Time is the janitor of the great museum of memory, moving from room to room, raising some lights and dimming others, slowly shuffling portraits into and out of storage. The Alexander Hamilton Room, long a bit shabby if never actually shuttered, is beginning to blaze with light and activity, much of it due to the fact that 2004 is the bicentennial year of Hamilton’s fatal duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, which took place at Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804. Hamilton, mortally wounded, was rowed to Greenwich Village, where he died the following day. There will be commemorations in Weehawken, New York, and St. Croix, the West Indian island on which he spent part of his youth; the New-York Historical Society is mounting a blockbuster exhibit, Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America, which will open September 10 and run through February 28, 2005 (I am the historian curator); Ron Chernow’s magisterial Alexander Hamilton, published by the Penguin Press, has given him the full-dress treatment that David McCullough gave John Adams.
Readers of City Journal came to the Hamilton revival early. In 1996, the editors asked me to write an article on Hamilton as the quintessential New Yorker—the bright nobody who came here from somewhere else and made it, and in doing so remade his world. Hamilton was enmeshed in the civic life of his adopted city: he helped found the Bank of New York; he founded the New York Post; he was a student at King’s College, now Columbia University (he never got his degree, the Revolutionary War having called him from his studies, though he became a trustee). Here is where he got his first commission in the army and his license to practice law; here is where he conceived the Federalist Papers and took the reins as secretary of the Treasury. His last house is in Harlem, and his grave is at the head of Wall Street. He was our forerunner and our brother.
In the years since that article appeared, two things happened—one to me, one to the city—that shed new light on Hamilton. The article became a book, Alexander Hamilton, American. In the course of publicizing it, I went with Brian Lamb of C-SPAN’s Book TV one cold morning in April 1999 to Weehawken for a modern interview, with a camera, not pistols. I had never been to the tiny park that memorializes the duel, since it has no historical interest. The duel site itself was a rock ledge, about 25 feet long, a short distance above the Hudson River, at the base of the cliffs on the Jersey shore opposite what is now 39th Street in Manhattan. Dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey; New York duelists frequented this spot because its remoteness made it unlikely that they would be disturbed. The ledge is long gone, having been dynamited in the nineteenth century to make way for a railroad. The memorial park is at the top of the cliff, on a sedate Weehawken street, surrounded by an iron fence. In it stands a flagpole and a bust of Hamilton on a plinth. Any place in America might have such a thing, and many do: an earnest and worthy signpost, pointing to some event in the past.
Lamb asked his questions, I gave my answers. Then, as we came down the home stretch, a sideways glance made me realize that the thing worth coming to Weehawken to see is in the present, across the river. There was the Manhattan skyline, stretched out like a diorama, from the World Trade Center’s towers to Riverside Church, with the timeless futurism of the spires of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building crowning midtown. It is our Great Wall of China, our Chartres, not built to keep barbarians out or to bring us to heaven, but thrown up by the meshing efforts of millions of us to make a living and to make life better, here on earth, in New York. “When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community,” Hamilton wrote in his Report on Manufactures, “each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigor of his nature.” Industry, activity, vigor, all in the service of the individual—this was the great melody of Hamilton’s life, that propelled him from the Caribbean, led him into battle, made him write and plan and slave at his desk. Chernow has found, in the papers of John Church Hamilton, Alexander’s son and biographer, that, as Hamilton was being rowed across the Hudson to his duel, “he pointed out the beauties of the scenery and spoke of the future greatness of the city.” That greatness, I realized on my morning at Weehawken, had arrived. If Hamilton could see it today, he would say, this is what I imagined, this is what I worked for; use it.
The second Hamilton-related event occurred on September 11, 2001, when the barbarians arrived and the skyline was mutilated. In that awful time, I was still historian enough to remember that the last attack on New York had occurred in 1776. George Washington was commander in chief; Alexander Hamilton was a captain of artillery. Hamilton, stationed in Manhattan, missed the debacle of the Battle of Long Island, fought in what is now Brooklyn at the end of August. When the British landed in Kip’s Bay in mid-September, hoping to cut what was left of the American army in half, Hamilton was manning a gun emplacement in what is now Chinatown; a timely warning allowed his unit to retreat up the West Side. He left Manhattan in October, when the British finally squeezed Washington off the island. He would fight in seven battles—White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, Yorktown: three defeats, three victories, one draw—but he would not return to New York until the British evacuated, in November 1783.
Hamilton played a minor role in the battles for New York in 1776, although he was here. But he played a major role in 9/11, even though he wasn’t. Almost certainly, neither Usama bin Ladin nor Saddam Hussein has ever heard of him. Yet the reason al-Qaida and its helpers and patrons struck the World Trade Center was that the towers symbolized modern America—Hamilton’s America. The United States is the epitome of everything the terrorists and their supporters hate, and New York is the epitome of the epitome. New Yorkers vote; they dream of a reign of virtue, and obey brutes. New Yorkers work; they count their oil revenues, and rail at usury. New Yorkers worship as they will; they recite a Koran they do not understand. New Yorkers of all races are free; they ship the survivors of raids in the Sudan to the kitchens and bedrooms of Arabia. In each of these areas—politics, economics, fundamental law—Hamilton was on the side of liberty, enterprise, and human potential, and against a world of stasis and arbitrary rule.
Yet if Hamilton had come back to the smoke and the stink, instead of the city at peace, he would still have known what to say. The practical idealist, paradoxically, was well acquainted with the dark places of the human heart. Out of some combination of wisdom, reading, military service, and youthful turmoil (his parents were not married, and his father abandoned the family when Alexander was only nine years old), Hamilton expected the world to be a dangerous place. He located the source of danger in man’s unleashed passions. Federalist 6 is a brisk review of wars, revolutions, and chaos, all caused by human cussedness. “[M]en are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. . . . Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?” Though Washington’s Farewell Address, which Hamilton helped the retiring president write, takes a loftier tone, looking forward to a time “when we may choose peace or war as our interest guided by our justice shall counsel,” Hamilton knew that war would always be a possibility and readiness for it a necessity.
After 9/11, a joke went round the Internet, describing the hijackers arriving in the afterlife, where they are greeted by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry, who kick and curse them. When the hijackers express surprise, they are told that, after all, they had been promised 72 Virginians. All the great Founders can, by their various examples, help us in our time of trouble, but the great New Yorker, in his bleak alertness, is more suited to this moment than any of them except Washington.
One Virginian who is inescapably part of Hamilton’s story is Jefferson. They missed serving together in the old Congress of the Articles of Confederation by a few months, and did not meet until March 1790, when Jefferson, after coming home from France, took up his post as secretary of state in President Washington’s first cabinet, alongside Hamilton. During the years that followed, Hamilton would work with Jefferson; he would fight him; and he would back him for president, over Aaron Burr, in the endgame of the election of 1800 (one of many grudges propelling Burr to Weehawken four years later). Jefferson, 14 years older than Hamilton, outlived him by almost a quarter-century. Among the bric-a-brac of Monticello, he displayed a bust of his late rival; historian Joanne Freeman compares it to a hunter’s trophy.
Their reputations have tended to rise and fall in opposition to each other; it is as if our memory museum cannot supply electricity to both rooms at once. Jefferson, helped enormously by Franklin Roosevelt, had a very good 60 years at the end of the twentieth century. Roosevelt was elevated to office by a crisis of capitalism, Hamilton’s system. Searching for a usable hero, he needed an enemy of the business elite, for ideological reasons; a Southerner, for political reasons; and a Democrat, for partisan reasons. Jefferson answered every need. Roosevelt built the Jefferson Memorial and put Jefferson and Monticello on the nickel. In 1945, the year of Roosevelt’s death, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the brilliant New Dealer, published the masterpiece of his youth, The Age of Jackson, which carried Roosevelt’s legacy into academic history. Schlesinger depicted Old Hickory as the forerunner of the New Deal, and honored Jefferson as the forerunner of Jackson; Hamilton, he conceded, had devised “a statesmanlike solution of pressing financial difficulties.” Hamilton went into his long eclipse.
Jefferson is now entering a similar eclipse, thanks to his and our quandaries about race. The tabloid form of his problem is the story of Sally Hemmings and her (and his?) children. More troubling, because it shaped the nation’s policies, was the long series of evasions and omissions in the last decades of Jefferson’s life. Jefferson’s cult of the yeoman farmer disguised his, and other planter aristocrats’, dependence on their slaves. By the time Missouri applied for statehood in 1819, Jefferson was reduced to arguing that slavery could only be weakened by spreading it over the whole West—a sign of desperate self-deception.
Indeed, our disappointment with Jefferson risks going too far: we should never forget that it was Jefferson who wrote that all men are created equal, and wrote it so memorably that Lincoln could quote him at Gettysburg. Men will die for words that are stirring. But they cannot live by words alone. They need laws and livelihood, security from oppression and terror, and the conditions of opportunity that allow Jefferson’s stirring words about equality to become a reality. Al-Qaida understands Hamilton’s legacy; so should we.