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Hamilton’s Monument

books and culture

Hamilton’s Monument

An imaginative new documentary reminds us of our debt to the first Treasury secretary. April 8, 2011

Every day, a procession of pedestrians, coming and going through Lower Manhattan, passes by a small white obelisk looming out of Trinity Churchyard. Underneath, little noted by the nearby foot traffic, rests the revolutionary who fathered democratic capitalism. Despite his immense accomplishments, Alexander Hamilton remains one of the least lamented and most misunderstood of the Founding Fathers. Hamilton, unlike George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, has no huge monuments to his memory in the District of Columbia. So it’s fortunate that filmmaker Michael Pack has made such an imaginative new documentary about the great man.

Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton, premiering April 11 on PBS, is a collaboration between Pack and historian Richard Brookhiser, whose narration lends the film its wry personality. Like the pair’s earlier Rediscovering George Washington, the film has little in common with the bland, fiddle-laden, solemnly narrated documentaries so common in the 20 years since Ken Burns’ Civil War. Instead of following that overused formula, the duo turn Hamilton’s history into an engrossing travelogue that connects his legacy to the twenty-first century. Over the course of two hours, they trace Hamilton’s life from his mysterious origins in the Caribbean, where the locals still sing his praises, to his alma mater, Columbia University, where students now barely recognize his name, and across New York City—itself a testament to his vision of a dynamic America where all, regardless of station, could rise through determination and talent. Along the way an incongruous lineup of commentators, ranging from Rupert Murdoch to Gore Vidal, Antonin Scalia to Larry Flynt, Henry Paulson to Bernard-Henri Lévy, provide their insights and observations.

A series of scenes attempt to place Hamilton in a modern context. In St. Croix, where Hamilton’s mother was jailed for “whoring,” Brookhiser chats with a group of female inmates who articulate, firsthand, the shame her illegitimate son likely felt and how it might have fueled his aggressive, honor-bound nature. In a session of the People’s Court, Judge Marilyn Milian presides over a re-creation (complete with actors in period dress) of Rutgers v. Waddington—the legal case, argued and won by Hamilton, that helped set an early precedent for the doctrine of judicial review. On a sloop heading down the Hudson River—the same setting in which Hamilton penned the first of the Federalist papers, arguing for ratification of the Constitution—Brookhiser, with the aid of a calligrapher, searches the author’s handwriting for clues to his prolific mind. The film also brings Hamilton’s famous feud and deadly duel with Aaron Burr back to life. In Baltimore, Brookhiser discusses matters of honor with gang members before taking to the Hudson again (chaperoned by another Hamiltonian creation, the U.S. Coast Guard) to reenact the duel itself with descendants of Burr and Hamilton standing in for their respective ancestors.

Many of these interactions and interviews, upon first glance, seem far-fetched. But they prove surprisingly profound, demonstrating the continuing relevance of Hamilton’s accomplishments. In his day, Hamilton’s achievements were immense. Since his death, Hamilton’s reputation has been overshadowed by those of his peers, especially his archrival, Jefferson. That Hamilton’s gifts to his country—the financial system he constructed, the Constitution he explicated, for example—are sometimes abstract and difficult to understand only compounds the problem.

But as Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton makes clear, it is not Jefferson’s agrarian fantasy but Hamilton’s vision—an economic power dotted with vibrant cities, underpinned by a financial system that rewards risk and provides unlimited opportunities to those willing to pursue them—that resembles modern-day America. By injecting healthy doses of levity and imagination and rethinking the historical documentary, Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton reminds us that we need not, in his own words, rummage “among old parchments or musty records” to understand the man.

Instead, we should cast our gaze across America, to its cities, institutions, and enduring landscape of opportunity. These constitute Alexander Hamilton’s monument.

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