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Are Gilder and Lehrman Tilting American History to the Right? A Case in Point

Having had a busy autumn, I've only just seen the New-York Historical Society's Alexander Hamilton exhibit (it runs September 10-February 28; U.S. tour, 2005-2008). As we would expect from Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, the two rich right-wingers who have in effect taken over the N-YHS, the exhibit leads inexorably to the re-election of George Bush, the rejection of the last thirty-five years of social history, and a paean to triumphalist capitalism. Richard Brookhiser, Hamilton biographer and senior editor of the National Review, is Historian Curator of the Hamilton exhibit. My purpose now is to get down some of my raw thoughts and to kick off discussion about this exhibit and the larger issues around penetration of the historical profession by Gilder & Lehrman and their Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

The central themes of the Hamilton exhibit announce themselves fairly garishly even before you enter. A huge, multi-colored banner stretching a full block along Central Park West reproduces the ten dollar bill (take a look in your wallet). Leaving a small space for entry, the banner otherwise covers the entire four-story facade: standing at the corner of Central Park West and 77th, I found it impossible to get the whole thing in a picture. (Let's hope that, like the characters in Macys' Thanksgiving Parade that assembles nearby, it's well anchored against the wind.) The exhibit is entitled "The Man who Made Modern America," reflecting a theory of how history happens, an archaically hagiographic approach (which is coming back into style in Bush's America), and a certain political partisanship.

An opening high-tech slide show ridicules those contemporaries who dared to utter critical words about Hamilton. Actor's voices represent Jefferson as haughty and aristocratic; John Adams is whiny, kvetchy, failing to recognize Hamilton's greatness. Gilder Lehrman has decided to pursue a popular audience by presenting Hamilton as somewhat populist, anti-slavery (unlike that bad Jefferson), a humble immigrant, illegitimate at that, who acted out the American dream and rose to the heights: a Great Man who rose from the people. (In the "Time Line" section, there is one mention of Hamilton's role in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion by armed force, but no effort to square this with the otherwise benign picture of him.)

Gilder and Lehrman must have spent millions on this high-tech exhibit. (Overall, the New York Times reports, the exhibit cost the Society $5 million: "Shift at Historical Society Raises Concerns"; the article quotes historian Mike Wallace as fearing that the Historical Society could "wind up as a subsidiary of the Gilder Lehrman Institute.") As we enter the main hall, we see, straight out of 1984, several gigantic video screens showing modern scenes: the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, commuters at Grand Central Terminal, high rises under construction, and -- no kidding -- military paratroopers jumping out of planes. This is the exhibit's idea of Hamilton's heritage today, and it leaves no doubt as to the heroic quality of that heritage. So that we can see the video images, the items in the exhibit are mainly in semi-darkness, with many displayed almost at floor level and with illumination that makes them almost impossible to make sense of. A forty-minute theatre presentation, "Alexander Hamilton in Worlds Unknown," well acted on stage by a man and a woman (a little Oedipally, she plays Hamilton's mother, his wife, and Mrs. Reynolds, with whom Hamilton had an affair) is nicely integrated with large video images. We move from the opening to the strains of "Yankee Doodle," through Hamilton's life, and on to The Duel, with his life poignantly and sympathetically presented partly as a search for his absent father, with Washington and others as surrogates.

G and L's notorious takeover and purge at the N-YHS (the July New York Times article mentioned above caught only the tip of the iceberg, with more to come) is part of their larger penetration of American history. These two wealthy Yalies ('60), supporters of the right-wing Manhattan Institute (Gilder is founder and a former chair), have a clear ideological program. To me, the strategy seems reminiscent of the CIA's suppport for the Congress for Cultural Freedom, including the funding of Encounter (see Christopher Lasch's classic article on this in Barton J. Bernstein, ed., Towards a New Past, 1968). Gilder and Lehrman are buying legitimacy by buying historians, giving money to Yale and to the Organization of American Historians, constructing a board with some stellar left-liberal types on it (what is with this, guys?). Put this together with the horrors at NEH and we have a clear picture of the theft of history for ideological purposes. But the N-YHS exhibit has neither subtlety nor historiographical sophistication: the codpiece slips, and the right-wing agenda comes right out in your face, starting with that huge $10 bill, hanging over Central Park West.

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