I drove to Bethlehem, PA, and left my car in a a bus transit lot, and went into NYC. At the great dark jungle of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where I arrived at the lowest level, I met my friend Audrey, who has moved back to Queens.
She and I grabbed lunch near 42 street in a sandwich shop where the staff was discussing among themselves who was from Guatemala, and who was from Belize–oddly enough, in English. Then by bus we traveled uptown to Central Park West to the NY Historical Society, which we found swathed (oh, be still my heart!) in a 3 story banner featuring Alexander Hamilton. As I’d been planning on seeing this since last spring, it was a thrill to finally get there. It was a thoughtful and complete exhibition, so much so that even this old Hamiltonian couldn’t find a single nit to pick. It’s wonderful to have a friend like Audrey who shares the same historical fascination.
The exhibitors often compared and contrasted Hamilton and Jefferson, especially concerning finance law and business, all of which were AH’s strong suit. When we arrived, there were HS kids going through. Many of them were taking notes, which were probably for later classwork. They looked a little bored. When the short film playing here mentioned that Hamilton had been instrumental in setting up the New York Manumission Society and that he had never owned a slave, these young New Yorkers, most Black and Hispanic, began to show some real interest.
The artifacts were wonderful. Much had been collected from Hamilton family descendants and brought together here for the first time. There were elegant 18th Century chairs, tables and a marvelous secretary desk, where he spent hours every day, as well as his “lap-top,” a portable green baize covered writing lap desk that he carried with him from the Revolution to the time of his death.
For me, however, the letters were the best. Because I’ve read them over and over and know them so well, it was an incredible treat to see originals. I joined another woman who was down on her knees reading them–and you could read them, too, for although they were faded and this was (of necessity) a low light display–his handwriting was perfectly legible.
From the age of eleven, when he became an orphan, Hamilton had made his living as a copyist and clerk in a shipping firm which engaged in the triangular trade, thereby laying the ground for his future role as a nation builder. His writing was the perfect “copper-plate” hand that you always hear archivists talk about. To see the crossings out and corrections too–those signs of a mind at work–across two centuries was fascinating.
For the grand finale, upon going out at the correct distance (18 feet) there were two life-size bronze statues of Hamilton and Burr. These were disturbingly real, as they faced off with pistols for that final fatal duel. This sculpture had been commissioned for the exhibit, and I found them were deeply moving. I had no inclination at all to walk between the line of fire. On that day, July 1804, these men, both Revolutionary War heroes and long time political adversaries, had come to settle their differences, public and personal, with a duel to the death.
The Master Passion, the story of Alexander Hamilton & Elizabeth Schuyler