Movie Takes

Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton

Tonight on PBS, from Michael Pack and Richard Brookhiser.

By 4.11.11

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There's been rather a fuss in the British media lately over the teaching of history in schools. Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard and Oxford and what the British call a "telly don," decries the ignorance of British schoolchildren and the parlous state of history teaching when "it is possible to leave school in England knowing only about Henry VIII, Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr." Others say that the study of history is alive and well. Somehow, I doubt it. In America, we have heard similar arguments, and they are perhaps alluded to in the scene in the new documentary, "Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton," (screening on PBS at 10:00 on Monday, or check local listings), when the host and narrator, Richard Brookhiser, goes to Hamilton's alma mater, then known as King's College but now as Columbia University in New York, and asks random students if they know who Alexander Hamilton was. Not surprisingly, although Hamilton's name is everywhere as the university's most distinguished alumnus, few of them do. Where do you start with these kids?

I found it rather touching that the one group which had heard something about this once well-known Founding Father whose face is on the ten-dollar bill were part of Columbia's equivalent of ROTC, still banned on campus at the time the film was made, who called themselves "The Hamilton Society." They did so as a tribute not only to the great man himself but to the militia which he helped to form while still a 19-year old student and which he led to assist General Washington at the battle of Princeton in January of 1777. Elsewhere in the film, we see high school kids from Virginia re-enacting Hamilton's heroic action at the Battle of Yorktown, using brightly colored red and blue plastic bats as weapons. Afterwards a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan explains to the youths the differences and similarities to real battles today. He tells them that in real battles people get hurt and killed. Perhaps that's where you start.

What I liked best about the film is that it begins and ends with the idea that, although he has no equivalent to the magnificent monument in Washington of his great rival, Jefferson, Hamilton's monument is really the world's great commercial center of New York City, as beautifully photographed here as you will ever see it, which would not have evolved as it did without the legal and economic system he did so much to put in place in the early days of the Republic. Hamilton, "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar," as John Adams called him, was born in the West Indies and came to colonial America while still in his teens, making his way to pre-eminence there entirely by his own efforts. As President Washington's Treasury Secretary, he set us on the course to become the commercial and cosmopolitan nation we have always been rather than the agrarian utopia that Jefferson would have preferred. In this sense Hamilton is, in spite of political failure and ultimate tragedy during his lifetime, victorious in the eternal struggle between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians that many see as still continuing to this day.

One way in which it continues is in the spitefulness of Gore Vidal, who tells Mr. Pack's camera that both Hamilton and his nemesis, Aaron Burr, were "tiny guys" with "the egos of giants." Well, he ought to know. They never wrote any novels, after all. This is one of numerous interviews which Mr. Brookhiser, the author of Alexander Hamilton, American, and his producer-director Michael Pack are to be commended for using to get around the inherent difficulties of making a film about the days before photography. It's a great story, and they tell it with great resourcefulness and originality. Yet they also show that they are aware of the great, perhaps fatal concessions they have to make to an audience that knows next to nothing about Hamilton or the early days of the nation's founding.

As today's history teachers will tell you, the way to get history into the heads of today's children is by analogizing from the familiar to the unfamiliar. You know the sort of thing: imagine that you are a soldier in Washington's army or an Indian girl at the time of Pocahontas or whatever. The trouble with that is that you bring too much "you" with you, and it is bound to get in the way of trying to imagine what it's like to be somebody else. It's no criticism of "Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton" to say that it takes analogizing to its limits and beyond, as that is doubtless what PBS, no less than the teaching profession, has expected of it. In addition to the Yorktown reenactment, there are also amusing representations of Hamilton as he argues a case before the People's Court's Marilyn Milian and of his meeting with Talleyrand as impersonated by the dapper French philosophe, Bernard-Henri Lévy -- BHL, as he is known to his legion of French fans, didn't care much for Mr. Hamilton's wine -- and, less amusingly but without live ammunition, of the fatal duel between Hamilton and Burr with two present-day members of their respective families in the starring roles.

The limits of the analogizing technique, however, are reached with the part where the sex scandal involving Hamilton and Maria Reynolds prompts a visit to Larry Flynt and his team of muckrakers, where they are asked for their tips on "covering" such scandals. Though Mr. Flynt is described as a modern-day Callender -- the pamphleteer who broke the story in 1797 -- there are too many differences between them, and between the political culture then and now, to make the comparison seem very helpful. Almost as bad was the interview with some plug-ugly gang members, one of whom has "Death Be4 Dishonor" tattooed on his beefy arm, to get their take on the duel with Burr. Mr. Brookhiser asks one of these thugs, who aren't exactly into analogizing themselves, what he thinks of the speculation that Hamilton wasted his shot in the duel with Burr. "Stupid," says the thug. Duh!

This kind of thing too often produces not knowledge but the illusion of knowledge. "Oh," the ignorant are encouraged to say, "so x is just like y," where x is a person or an event in the past of which he has no knowledge and y is a person or event in the present of which he has some -- if, usually, very little -- knowledge. But of course x is not like y, or is like y only in the most superficial ways and, in fact, everything that ought to be most interesting about x is precisely what is unlike y. Thus, the honor code that Hamilton felt himself bound by in 1804 has a very superficial similarity to that which today's street toughs promulgate among themselves, to the bewilderment or admiration of the larger society, but the ways in which it was different are legion as well as being more likely to repay the effort necessary to explore them.

In spite of such blemishes, "Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton" tells in a thoroughly accessible way one of the great American stories that too few among the young today will have heard of before. If they can be inveigled to watch it by parents or teachers who still care, as some of them surely must care, about historical literacy, I think I can promise them an enjoyable couple of hours with a great man whom they may be surprised to find it is well worth their while to know more about.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.