice was collecting, and whether this might have influenced her decisions about what to acquire—or not.

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
These historical works, which reached a broad audience, may have led to the spate of Hamilton-themed novels, plays, and films which appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century. These works tended to emphasize the dramatic and romantic aspects of Hamilton’s life, such as Gertrude Atherton’s The Conqueror: Being the True and Romantic Story of Alexander Hamilton, published in 1902. George A. Townsend’s Mrs. Reynolds and Hamilton: A Romance (1890), makes Hamilton the hero, and Aaron Burr is decidedly the villain of the piece. In this telling of the story, Burr conspires with Maria Reynolds’s husband to blackmail Hamilton in order to keep their affair a secret—all part of Burr’s larger plot to destroy Hamilton. This book later was turned into a film, The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds, released in 1918. This was just one of the movies about Burr and Hamilton made in that year—in the other, My Own United States, a young man attempts to exorcise his ancestor’s treasonous support of Aaron Burr by enlisting to fight in World War I. Another film was made in 1931, called simply Alexander Hamilton and starring George Arliss, based on a stage play he had written and performed in 1917.

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).

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