© 2005 Rob Chernow
Unlike most of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton was not born in the American colonies, at least not the ‘proper’ thirteen. He hailed instead from the isle of Nevis, in the West Indies, growing up amid scenes of the sugar trade, of ships from various nations plying the Caribbean routes, hauling trade goods and slaves hither and yon, between islands baked by the sun and hit alternatively with bouts of hurricanes and disease. Orphaned early on, Hamilton found employment as a clerk in a trading firm, and his success there led him to New York, working first on the firm’s behalf and then on his own, as he became involved in the colonies’ struggle for independence. After completing his education there, Hamilton put his mind to work outside the exchequer’s office, engaged as a lawyer and putting his pen to work arguing for independence. During the Revolutionary War, he served first as a captain of artillery, and then as George Washington’s attache, a position which forged his destiny. By war’s end, he had become Washington’s de facto chief of staff, and when ‘his excellency’ became president, their long relationship and the strength of Hamilton’s writings on politics and economics (including most of The Federalist Papers) earned him a seat in the first cabinet, as Secretary of the Treasury. There, he helped to create a nation, pushing forward a much-hated plan for the new union to absorb the debts of the old, a move that established the young country’s credit and strengthened the position of the federal government over the states. Hamilton’s belief in a strong, efficient central government made him the foe of states-rights proponents like Jefferson, who saw in him the antithesis the revolution. Hamilton and they engaged in ferocious battles of words, railing against one another in the press. When Washington retired and John Adams became president, it was Hamilton, and not Adams, who led the Federalist party against the attacks of Jefferson and the anti-federalist Republicans. (Such a fact was very much not appreciated by John Adams, whose cabinetmen stayed in constant correspondence with Hamilton and forwarded his advice as their own) Although Hamilton accomplished his dream of a strong union backed by a strong currency (backed by a strong, national bank), his reputation fell into disrepute through his constant bickering with others, especially after he engaged in a no-holds barred assault on then-president John Adams, splintering the federalists and allowing for decades of Republican domination. His highly colorful career — festooned with accomplishments and embarrassment — came to an end in 1804, when he engaged Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel and was shot down, dying in the same fashion as his son a year prior.
So, the story of Alexander Hamilton is something kin to a rags-to-riches tale, or it would if he actually died rich. His ascent is stupefying, and Chernow’s admiration is hard for a reader not to share. Although I’d expected the book to sing Hamilton’s praises, Chernow chronicles the man’s persistent faults faithfully. He does couch the criticism in such a way as to soften the blows, frequently mourning over dear Hamilton’s all-too frequent lapses in judgment the way readers might tut-tut over their grandparents’ foibles. Chief among them was Hamilton’s ability to hold a grudge, and the power grudges held over his opinion, moving him to rail against opponents so scathingly that even John Adams was taken aback. Chernow doesn’t fault Hamilton’s basic approach to governance, which tended toward the cautious: Hamilton was the anti-Jefferson, and promoted more a strong, centralzied government run by ‘cool, cool, considerate men’, rather than a republic of states run by the mob, which is what he imagined democracy to be. Although Jefferson & company’s skepticism of Hamilton’s strongman approach is warranted (as is skepticism of Jefferson’s own approach), his fiscal accomplishments seem to validate them. Chernow goes to bat for his chosen subject, engaging in little arguments to defend claims that Hamilton was corrupt or intending to replace the government with the rule of some Hannoverian scion. Of course, considering he once entertained ideas for conquering South America in the event of a French victory during the Napoleonic wars, maybe his enemies’ paranoia was justified. The degree to which Jefferson and others engaged in conspiracy theories with Hamilton at the center is baffling , but Jefferson is as much the villain of the piece as Hamilton is the hero. If Chernow is fair with Hamiliton, being honest with his faults, he is less so with the man’s foes. John Adams receives the kindest treatment, notable given how hostile he became toward ‘that Creole bastard’ during his adminstration.
Alexander Hamilton is quite the biography. Not only was his a life fascinating to behold — an orphaned turned national puppetmaster — but through it, readers get a glimpse at how debates over the fate of the nation were enacted. Hamilton’s personal life is included, but shoved to the side: this is a work about the relationships between Hamilton and other founders, especially George Washington and their relation to the first decade of American politics: it emphasizes policy more than cozy scenes of family life. Chernow is an able storyteller, and proved to be more fair than I gave him credit for. This is a massive piece, but I found it very much worth my while, given how anti-Hamiltonian my previous Revolutionary War reads have been. I think next year I shall have to read a biography of Jefferson, since he’s much abused in both treatments of John Adams’ and Alexander Hamilton’s lives.
Pingback: Revolutionary Characters | Reading Freely