In his exhaustive and engaging biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow, (who has authored biographies of John D. Rockefeller Sr., and J.P. Morgan) describes Hamilton as the indispensable revolutionary. Chernow’s gripping story sheds new light not only on Hamilton’s legacy but also on the conflicts that accompanied the republic’s birth. He passionately believed that if America were going to survive, order had to be balanced with liberty. In Hamilton’s view, economic institutions, properly conceived, could foster manufacturing, protect private property, expand opportunity, and impose order on society. Chernow contends that more than any other founder, Hamilton’s vision paved the road to America’s future.
Born in the mid-1750s on the British West Indies’ island of Nevis, Alexander Hamilton’s family “clung to the insecure middle rung of West Indian life.” Hamilton’s father, a ne’er-do-well Scot, fled from home when Hamilton was just a boy. For Hamilton’s mother, the breakup of this, her second marriage, tarnished her reputation for the rest of her life.
Hamilton’s prospects, by contrast, were not so bleak. When he was young, he found a job working as a clerk at a mercantile house in St. Croix. When Hamilton’s first cousin offered to pay for his passage to Boston where he might improve his lot in life, Alexander Hamilton seized his opportunity.
Ingratiating himself with well-to-do families in New Jersey (where he briefly settled), he eventually gained notice as a pamphleteer, and activist in Revolutionary America. Hamilton attended Kings College, in upper Manhattan; a prolific writer and voracious reader, he penned tracts in which he denounced the British, defended the rights of man, and described the Revolution as a legitimate reaction to tyranny imposed from abroad. Hamilton, at first, displayed a “slashing style of attack would make [him] the most feared polemicist in America,” writes Chernow.
But Hamilton also had a moderate streak. Though he supported the American Revolution, he also thought it should be an orderly one. At one point, Hamilton defended a Tory newspaper publisher whose life was threatened by New York’s revolutionary mobs. Later, Hamilton wrote to John Jay: “In times of such commotion as the present, while the passions of men are worked up to an uncommon pitch, there is great danger of fatal extremes.”
In 1777, Gen. George Washington hired the 20-year-old Hamilton as his aide-de-camp, and he was soon functioning as Washington’s unofficial chief of staff. The young pamphleteer ran missions, re-supplied the Army, guided the Continental Congress, and soothed tensions among Washington’s bedraggled soldiers. Eventually, Hamilton made such an impression that he was appointed a colonel. He successfully led a valiant assault on a British regiment at Yorktown, winning great praise for his performance on the battlefield. By the war’s end, Hamilton had become “a certified hero”; so exalted, in fact, that when the Revolution ended, he served as a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention as well as author-in-chief of the Federalist Papers.
In riveting passages, Chernow describes the rise of the modern economy. Opposed to slavery based on the horrors Hamilton had witnessed during his West Indian boyhood, Hamilton wanted to end an institution he viewed as both backwards and brutal. Though frightened by the prospect of war between the South and the North, he spent his political capital pushing for the creation of strong central institutions he believed vital to the survival and prosperity of the new republic.
Almost single-handedly, the treasury secretary won passage of bills that established a U. S. bank, common currency, customs service, and coast guard. Hamilton negotiated a deal in which the capital would be moved from New York to Philadelphia to, ultimately, Washington, D.C., and in exchange the federal government would assume debts incurred by the states during the Revolution. (In assuming these debts, the federal government also assumed the authority to raise taxes to pay off those debts.) The power of the federal government to levy taxes had been enshrined into law.
When Hamilton’s critics accused him of resurrecting a British monarchy in America, Hamilton retorted that his economic reforms would glue the states together and that they were consistent with the spirit of 1787.
Alexander Hamilton is based on prodigious research, and it will likely prop up Hamilton’s reputation in the same way David McCullough’s biography bolstered John Adams’s. Chernow captures many facets of Hamilton’s life in impressive detail. For the first time, we learn in depth about Hamilton’s devoted wife Eliza, and his 30-year friendship with George Washington.
Hamilton had a penchant for shrill attacks on his Jeffersonian foes, which made him one of the most reviled men in America. He was excoriated as a royalist and a slanderer, among other things, and his critics inveighed against his foreign and squalid upbringing. They finally managed to take Hamilton down several pegs in the eyes of the public when they exposed (and Hamilton later admitted) his affair with Maria Reynolds, a married woman in Philadelphia whose husband had extorted money from Hamilton in exchange for his silence.
One of Hamilton’s greatest enemies was Vice President Aaron Burr; the two men stood on opposite sides of some of the day’s major questions. Both also believed that when one’s honor was impugned, duels were an appropriate, even necessary, response.
In 1804 at a dinner party with some friends, Hamilton attacked Burr who was then running for governor of New York. (Burr was not in the room at the time.) When Burr (himself a firebrand, who comes across here very poorly, as an unprincipled, unappealing man) got wind of Hamilton’s comments, he challenged him to a duel. Never one to shrink from a fight, Hamilton accepted Burr’s challenge. The duel took place at dawn in Weehawken, N.J., on July 11, 1804. In the ensuing exchange, Hamilton suffered a fatal gunshot wound to his right side. The city of New York held one of the largest funerals in its colorful history to honor Alexander Hamilton.
Throughout this book, however, Chernow so quickly rushes to Hamilton’s defense that he renders all of Hamilton’s archenemies including Jefferson, Madison, and others without the nuance and complexity that they deserve. Jefferson, for instance, comes across as bloodthirsty in his support for revolutionary France, out of touch with America’s future, and a vicious slaveholder who fathered a child with Sally Hemings, a Jefferson slave. Readers will find little explanation here of why the founders checking each other provided a measure of stability and democratic purpose at a time of slashing political attacks and searing personal and ideological divisions.
In the end, then, Chernow’s affection for Hamilton becomes not only the book’s great strength but also its biggest blind spot. If Hamilton was the principal architect of America’s economy; if he, more than anybody else, managed to unite the states, then Jefferson, in spite of his myriad flaws, enshrined the notion of liberty into the Declaration of Independence. And without Madison, it is hard to imagine the Bill of Rights. These triumphs get little attention in this otherwise impressive volume about this partisan, brilliant, and visionary founding father.