T. S. Eliot, in his essay on Kipling, said that the outsider, if he happens to be “alarmingly intelligent,” has a “peculiar detachment and remoteness” that enables him to see the places through which he passes more clearly than the natives do. The subject of Richard Brookhiser and Michael Pack’s documentary film Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton was such an outsider. Born on the tropical fringes of the Anglo society of the West Indies, Hamilton was a teenager when he sailed to North America to realize his vocation as a man of destiny. He made his way into the highest councils of his adopted country, yet he remained an exotic figure, one who excited in ample measure the gossip and uneasiness that so often wait upon the mysterious alien.
The same foreignness that made Hamilton suspect in the eyes of his detractors gave him a keen insight into America’s needs. Talleyrand said that Hamilton “divined” Europe — grasped its essence intuitively. In studying America, Hamilton had the advantage not only of this intuitive genius but also of direct observation, an observation unhindered by personal attachment or regional bias. More perhaps than any other founder, Hamilton saw America steadily and saw it whole.
It is true that the outsider will sometimes abuse his gift of insight, as the Austrian Hitler did in Germany and as the Georgian Stalin did in Russia. But Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton makes it clear that in Hamilton intelligence was tempered by virtuous scruples. Henry Adams scented in him a Napoleonic adventurer — but Hamilton resisted, as Bonaparte never did, the temptation to sacrifice the general welfare to individual glory. Of the two kinds of heroic temperament most commonly met with — the self-sacrificing valor of which the Catos are the exemplar, and the self-aggrandizing heroism of which the romantic conquistador, the Caesarian or Alexandrine conqueror, is the type and symbol — Hamilton was closer to the first than the second. But he had undoubtedly some affinity for the romance of a personal ascendancy; Forrest McDonald has aptly described him as a “romantic personality” whose “true kin were the likes of Byron and Beethoven.” A gulf divides him from the nation he helped to form.
The originality of Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton is nowhere more evident than in its suggestion that the America Hamilton did so much to create was not an America in which he personally could be at home. Nothing could be more mistaken than the notion that Hamilton was the prototype of that characteristically American figure, the man on the make, the hustler, the tycoon: a prefigurer of Jay Gould and Jay Gatsby. Hamilton was on the contrary consumed by longings for immortal glory; and his glory consisted in helping to build a country in which such inglorious but useful and constructive personalities as Morgan and Rockefeller could flourish.
Devoted himself to fame and high statesmanship, Hamilton labored to create a republic in which there is, Tocqueville observed, remarkably little “lofty ambition.” Hamilton saluted Bonaparte as an “unequalled conqueror, from whom it is painful to detract,” yet he promoted a politics inimical to Bonapartism. Jefferson claimed to have heard him say that “the greatest man that ever lived, was Julius Caesar,” yet in his statecraft he worked with materials no would-be Caesar could have cared to touch — with models of commercial prosperity derived from the unheroic philosophies of Hume and Smith, with a theory of judicial review that subjected the acts of statesmen to the scrutiny of lawyers, with a financial program that made Wall Street rather than West Point the Mecca for much of the brightest talent of the nation. It is not a Bonapartist or Caesarian legacy that Brookhiser finds when he visits the floor of the Stock Exchange or watches lawyers cite the Federalist Papers in oral arguments in Boumediene v. Bush, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus at Guantanamo Bay violated the Constitution.
Near the beginning of the documentary, Brookhiser informs the viewer that his object is to “walk the paths of Hamilton’s life” and look at “the modern versions of the institutions Hamilton created.” The result is a series of contrasts, at times amusing, at times alarming, between the life the hero lived and the world the hero made. With gentle irony Brookhiser takes the viewer from scenes of revolutionary tumult to scenes in which the placid, good-humored, and above all casual life of the country today goes on. He talks to Columbia students who are oblivious of the identity of their college’s greatest son — a cluelessness that is possible (among educated people) only where history itself is unreal, is a thing that happens somewhere else, to someone else. Hamilton and his fellow founders have to a great extent insulated Americans from history; as a result we are innocents not only abroad but also at home.
Justice Scalia, alone among the documentary’s cameos, questions the peculiar kind of imbecility that is found wherever people have for a long time lived comfortably remote from the terror of history. Most Americans, Scalia observes, when they are asked what makes the Constitution great, point to one or another of the provisions of the Bill of Rights. “And that is not what’s great about it,” Scalia tells Brookhiser. “And it’s not what’s distinctive about the American system. Almost all the nations of the world today have a bill of rights and you would not want to live in 80 percent of them, because the constitutions of those countries do not prevent as ours does the centralization of power.” If the American Constitution is something more than a set of paper promises, it is because men like Hamilton created, out of the tragic materials of history (blood and violence), institutions that have grown into a system that really does limit authority. It takes a lot of history to create even a little constitutional order — it takes, that is, a lot of suffering, and a lot of heroism.
“But unheroic as bourgeois society is,” Marx said, “yet it had need of heroism, of sacrifice, of terror, of civil war and of national battles to bring it into being.” It is true that the freedom Marx stigmatized as “bourgeois” is not even now wholly without Catos. If history has happened only intermittently in America, the credit is due not merely to dead heroes like Hamilton but also to living ones — to the uniforms that guard us while we sleep. But it is no less true that the heroic temper jars with the contemporary American mood — with the complacent ironies of Jon Stewart and the precious idealism exemplified by the Columbia students who recently mocked a wounded Iraq War veteran. Such naïveté is possible only to those who are very, very remote from history.
Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton is not, to be sure, a brief for a reversion to the archaic, to the harder history our forebears knew: The documentary finds much to like in our dressed-down, undemanding republic. But the film is conscious always of the paradox that our modern democratic world, in which it grows ever more difficult to take anything seriously, was in great measure molded by pre-modern intellects that took many things seriously. Glory was real for Hamilton, piety was real for John Winthrop, and sin was real for both of them, in ways that they are only very rarely real for the educated person today. (The sentiment of honor, so important to the founders, is cultivated today, Brookhiser observes, mainly in urban gangs, some of whose members he talks to.) The different cast of mind of men like Hamilton and Washington seems to have been in part the product of their deeper experience of history. However much we study the past, we are (most of us) personally unacquainted with history.
As illuminating as Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton is — and it is not only the most thoughtful, but also the most ingeniously crafted documentary on the life of an American founder I have seen — there is, finally, a mystery it cannot penetrate, that of a statesman who worked deliberately to make a world that would have little use for his own qualities of soul, a man lastly over-strong against himself. Hamilton remains for us the stranger he was for many of his contemporaries: a garlanded hero whose heroism has made it possible for us to recline (in unheroic levity) before the plasma icons of Oprah and Jon.
Few of us would go back to Hamilton’s world. A world in which there is much heroism is likely to be a world in which there is much misery, for not only does intense suffering call forth heroism, but heroism gone rancid becomes Caesarism and is in turn a cause of suffering. (The founders broke the Cromwellian-Napoleonic cycle in which courage is corrupted into despotism, but a glance at the map reveals that the odds are against such breakthroughs.) I would not go back, but I came away from this deeply intelligent exposition of a great man’s life and fate with a shudder of humility — a sensation that there has passed away a glory from the earth.
— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Pathology of the Elites: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life. This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2011 issue of National Review.