Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America

Overview of Exhibition and Themes

Introductory panel: Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), more than any other Founder of the United States, foresaw the America we live in now. He shaped the young country's financial, political, and legal systems according to this vision. His ideas on racial equality and economic diversity were so far ahead of their time that it took America decades to catch up with them. Hamilton made the early republic work, and set the agenda for its future.

Section I: His World

Hamilton's world teemed with active, opinionated men and women. Some were local celebrities in his small but bustling adopted home of New York City; some were national figures; and a few were world famous. Hamilton worked, argued, and fought with them; he loved, admired and hated them. Some crossed his path briefly. Others were fixed points in his life. Still others changed their relationships with him as politics or passion moved them. The portraits in this exhibition show the important people in his life, and in his psyche.

Section II: Alexander Hamilton: Immigrant

Unlike most of the Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant. As a boy in the West Indies, he was introduced to shame (his parents were unmarried) and to the world of commerce (he went to work as a merchant's clerk when he was nine). Sent to New York to be educated, Hamilton was soon caught up in the American Revolution. He made the new nation his own, espousing its ideals and marrying a patriotic young woman. While his talents and ambition were perfectly suited to the burgeoning energy of New York, he envisioned a unified nation in a way that most of his contemporaries, rooted in home-state loyalties, could not.

Section III: Alexander Hamilton: Soldier

Hamilton spent much of his life in military uniform. From 1776 to 1781, in the Revolutionary War, he fought in seven major battles, as a captain of artillery, a colonel on George Washington's staff, and a commander of light infantry. In the 1790s, the French Revolution ignited a new series of world wars. George Washington and Hamilton desperately wanted to keep the unprepared nation out of the conflict, but when war appeared inevitable, the two veterans joined forces once again to build an effective army.

Section IV: Alexander Hamilton: Lawmaker

Hamilton worked as a lawyer, off and on, from the end of the Revolution until the last year of his life. He earned a living, sometimes made himself unpopular, and forged enduring principles of constitutional law. He lobbied for and then attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and helped persuade a skeptical public to ratify the Constitution by launching and writing the majority of the Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper pieces.

Section V: Alexander Hamilton: Economist

Building on his early commercial experience, Hamilton became a brilliant, self-taught economist. America needed him: its load of war debt was crushing. Hamilton was appointed by President George Washington to be the first Treasury Secretary in 1789. By the time he retired in 1795, the United States, unlike most emerging nations, was fiscally sound and poised to become a major financial power.

Section VI: Alexander Hamilton: Futurist

Alexander Hamilton, both intensely idealistic and acutely practical, foresaw aspects of American life that lay far in the future. He foresaw a diverse economy, offering opportunity for the full variety of human talents. He respected the faculties of blacks and worked to end slavery. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who idealized agrarian society, Hamilton argued that manufacturing and commerce were also integral to modern economies. Hamilton believed that a diverse economy would make the nation wealthy and fulfill the potential of its citizens. These visions, expressed during his life, would not be fulfilled until long after his death.

Section VII: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr: The Duel and Hamilton's Legacy

In 1804 the long rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr reached a climax. When Burr, then the Vice President, heard about a newspaper article claiming that Hamilton had voiced a "despicable opinion" of Burr, he wrote Hamilton, demanding an explanation. The ensuing correspondence led to their duel. Hamilton and Burr met on July 11, 1804. Hamilton's shot went high and wide. Burr's pierced Hamilton's abdomen and lodged in his spine. Hamilton died the following day.

Hamilton's Legacy: Hamilton overcame heavy odds. He was an immigrant, born in poverty and shame. To put his projects into effect, he had to persuade or defy great but often uncomprehending colleagues--George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison. He was hampered by scandal and controversy, some of it his own fault. He was killed in a duel when he was only 47. But through a combination of intelligence, hard work, and high principle, he served his adopted country brilliantly. We live in the world he made.