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.