Forget the Musical—Alexander Hamilton’s Real Legacy Is the Poverty-Stricken City He Founded

Forget the Musical—Alexander Hamilton’s Real Legacy Is the Poverty-Stricken City He Founded

Forget the Musical—Alexander Hamilton’s Real Legacy Is the Poverty-Stricken City He Founded

So why are the leaders of Paterson, NJ,  so eager to capitalize on his memory?


The past above, the future below
And the present pouring down
—William Carlos Williams, Paterson

In “The Darker Side of Paterson,” a four-minute YouTube video, Kevin Womble Sr. takes viewers on a tour of what he calls “the depths of hell”—the dank basement of an abandoned house in the northern New Jersey city’s notoriously violent Fourth Ward. “All I see are heroin bags, heroin bags, heroin bags everywhere,” Womble says in a gravelly baritone, panning to a feces-covered bathroom. “This is Paterson.” He leaves to show the building’s exterior—windows boarded up, the yard a miscellany of detritus. “113 Straight Street,” Womble sighs. “Beautiful site, beautiful location, terrible situation.”

On a sultry Friday afternoon in June, I found Womble setting up some tables outside a church-affiliated community center where he helps run the after-school program. A thin man of 61, he wore an army-green shirt with faux epaulets and matching pants, a woven pink fedora, and a salt-and-pepper goatee. Pointing to a chair, he told me to look around.

We were on Governor Street, around the corner from the Straight Street house and one block from Rosa Parks Boulevard—known to locals as “Death Avenue.” Across the street, a toddler played on a porch while, a few paces up the sidewalk, a dozen young men in white tees operated a thriving business, collecting cash and peddling pills and powder to a steady flow of haggard customers.

“This, 25 years ago, was a whole different thing,” Womble told me. “There was a time when Governor Street was thriving—houses, apartment buildings, stores, bars, the whole nine yards. But the economy got so bad, the cost of living got so high, the quality of living got so low, that it’s possible we’ve reached a point of no return. The vast majority of our people are just barely surviving day to day. Combine that with the corruption in the politics, and this is what you’re going to get.” He scanned the street. “This is where we are.”

Ten days after last year’s election, Mike Pence stopped by the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York City to take in Hamilton: An American Musical. At the curtain call, Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president, caught Pence scurrying for the exits. “We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us,” Dixon told his character’s successor-in-waiting, reading a statement given to him by the Hamilton producers. “We truly hope that our show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

Celebrated as an eloquent rebuke, the moment seemed to cement Hamilton’s reputation as “the revolutionary hit heard round the world,” as one scribe phrased it. Yet Dixon’s message for Pence obscured an uncomfortable reality: The real Alexander Hamilton’s “American values” were more like those of Pence and his boss than the ones endorsed by the musical. One wouldn’t know it from the play—or, for the most part, from its source, Ron Chernow’s feted 2004 biography, which the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, famously picked up at an airport bookstore—but Hamilton was a professed enemy of equality and a fervent believer in the transfer of wealth and power from ordinary people to the elite: a bastard, as the first line of the musical calls him, in more ways than one. At Hamilton’s urging and under his supervision, the drivers of the American Revolution, spying the democratic promised land in the distance, slammed on the brakes, executed a nimble three-point turn, and sped off in the direction they had come—back toward empire, exploitation, and arbitrary rule.

That was Alexander Hamilton: architect of that peculiarly American form of greatness that has bequeathed us an exhausted planet and a fraying republic ruled by strongmen honing the art of the deal. This was Hamilton as well: opponent of the Bill of Rights, advocate of invading South America, jailer of journalists, system-rigger extraordinaire. And Hamilton again: supporter of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the late 1790s, which made it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and threatened thousands of alleged subversives with deportation. “The mass [of aliens],” he wrote a friend, “ought to be obliged to leave the country.” After his Federalist Party was swept from power in New York City’s 1800 elections, Hamilton tried to persuade the state’s governor to intervene and overturn the results. “In times like these in which we live, it will not do to be overscrupulous,” he opined. Democracy, he wrote the day before his duel with Burr, was the country’s “real Disease.”

This news may disappoint those who bought the musical’s can-do, pro-immigrant hype. Yet there are a few places, far from the glare of Broadway, where one can go to commune with the real Hamilton and his legacy in our world.

Head to Newburgh, New York, where in the spring of 1783, Hamilton conspired with army officers to threaten a military coup unless Congress coughed up enough extra pay to establish them as a nascent aristocracy after the war. Drive to western Pennsylvania, site of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when Hamilton personally led an army to crush a few miserable rebels protesting the federal government’s sacrifice of farmers and frontiersmen to the interests of the financial elite. Pay your respects at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan, where Hamilton’s body, if not his spirit, is buried. Walk around the corner to Federal Hall, where a statue of Washington marks the spot on which, with Hamilton looking on, the general swore in the spring of 1789 to “preserve, protect, and defend” a Constitution that Hamilton later described as a “frail and worthless fabric” because it allowed for too much democracy. Follow Washington’s gaze across the street to the facade of the New York Stock Exchange, as if ensuring for the sake of his protégé, whose first home was on Wall Street, that all still runs smoothly. Take the A train up to Hamilton’s beloved mansion, the Grange, at 141st Street. Watch from his porch as a tsunami of capital crashes slowly over Harlem, washing the people away.

Come, finally, to Paterson, where the Passaic River rolls in from the New Jersey uplands and crashes 77 feet into an ancient gorge—the largest waterfall east of the Mississippi other than Niagara. Hamilton first came here on July 10, 1778, as a young soldier on George Washington’s military staff. Weary from a scorching battle against the British, the soldiers stopped for a picnic of ham, tongue, biscuits, and grog. Years later, when Hamilton sought to build an industrial city to wean Americans off their reliance on foreign goods, he returned to the Great Falls of the Passaic, which offered something that must have tantalized him: a source of endless power. It was here, 15 miles from Manhattan, that Hamilton hoped his dreams for America would be realized in full—a new empire would rise, a new world would be achieved.

Hamilton seems to have thought that Paterson’s fate would be one measure by which both he and the American experiment could rightfully be judged. And so it should be. Today, nearly 30 percent of Paterson’s population lives in poverty. Its unemployment rate is almost twice the national average. And in 2015, it was named the seventh-most-dangerous American city of its size—roughly 146,000 people. Much of the violence can be attributed to the fact that Paterson is a major distribution center for some of the purest heroin outside Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

In her 1974 book About Paterson: The Making and Unmaking of an American City, local journalist Chris Norwood called the city “a living metaphor of the American urban crisis.” Four decades later, Paterson remains a symbol of unkept promises and criminal neglect, a damning indictment of Hamilton—its founder, mascot, patron saint—and the nation he built.

As if from the narrow footbridge spanning the falls’ misty abyss, a historically popular location for murder and suicide, the whole city now dangles in the air, desperately hanging on to a single thread of hope: that its capacity for reinvention is as renewable a resource as the river itself. By turning 118 acres around the chasm into a national park, civic leaders hope to revitalize the city’s hollowed-out historic district, where 65 percent of residents say they’re afraid to venture at night. Though the plan has had many backers over the years, much of the energy behind the final push came from Bill Pascrell Jr., a former mayor of Paterson and an 11-term Democratic congressman. He introduced a bill authorizing the park’s creation in 2006; it passed the House the following year and was signed by President Obama as part of a public-lands measure in March 2009. In 2011, the federal government took over the land from the state, and the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park became a reality.

Six years later, there’s still little more to the park than a trailer-size visitors’ center. Last summer, the National Park Service finalized a 20-year general-management plan, which suggests the eventual cost could be as high as $45 million, depending on which projects actually get built. The funding will come from the local, state, and federal governments, bolstered by private donations funneled through the park’s official “friends” group, the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson, a private nonprofit founded in 2008 by a Paterson-born former Washington, DC, real-estate lawyer named Leonard Zax. Supporters hope that the recently approved plans to spruce up Overlook Park, which sits across from the opening to the waterfall’s gorge, and to create a “great lawn” at an old industrial site just downstream will be the beginning of more extensive transformations to come.

On a tour of Overlook Park last summer, Darren Boch, the park’s genial superintendent, told me he was thinking about taking Hamilton’s statue off the pedestal it has stood on for more than a century, looking with dreamy determination at the falls. The point, however, would not be to puncture the myth of Hamilton the hero. Boch said that he was inspired by a park in Morristown, a half-hour away, where ground-level statues of Washington, Hamilton, and Lafayette have created a hot spot for selfies.

By using the national park to revive itself, Paterson is hitching its faltering wagon to Hamilton’s rising star. Beyond commemorating the city’s founder, however, the park’s boosters also hope to emulate what they consider his accomplishments. Pascrell has said he hopes the project will “awaken the economic engine of our region that Alexander Hamilton envisioned years ago.” The idea seems to be that money poured into the park, like the water that plunges over the falls, will trickle down through the city to irrigate bone-dry neighborhoods like the Fourth Ward.

While it may be good marketing, the strategy ignores both the lessons of Paterson’s past and what the city’s residents really need. In that sense, Paterson remains, as Hamilton intended it, a microcosm of the country at large. Lacking the resources for a genuine renewal, its people are being asked to celebrate a history of which they have been, at almost every turn, the victims.

By the middle of 1791, Hamilton, then serving as the country’s first Treasury secretary, had gained congressional approval for most of the controversial financial plan he had devised to guarantee the survival of the new federal government. Fixing the interests of the nation to those of the wealthy, he believed, would secure both its perpetuity and their profits. There was the federal government’s assumption of the states’ wartime debts, which ensured that the speculators who had spent the 1780s roaming around the country buying up Revolutionary-era promissory notes for pennies on the dollar, often from hard-up war veterans, could redeem those certificates at face value and with interest, thus enabling a massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom of society to the top. There was the tax on the production of whiskey to service the newly bloated federal debt, disproportionately hurting small distillers, leading a few years later to the Pennsylvania rebellion that Hamilton violently subdued. And there was the creation of the Bank of the United States, modeled on the powerful Bank of England, to make the whole thing run.

Hamilton’s next move was to form a Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SUM) to build a new industrial metropolis, a “national manufactory,” as he called it. Located between New York and Philadelphia, the Great Falls of the Passaic offered a steady supply of water for a system of canals, or “raceways,” that would wind down a hillside to power a city of mills. The SUM—essentially a public-private partnership—received a special charter from New Jersey’s governor, William Paterson, which granted exemptions from state and local taxes for 10 years, the power to construct public improvements, and perpetual rights to every drop of rain collected in the Passaic River’s watershed. In return, the city was named in his honor.

In his Report on the Subject of Manufactures, submitted to Congress later that year, Hamilton laid out the theory behind Paterson’s founding: An industrial America would indirectly benefit the many because it directly benefited the few. “It is a truth as important as it is agreeable, and one to which it is not easy to imagine exceptions, that everything tending to establish substantial and permanent order, in the affairs of a Country, to increase the total mass of industry and opulence, is ultimately beneficial to every part of it,” he wrote. “On the Credit of this great truth, an acquiescence may safely be accorded, from every quarter, to all institutions & arrangements, which promise a confirmation of public order, and an augmentation of National Resource.” Today, we call this trickle-down economics. Hamilton made it the cornerstone of our political order.

To put this theory into practice, Hamilton hired William Duer to run the SUM. The son of a wealthy Caribbean planter and a cousin to Hamilton by marriage, Duer had served as Hamilton’s assistant Treasury secretary until 1790, when his habit of privately investing public funds became a political liability for his boss. In his biography, Ron Chernow says Hamilton “blundered” in his selection of Duer to lead the SUM, but it’s unclear why a man otherwise hailed as a genius should, in this instance, be excused. The choice ought instead to be seen as a wager by Hamilton that someone so intent on increasing his own opulence and augmenting his own resources would be uniquely adept at increasing and augmenting the nation’s.

It was a bet that Hamilton, Paterson, and the United States would quickly lose. With a few associates, Duer used the SUM’s finances to support his various schemes; cornering the market in certain stocks, he secretly shorted them just in case. The bubble finally burst in March of 1792, nearly taking the entire economy down with it.

Hamilton himself wasn’t implicated in the shady dealings that led to the nation’s first financial crash, but many of his closest cronies were, thus confirming for skeptics of his plans the suspicion, as one congressman put it, that a “powerful machine” was working on behalf of “a great moneyed interest.” James Madison, who had previously collaborated with Hamilton on the Federalist essays defending the Constitution, was horrified by the prospect of a government “substituting the motive of private interest in place of public duty; converting its pecuniary dispensations into bounties to favorites, or bribes to opponents; accommodating its measures to the avidity of a part of the nation instead of the benefit of the whole.”

Amid the wreckage, the SUM fell by the wayside. Several directors, including Duer, were thrown in prison. Its funds mysteriously disappeared, presumably gambled away by Duer and his crew. By 1796, the population of Paterson had fallen from 500 to 43. The “SUM’s early history suggested the kinds of problems that could develop from an urban-industrial complex built on privilege and lacking in public accountability,” Chris Norwood observes.

Founded on Hamilton’s hypothesis that the pursuit of private gain could be harnessed to serve the public good, Paterson was a failure from the start.

In testimony before Congress in 2009, Leonard Zax said it was “at the Great Falls that Hamilton began to create an economy requiring not slavery but freedom, rewarding not social status but hard work, and promoting not discrimination against some but opportunities for all.” Hamilton’s vision of a mighty industrial America is often presented, as in Miranda’s musical, as an enlightened alternative to Thomas Jefferson’s slave-based agrarian idyll. Selective and exaggerated— Jefferson argued early for the abolition of slavery, while Hamilton happily married into a slave-owning family— the argument is also predicated on a false dichotomy.

Four decades ago, the historian Edmund S. Morgan showed how the maintenance of American freedom was dependent on the perpetuation of American slavery. Rather than opposites, the two conditions were mutually reinforcing. Paterson proves the point: What rescued the city after its initial fall was the technological refinement of the process that took slave-picked cotton and made it into goods that American consumers could afford to buy.

The embers of industrial life in Paterson, all but snuffed out by the corruption of Hamilton’s pals, were only fanned into flame years after his death, after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and Jefferson’s controversial embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 forced the United States to develop its own manufacturing. The SUM was resurrected by a colorful tycoon named Roswell Colt, whose father had unsuccessfully tried to save the company after the 1792 crash. Heralded as “the Cotton Town of the United States,” Paterson’s rebirth would have been impossible without the exploitation of slave labor. By 1830, “this flourishing Manchester of America,” as a newspaper called it, had nearly 8,000 residents.

“It is impossible to think of any other city whose products cut so deeply into the texture of the United States and not only transformed its national character, but revolutionized American relations with the world,” Norwood writes. The first of thousands of locomotives to be built in Paterson rolled onto the rails in 1837. In 1869, a Paterson-made locomotive pulled the eastern train that connected the transcontinental railroad, and 144 others were used to construct the Panama Canal. The engines that powered the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris, and the Enola Gay, which dropped the bomb that incinerated Hiroshima, were also built in Paterson.

By the turn of the 20th century, Paterson had become known as “Silk City.” Home to hundreds of factories employing over 20,000 workers, most of them immigrants, it was the fastest-growing city on the East Coast. For almost a century, Paterson could fairly say of itself, as an arch built over Main Street to mark its centennial in 1892 put it, “By Industry We Thrive.”

Yet two developments subverted that message. Most obvious was the grotesque maldistribution of Paterson’s wealth, which exacerbated tensions inherent in the city’s origins. The “industrial aristocracy,” Norwood writes, “had no feeling for Paterson as a place deserving their attention and care; instead they viewed the city as a moneymaking machine, much as Hamilton had established it.” Jacob Rogers, a prominent locomotive manufacturer, explained his refusal to donate land for a hospital by saying, “I don’t owe anything to Paterson.” From 1850 to 1914, there were more strikes in the city than anywhere else in the country.

A fateful climax came with the silk strike of 1913. Provoked by the announcement of a transition to a system that would have workers responsible for four looms instead of two—thereby cutting their numbers in half—the strike lasted for more than five months. Thousands were arrested. Banned from meeting in Paterson, strikers and sympathizers gathered in nearby Haledon, whose Socialist mayor welcomed them, to hear speeches from the likes of Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and Upton Sinclair.

The strike failed, and the city was never the same again. Punished for its militancy, Paterson soon began to lose the industry by which it—or at least its factory owners—had thrived. After a brief revival during World War II, the city declined precipitously. The SUM shut its doors in 1945.

If Paterson was a pioneer of industrialization in the United States, it was also a pioneer of deindustrialization: In the 20th century as in the 18th (and today), arrangements that relied on the coincidence of the interests of the few with those of the many were in danger of fraying the moment those interests became misaligned.

What Hamilton had called “public order” was, in the long run, further undermined by Paterson’s other great contribution to its own misery: It was here, in 1836, that Samuel Colt, a cousin of the SUM’s rescuer, patented the mass-produced repeating revolver, which allowed shooters to fire bullets into flesh with greater ease. His factory folded a few years later, and Colt really made his name in Hartford, but the promotion of the gun as an emblem of American culture began here, with the Colt Paterson .28.

These days, Kevin Womble Sr. told me, residents of the city are “too scared to open their doors or even come outside, because your neighbor might rob you. Or somebody did something to somebody else, and they come up the street and start shooting, because somebody told them that the best way to resolve an issue was to pull a gun.” If you run the tape back far enough, that “somebody” was Paterson’s own Samuel Colt, who, the historian Saul Cornell has said, was the first person to push “the idea that guns are what make you free.”

When my family left Queens in 1993, we moved into a small house on Hamilton Avenue in Wayne, a New Jersey suburb just over the hill from the Great Falls. Rain that fell on our lawn found its way to a brook that emptied into the Passaic River just behind Willowbrook Mall, which, when it opened in 1969, was advertised as “the new downtown,” a safe alternative for suburbanites afraid to shop in Paterson. From there the river flows a few miles to the falls. After heavy storms, my father often took me to admire the rushing torrent of white. For one searingly hot summer in high school, I took a bus over the hill every day to intern for Bill Pascrell. That was the extent of my relationship with Paterson: a few miles away, but another world.

In a sense, this is the United States as Hamilton envisioned it. Paterson, that “Bethlehem of Capitalism,” that “ground zero of modern America,” as National Review editor and Hamilton partisan Richard Brookhiser has called it, was used by its industrial titans so long as it made no claims on their wealth, and abandoned as soon as it did. Ever since, it’s been ignored—by the nation of which it was to be a model and by the wealthier, whiter communities in its own backyard. Paterson tends to draw their attention only when its appalling conditions spread outward along the thoroughfares originally designed to bring raw materials to the city’s mills. Three years ago, an 18-year-old from Wayne, just hours after graduating from high school, went down to the Fourth Ward to buy a gun and ended up with a bullet in his brain.

When they talk about improving the image of Paterson, the park’s boosters are talking about how the city is perceived by the people of Wayne. Through some mystical process euphemistically called “revitalization,” perhaps its reality will be transformed too. “I believe in Paterson,” the city’s largest private landowner, Queens-based developer Efstathios Valiotis, explained in 2011. “We can make money there.”

On the afternoon of July 10, I attended a full-dress reenactment of what the event’s organizer, the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, called “the most important picnic in American history.” Under a tent near the falls, actors playing Hamilton, Washington, Lafayette, and two members of Washington’s Life Guard ate the same meal their real-life counterparts had eaten exactly 238 years earlier. “In Paterson, we celebrate the past by looking to the future,” Leonard Zax told the crowd. “And as Alexander Hamilton knew, the future is what you make it.”

After the picnic, I met with Zax, Darren Boch, and Martin Vergara, a 33-year-old, Paterson-born Morgan Stanley executive who serves as the chair of the Hamilton Partnership’s board. I asked how the national park might benefit the residents of the Fourth Ward. “Think of Times Square, which is where New York City’s revitalization started,” Boch said. “This is our Times Square. Maybe there can be sparks that are set here that over time sort of emanate somewhere else.” While not a panacea, Vergara added, the development of the park could be “a catalyst for other things.”

Developers are counting on it. David Garsia is the owner of the Art Factory, a 22-building complex of defunct mills that his father bought in the late 1970s, and that now hosts artists’ studios and film and photography shoots. On one of my visits to Paterson, Garsia, a trim man in his late 40s wearing a shirt open to his sternum, invited me out to a balcony that overlooks the SUM’s old raceway system. “We’re going to be the next Dumbo, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Red Hook,” he enthused, rattling off the names of some of New York City’s most “revitalized” neighborhoods. “The artists and the creatives and the hard workers went to Brooklyn, created wonderful communities over there, and then got pushed out. They’re all coming to Paterson now.”

As he said this, Garsia looked up at the sun-soaked trees along the raceway, reminding me of the Hamilton statue at the falls. I asked whether he found any inspiration in the story of Paterson’s founding. “Hamilton had a vision for the nation, which was an entrepreneurial, industrious, capitalist vision,” Garsia replied. “We’re just carrying on the vision, that’s all.”

Back on Governor Street, Kevin Womble Sr. sees things differently. “The upper-level residents—let me put it that way—they’re blushing over this thing,” he told me. “But who are they doing it for? That money could be better spent revitalizing some of this mess here. It’s just going to be another pretty picture for a postcard.”

Because Hamilton’s stock is on the rise, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of Paterson’s leading citizens that a man whose vision for the city immediately failed, and whose vision for the nation was of an armed and dangerous empire governed by and for the rich, might not be the best cultural touchstone for a city trying to recover from its bad American dream. Fortunately, Paterson is not without an alternative.

William Carlos Williams was born in nearby Rutherford in 1883. A physician as well as a poet, Williams had an office in Passaic where he saw patients all day before making house calls at night. His poetry was deeply rooted in a love for people and an attachment to place: the old industrial cities of New Jersey and their inhabitants. The first lines of Paterson, his late-career opus, published in five parts from 1946 to 1958—and the inspiration for Jim Jarmusch’s recent film by the same name—are printed on a wall opposite the bathroom in the Great Falls park’s temporary visitors’ center:

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He lies on his right side, head near the thunder of the waters filling his dreams!

The deeply humane ethos of Paterson offers a sharp contrast with Hamilton’s contempt for ordinary Americans and their democratic aspirations. A sixth book of Paterson, left unfinished on Williams’s death in 1963, begins with a few ambiguous lines about Hamilton. Yet it was in an earlier book, In the American Grain, a collection of historical meditations published in 1925, that the poet fully laid out his brief against the man he called “a balloon of malice.”

“If a verdict be unanimous, it is sure to be a wrong one,” Williams wrote regarding history’s disparagement of Aaron Burr and approbation for the man he killed. In an imagined dialogue with a historian defending the traditional story of America’s founding—the version recycled in Hamilton—Williams’s interlocutor calls George Washington a “Protector of liberty.” The poet snaps back:

Whose, Hamilton’s?—to harness the whole, young, aspiring genius to a treadmill? Paterson he wished to make capital of the country because there was waterpower there which to his time and mind seemed colossal. And so he organized a company to hold the land thereabouts, with dams and sluices, the origin today of the vilest swillhole in christendom, the Passaic River; impossible to remove the nuisance so tight had he, Hamilton, sewed up his privileges unto kingdomcome, through his holding company, in the State legislature. His company. His United States: Hamiltonia—the land of the company.

It would be surprising to find this passage inscribed on the walls of the Alexander Hamilton Center, the park’s future visitors’ center, for which the Hamilton Partnership is raising $19.7 million from private foundations, corporations, and individuals. “It is an extraordinary phenomenon,” Williams mused, “that Americans have lost the sense…that what we are has its origin in what the nation in the past has been; that there is a source in AMERICA for everything we think or do….”

A few hundred feet downriver from the falls, near the parcel that will become the “great lawn,” there’s a sprawling plot of unkempt land, where straggly trees poke out through the ruins of some of Paterson’s oldest factories. Eerily disordered, pierced by a pulse- accelerating quiet, it’s the kind of place that makes you wonder why so many seem to have left without their shoes, and how many have never left. Lonely souls perch on piles of bricks, taking breaks for lunch and from life. Teenagers, exulting in the fugitive freedom of a June afternoon, hold hands in the window of a dilapidated mill, their legs dangling over the river. They could be forgiven for not knowing what these quieted smokestacks, these tumbledown walls, these rusty machines have to do with the history they learned in school, or with the future of the city they’ve managed briefly to escape, or with the phrase “American carnage.” It will be the burden of the national park to inform them. Otherwise, these Paterson ruins might as well be left alone—left to tell, for any who wander in, a story about the rise of a once-promising nation and the myths that sustained it, about its refusal to live without them and its final, freely chosen fall.

A note from the author: I want to personally acknowledge a few factual errors that unfortunately made it into this piece. An earlier version of this article referred to the Great Falls as a “popular location for murder and suicide.” While this is true historically, there seems to have been only one person—an infant—involuntarily tossed from the footbridge in recent memory. The piece also quoted Leonard Zax as saying “as Alexander Hamilton knew, the past is what you make it.” While this is what my notes from last summer’s reenactment said, the Hamilton Partnership claims he said “the future is what you make it.” And there were no enslaved persons represented at the reenactment, as the piece said, but members of George Washington’s Life Guard. I regret the errors, and the piece has been updated to correct them.

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