Constitution Center rides moment of Alexander Hamilton popularity with new exhibition

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Alexander Hamilton is on the $10 bill, the Broadway stage, and now at the National Constitution Center.

Piggybacking on the wildly successful musical, an exhibition about the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury opening this weekend describes Hamilton through the people who hated him.

Hamilton amassed a lot of enemies. To his credit they were enemies of the highest caliber: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Aaron Burr, who ultimately killed him in a duel.

The small exhibition is a series of stations describing Hamilton’s antagonistic relationship with each of them. It includes historic letters filled with insults that make today’s political Twitter wars seem like sandlot bickering.

“Take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public,” wrote Jefferson to Madison, asking for the destruction of Hamilton’s advocacy for Federalist foreign affairs policies in 1793.

“They were trying to figure out: Will this republic last? They weren’t sure. It was very fragile. They were afraid,” said curator Elena Popchock. “That’s why you see such visceral language being used between them, because these arguments could really make or break the entire republic.”

Hamilton’s greatest claim to fame is the establishment of a central banking system, which gave a lot of power to the federal government — and which Jefferson was strongly opposed to. Hamilton relied on financial structures derived from English models, which James Madison felt were too closely aligned with the monarchy, not suitable for a democracy.

While their arguments were rooted in government policy, they were also deeply personal. They just did not like each other, and Hamilton had a thin skin.

“After Washington passes away in 1799 you really see him lose his filter,” said Popchock. “He can’t handle being attacked. He ultimately does things that don’t really make sense but felt he really needed to respond.”

For all their harsh words, the Founding Fathers had an underlying respect for one another other. Jefferson exemplified this after Hamilton died by keeping a bust of him in his mansion in Virginia. A replica of the bust is in the exhibition at the Constitution Center.

The exhibition is not in the main gallery of the National Constitution Center, but rather in a small lobby that serves as an entrance to the NCC’s educational center. It is is part of a building-wide Hamilton experience, which includes several stations of storytellers describing key points in Hamilton’s life, an interactive show in the building’s main lobby, and a digital trivia game to test the knowledge of people who may have seen the musical.

The musical, with its unusually successful way of turning otherwise wonky policy debates into riveting theater, is what spurred the Constitution Center to run with Hamilton’s unlikely moment of popularity.

“We realized people were coming into our building and running over to Hamilton’s statue in Signer’s Hall to take selifes,” said Popchock.

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