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Style & Culture | NEW YORK, N.Y. / GERALDINE BAUM

At Hamilton's core: the Apple

September 27, 2004|GERALDINE BAUM

I couldn't believe Jim Traub and I spent an hour the other day gossiping about a man who'd died 200 years ago in a duel. True, our subject was the founder of the New York Post! But that doesn't explain why two New Yorkers could dish for so long about a dead white man.

Jim, a writer with New York so deep in his soul that he penned a book about Times Square, and I, who avoid that neighborhood at all costs, were marveling over all we'd learned about a seminal New Yorker.

The city's intellectual and commercial heart, its personality, striving, pace and never-satisfied spirit can be followed back to a man every American recognizes -- his face is on the $10 bill -- but few really understand. His name was Alexander Hamilton. His life was the New York story -- and still is. He came here at 16 from the Caribbean, illegitimate and penniless. By 20, he was a colonel in the Revolutionary Army and the indispensable aide to Commander in Chief George Washington. Later, he'd draft his mentor's historic Farewell Address.

Unlike other colonies where people were judged by whether they came over on the Mayflower or by how many slaves they owned, in Hamilton's New York a man of brains and ambition could scramble his way to success. New York still gets thousands of such immigrants from the West Indies. They're no longer Scottish and French. Instead, many are the descendants of the very slaves Hamilton kept records of in his first job for a sugar company in St. Croix.

Of course once he got to New York, Hamilton immediately found the coffeehouses and fell in with a bad crowd, the rowdies of the rebel cause. It also took him no time to marry up, to the daughter of a Schulyer, one of the wealthiest New York families then and now. The clerk who never finished college went on to become one of the greatest lawyers, polemicists and political philosophers of his new country, not to mention the founding father who laid out the basic design of our federal system.

Jim and I ran into each other after we'd toured an ambitious new exhibit at the New York Historical Society titled, without hyperbole, "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America." Only 49 when he died, Hamilton left an immense record of accomplishments and writings. He started so many important New York institutions, it was hard to keep track. From the Bank of New York to the first societies against slavery, he was the original multitasker and multiculturalist. But why has this founding father's day come again? Why Hamilton, why now, I kept wondering?

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That fatal night

The exhibit is timed to honor the bicentennial of Hamilton's legendary duel with a vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr. Their direct descendants, Doug Hamilton and Antonio Burr, reenacted the shootout over the summer in front of 2,000 people in Weehawken, N.J.

At the same time, a mammoth biography by Ron Chernow has become a bestseller, making Hamilton the latest focus of the cult of the 18th century great men, which has produced popular histories and biographies -- David McCullough on John Adams, Walter Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Ellis on them all.

Another 18th century giant, Thomas Jefferson, and Hamilton have long been set up in opposition for their visions of what they believed should ground the new nation. While Jefferson was waxing poetic about the Plow and the Farm from his mountaintop in Monticello, Hamilton was imagining a country that grew out of his experience as a New Yorker, in the rough and tumble of a city of bankers and merchants and workers, not slaves. It was not the agrarian idealism of Jefferson; it was hard-nosed reality, as lived by an immigrant. Clearly, his managing role for the impoverished Revolutionary Army reinforced the urban value of relying on a cash economy. "The want of money makes us want everything else," he wrote during the war.

As Washington's first Treasury secretary, Hamilton was able to bind the colonies together through a strong central banking and taxing system, thus imprinting the New York model on the character of a nation founded by Puritans and farmers who distrusted money and those that dealt with it.

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Imperfect New Yorker

Hamilton was hardly perfect, of course, which again makes him the perfect New Yorker. "For all his superlative mental gifts, he was afflicted with a touchy ego that made him querulous and fatally combative," Chernow writes.

He was a gentleman, but he was in your face with his lethal pen. In his writings, Hamilton described Jefferson as a "fanatic." Adams, he said, was "wicked as he was mad."

Everybody talks about how nasty politics is these days, about the heat between red and blue states (as in Hamilton of New York versus Jefferson of Virginia?), with Sen. Zell Miller challenging Chris Matthews to a duel and Ann Coulter and James Carville barking at each other on national television. Well, at least Vice President Cheney didn't take it outside with a pistol when he crassly told Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont what to do to himself.

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