DVD Review: “Hamilton: Building America” Is A Breezy, Entertaining Sweep Of U.S. History

“'Hamilton: Building America' is the story of one of the great founding fathers of the United States told with verve and panache.”


 

“Hamilton: Building America” captures the amazing life and times of our nation’s forgotten founding father: Alexander Hamilton. Exploring the iconic American political and financial institutions he helped to create — from the U.S. Mint and Wall Street to the two-party political system — it examines Hamilton’s enormous influence that still resonates today.

“Hamilton: Building America” is the story of one of the great founding fathers of the United States told with verve and panache.

Needless to say, interest in Alexander Hamilton has mushroomed since the sweeping success of “Hamilton,” the Broadway play. For students of American history, Hamilton’s importance would be hard to overestimate, as the documentary makes clear.

Hamilton was the primary – though not most influential – of the three authors who wrote the too-little-read Federalist Papers. While Hamilton penned 51 of the 85 papers, followed by James Madison’s 29 (and John Jay’s 5), it is Madison who is regarded as the father of the Constitution and author of the most important articles. Nonetheless, the entire set comprised the basis for the U.S. Constitution. For students of political science in the U.S., the Federalist Papers are invariably a required part of the curriculum.

The documentary follows Hamilton through his entire life – from humble beginnings as an illegitimate child born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean, to his death in 1804 at 49. Hamilton died as the result of a gunshot wound received from political rival and vice president Aaron Burr in a duel.

Needless to say, at a runtime of a mere 84 minutes, the journey can only hit the high points. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams figured prominently in Hamilton’s life and viewers are encouraged to seek out additional documentaries on the History Channel and other sources to fill in the picture.

Expert interviews are peppered throughout the documentary and add welcome commentary on Hamilton’s life and exploits. Tom Brokaw, Robert Rubin, Cokie Roberts, Paul Krugman and others provide satisfying insights into the nature and character of the man.

As a Federalist, Hamilton famously favored a more central government than his contemporaries such as Thomas Jefferson. The debate regarding a strong national government versus states’ rights rages on even today. To ask which side is correct grossly oversimplifies the issue. Suffice to say that there is merit on both sides. “Hamilton: Building America” spends a good portion of the film on banking and Wall Street, where the issue of the merits – or lack thereof – regarding a strong central government take center stage. As the documentary indicates, calling Alexander Hamilton the patron saint of Wall Street would not be an exaggeration. The national stock exchange and liquid credit markets that spurred industrial development and commercial activity in the U.S. were largely his creation. The current Federal Reserve System, established in 1913, is a logical extension of Hamilton’s efforts as the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington.

Alexander Hamilton also retains the dubious distinction as perhaps the first American politician involved in a sex scandal. Hamilton maintained a one-year affair with 23-year-old Maria Reynolds. During that time, Reynold’s husband blackmailed Hamilton before the affair eventually became public.

Along similar lines, the documentary accurately points out that the nasty nature of American politics had its origins in the earliest days of the Republic. While we may think that modern-day political campaigns are vicious affairs, historical accounts in the documentary make clear that in the late 1700s and early 1800s, nobody pulled any punches then either. Today’s election rhetoric might even be considered tame in comparison.

For many, history and political science often remain boring or tiresome subjects. The Federalist Papers, for example, can indeed be a tedious read. So, if hip-hopping a play or taking broad brush strokes in a documentary manages to pique interest sufficiently for audiences to find out more about Alexander Hamilton’s important contributions to the framework of the American political system, then all the better.

Now available on Digital HD and on DVD November 14th


 

Thomas Tunstall

Thomas Tunstall, Ph.D. is the senior research director at the Institute for Economic Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the principal investigator for numerous economic and community development studies and has published extensively. Dr. Tunstall recently completed an original screenplay and delivered a TED Talk dealing with sustainable community development in the wake of shale oil and gas development. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Economy, and an M.B.A. from the University of Texas at Dallas, as well as a B.B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin.

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