Appellate Judge James A. Stewart plans to move into a one-room shack and just get high-definition slides of exquisitely furnished rooms.
"I think the things that Hamilton did don't fit well on monuments."—Carol Berkin
"We live in Hamilton's monument—the United States."—Richard J. Payne
As the two historians quoted above point out, there is no monument to Alexander Hamilton, even though he contributed a lot to our nation: the concept of a strong central government, the first national bank, and our economic strength, to name a few of his accomplishments.
He was a major reason why the United States not only survived but thrived, but Hamilton also was a colorful character, as an infamous dalliance and his death in a duel with Aaron Burr proved. The first secretary of the treasury was known for his principles and intelligence, but often didn't get along well with others among the nation's founders. As biographer Ron Chernow puts it, "The smartest person in the room is always admired, but seldom liked."
Still, if you were going to name a Founding Father, you'd likely name George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or John Hancock without even a thought about Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton, a documentary that's currently being shown on PBS as part of the American Experience series, takes a look at Hamilton's life and contributions, from his humble birth as a bastard in the Caribbean to his dueling death. Actors portray Hamilton and his contemporaries, reading his statements and those of others about him, as historians explain his legacy.
What Alexander Hamilton does well is create a portrait of a man, a man who was seen as an aristocrat but believed in meritocracy, was one of the strongest early abolitionists, and offered his services as a lawyer based on principles rather than his pocketbook. It also shows his legacy, since his strong financial leadership as secretary of the treasury helped the United States become a global powerhouse. Even Thomas Jefferson, a fierce foe of Hamilton, ultimately benefitted from Hamilton's stewardship, since it gave the nation the creditworthiness for Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase.
The overall theme of the documentary is highlighted ultimately by what it left out, as shown in the deleted scenes. These scenes have interesting material on the Bank of the United States, the start of the two-party political system, and abolition of slavery that will help you understand the times Hamilton lived in, but seem to have been left out because they don't deal with the portrait of Hamilton as a person. While I agree with that focus, the deleted scenes are worth a look if you should buy or rent this one.
The actors who do the historical readings tend to have the clear enunciation of stage actors, but generally meet director Muffie Meyer's goal of delivering the lines with a conversational style, even though they're talking directly to the camera. The 18th Century language comes through clearly here.
The picture quality is mostly good, but you'll notice that some of the backgrounds have a soft focus. In a brief behind-the-scenes feature, it's explained that the backgrounds are high-definition slides of 18th Century rooms, since building sets was too expensive.
Alexander Hamilton acquits itself as worthy of attention, but strict principle compels me to remind you to check your local listings to see if you can catch this one on PBS.
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