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


Mr. Lemisch is the author of many books including, On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession.

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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David Lion Salmanson - 11/12/2004

Thanks for trying to get back to the nuts and bolts of this. There was a missing word in my original post (which Lemisch did not address prefering to fall for Ralph's baiting, bad Ralph!) which was that the other option for N-YHS was going out of business which is not a good one. I did research there in the early 90s for an exhibit on the daily lives of soldiers in the revolutionary war. The place was falling apart, literally, nobody knowe where the objects were, and the ones they did have, they were only willing to loan out for exhorbitant fees so as to gain revenue. Plus, the worst you can say about this thing is that it's victors history. I always thought slaveholder Jefferson and his agrarian dream was overrated. I'll take cities and messy urban diversity any day. I think it is time to reclaim Hamilton as a leftist. Wouldn't Marx have supported the Report on Manufactures?

matt schoss - 11/10/2004

As an independent, this type of discussion makes me laugh. Conservatives taking over a history institution? OH NO. That might give them one (one!) stronghold in the world of history, and all thanks to "Bush's America." Come on, Jesse. Daniel Piazza was right when he said it was just an interpretation that you didn't agree with. Historians have relativized history so much that any who have a problem with this type of an interpretation is obviously bringing their politics into it. This, of course, wouldn't be internally inconsistent to those relativists, but they should realize there might be a different view than their standard liberal outlook.

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/10/2004


Help me out here; after all, I can't bop off to the Big Apple and see this thing, and I'm not up on New York academic politics.

I'm struggling with macromedia so I could not see all of the site (and thank you for the link), but the worst that I could tell was that it was aimed a a faily low age level.

It is certainly very pro-Hamilton, but as much as I dislike Alex, he was brilliant, and I don't think good historians are barred from disagreeing with my personal assessment.

So what did the creators of this exhibit do wrong? If they got their facts wrong, what facts? If they twisted the facts, show how they twisted them.

The Whiskey rebellion example is a start, but standing alone, it isn't much. Besides one can make a crass but painfully logical argument that the suppression of the Whiskey rebellion, unfair as the tax was, did stabilize the nation in positive ways.

More generally, if Gilder/Lehrman is coopting liberal historians with crass lucre, are they ceasing to do liberal history (and please define that, while you are at it)? If they are still doing liberal history, then where is the problem?

You may have a case, but you don't make it. Please do.

Daniel Piazza - 11/10/2004

It is disingenuous, Professor Lemisch, to equate your diatribe against Gilder and Lehrman's patronage of the N-YHS with the criticisms of Bellesiles' Arming America. Does the Hamilton exhibit make up facts to fit its thesis? Does it cite records depositories that don't exist? That's what Bellesiles did.

The Hamilton exhibit simply interprets historical events in a way that you dislike. That's something very different.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/8/2004

Professor Lemisch apparently believes that "conspiracy" is a name that one might call someone. So, Conspiracy Lemisch it is, but by his choice. There's no indication here that Professor Lemisch has bothered to read the Hamilton biography for any serious engagement with questions of historical bias.

Jesse Lemisch - 11/8/2004

Claiming that your adversary is invoking "conspiracy" is name-calling, a red herring. It's perfectly reasonable to scrutinize the politics of an exhibit, and this one reeks with politics of the Manhattan Institute kind. My goodness, the curator is senior editor of the National Review and has written a puff bio of Hamilton.

It's a misunderstanding of my scholarhip and other writings to claim that I see "conspiracies." It's as if I had claimed that Bellesiles' citics were engaged in "conspiracy," just because they closely scrutinized the work of a liberal scholar. Left, right or center, we look at the scholarship, or in this case, the exhibit, and see how it holds up and where it comes from. So it's the task of Ralph and people like him to demonstrate the irrelevance of National Review/Manhattan Institute/videos of heroic paratroopers, etc.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/8/2004

David, You may not recall Lemisch's own history. He's inclined to see a conservative conspiracy under _every_ rock. There are enough real conservative conspiracies without fantacizing their omnipresence.

David Lion Salmanson - 11/7/2004

Other than the fact that the exhibit is poorly lit (a common complaint and one that misunderstands the damage light does to objects)there is little here that I can understand as problematic. Yes, Hamilton did envision a modern US with a standing army, commercial exchanges, and urban development. And Adams was a bit of a priss, and there is no getting around the contradictions in Jefferson, his only intellectual rival. Is NYHS better off with these guys funding it? Considering their other option is going out of business, I don't think so. Look, I'm a social historian/environmental historian but biography does have a place. And Hamilton and NYC are a natural pairing. And Hamilton's story is one of poor ambitious boy makes good. Go reread Drew McCoy's The Elusive Republic for cryin' out loud. It's Hamilton's world. We just live in it.