Oct 01

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow ★★★★★

This is the third book that I’ve read by Ron Chernow, Washington and Grant being the other two. Chernow is a superb biographer and is capable of giving one the history and times of a given person, but also a strong flavor as to his character. Of his books so far, Grant has been by far the best and most enjoyable read. Hamilton has been a wonderful story but is a much darker tale than either of the other Chernow books, as well as biographies in general. Hamilton was a tragic hero, and Chernow paints a picture of Hamilton’s life that describes his greatness, but also his flaws which ultimately led to his untimely death. It has been said that Washington gave us a country, Madison gave us a constitution, but Hamilton gave us a government. There is great truth to that statement.

Hamilton started his life in the West Indies, being born of parents that did not play a lasting role in his life. His father disappeared from the scene when Hamilton was quite young, and in fact, it still remains uncertain exactly who his father was. Of his mother, there was more certainty, though she did not remain an integral person in her son’s life. Hamilton proved to be precocious as a child, with French as his native tongue, though he quickly mastered English. He was of sufficient brilliance that when he was ready for advanced schooling in America, he had an offer of support from a wealthy patroness. Hamilton ended up in New York City, which was to remain his primary residence for most of the rest of his life. Initially applying to Princeton, his traditional British temperament ended him studying at what is now known as Columbia University. Though an immigrant and a foreigner, he became fiercely patriotic and in support of the Revolutionary War. Hamilton excelled in writing and became the indispensable aide-de-camp to George Washington. Much of Washington’s war correspondence was handled by Hamilton. Frustrated by Washington not allowing him to lead battles, Hamilton resigned his post, returned to New York, and completed studies in law, and began his career as a lawyer. Toward the end of the war, Washington finally consented to give Hamilton leadership of a unit which played a major role in the final victory at Yorktown. Hamilton returned to NYC and developed a very thriving law practice, but could not keep his fingers out of politics. Hamilton’s political leanings were toward a very strong central government, for which his opponents accused him of seeking for a monarchy. A constitution finally written, Hamilton, with Madison and John Jay produced a large series of articles called the Federalist Papers in which Hamilton goes to great lengths to explain the meaning and rationale for each section of the constitution. The Federalist Papers are still referred to today and we have Hamilton to thank, who wrote the overwhelming percentage of the articles.

Washington was voted in as the first president and John Adams as the vice president. Washington formed a cabinet, of which Hamilton was selected to be the treasury secretary and Jefferson as the secretary of state. The animosity between Hamilton and Jefferson accelerated during this time, with Hamilton coming under fire for establishing the US financial system to the basic form that we have today, a strong central economic system. Jefferson preferred a simple to non-existent economic system. Hamilton fought hard to establish a standing army and navy and developed the coast guard to protect against tariff-avoiding smuggling. Once Adams became president, the cabinet, consisting of Hamilton-leaning federalists, essentially had Hamilton controlling the country. Hamilton stepped down as treasury secretary and became Inspector General, making him now in control of the military. Adams, as the last Federalist party president, poorly managed the presidency, and when Jefferson became president as a Republican (not the same as our current Republican party), the nation had essentially flipped sides and voted Republican with the ultimate death of the Federalist party, Hamilton being its last great defender.

With Jefferson now in control, Hamilton returned to NYC as developed his law practice. He had a home built called the Grange on a large plot of farmland, that still exists in Upper Manhattan. Earlier in life, Hamilton and Aaron Burr started as good friends, both Federalists, but time and chicanery by Burr, with Burr switching to the Republican Party to foster a political advantage, caused a progressive falling out. Never-the-less, Hamilton remained amicable with Burr who served as vice-president under Jefferson for four years. Burr and Jefferson became bitter enemies, and on Jefferson’s second term, Burr opted to run for governor of New York state. Hamilton was against and made statements at a party which eventually got back to Burr, who felt deeply offended. Burr failed to win the governorship and blamed Hamilton. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, and in order to protect his honor, Hamilton accepted. Hamilton had no intention of killing Burr and fired his shot intentionally off into the trees. Burr, being of dispossessed mind, fired a fatal shot at Hamilton. Ultimately, this was political suicide for Burr, who lived as a pariah and scoundrel his remaining life.

Chernow is not remiss to discuss Hamilton’s many downfalls. His personality is possibly best described as similar to Donald Trump’s, aggressive, very goal-oriented, brilliant, impeccably honest (though endlessly accused of fraud), and not worried about political correctness. He was a non-politician politician. Hamilton had an affair for several years with a married woman, which ultimately was exposed to the public. Hamilton repented dearly of this affair, living out the remainder of his life committed and endeared to Eliza, his wife.

What I found most interesting in this book are the events that Chernow described in early America. Chernow (I assume) was faithful in describing the Revolution and the birth of our country as a very tumultuous event. There was serious disagreement about going to war for independence, about replacing the articles of confederation for the constitution, about the interpretation of the newly written constitution, about developing the character of our country (was it to become an industrial giant or preserve its agrarian roots?), about the nature and character of the military and the court system, about the nature of foreign policy (the choices were to be either pro-British or pro-French) and essentially about everything that we still dispute to this day. Hamilton was militant antislavery but surrounded by slave owners, including Washington, Madison, Monroe, and even Aaron Burr. Hamilton was an outspoken Christian man though he rarely attended church; Eliza his wife was a very devout church-goer. I’ve left out many details of this complex and fascinating man. It is sad that we are taught so little about him in school, as his influence on the development and character of our nation to the character can be attributed immensely to Hamilton’s writings and actions during his truncated lifetime. It is most surprising that in spite of the very different ideologies of our founding fathers and the contempt that they held for each other, that they managed to assemble a constitution that has lasted up until today. Graft and corruption were rampant in early America, though some of the people most accused of corruption (like Hamilton) were the most innocent. The press was very inflammatory and deceptive in those days. Fake news is NOT a recent event—it is amazing how little has changed since the inception of our country.

It took me longer than usual to read this biography. It has a dark character to it from the beginning to the end. Chernow is a master at developing Hamilton’s personality and character, of seeing through the smoke of history and discovering what Hamilton and events in America’s birth years were all about. We owe Hamilton a great deal for setting America on a course that it has taken. This is a book that I highly recommend. It will take the reader down from the fairy tale version of the founding of our country that we were taught in school, and give the reader a grasp of our deeply flawed but also noble founding fathers.

2 Comments »
preload preload preload