Chernow’s biography presents him as a farseeing statesman
Alexander Hamilton By Ron Chernow
PENGUIN PRESS; 818 PAGES; $35
Save for his face on the $10 bill, there are few monuments to Alexander Hamilton, paper, stone or otherwise. While Jefferson crafted venerable notions about freedom and individuality, where Washington was a beloved war hero, Hamilton gets credit for a central bank. But Hamilton’s contributions, though prosaic, were crucial to the founding of the United States. As Ron Chernow writes in his new biography: “In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.”
Chernow is author of several works, including “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.” and “The House of Morgan,” a sweeping history of the banking family and winner of the 1990 National Book Award. In Hamilton, Chernow has chosen an ideal subject, and he is mostly successful in rendering this complex tale. Founding fathers are getting written up to death in biographies lately. There’s the blockbuster John Adams bio, plus three lives of Franklin within the past few years. Yet Hamilton’s life screams out for reinterpretation, far more than that of any of his colleagues. No other founding father more richly deserves a modern-eye-on-the-colonial-guy treatment.
America has utterly transformed in two-plus centuries, and today Hamilton seems prescient where to his contemporaries he often appeared sinister. Nowadays, for example, hysterical distrust of banks — a fixture of early American life — is mainly the province of survivalists and loonies. Likewise, the belief that there is something innately grubby about commerce has mostly fallen away. Against the backdrop of recent events in Iraq, Hamilton’s notions about the need for order as a precondition of democracy are likely to be particularly resonant.
Hamilton, as portrayed by Chernow, is America’s first moderate, more an evolutionary than a revolutionary. When war with England ceased, there was an abiding concern that the new nation would backslide into monarchy. Many felt the best defense was a deliberately weakened central government, perhaps no central government at all. Hamilton entered the fray with his (and James Madison and John Jay’s) masterpiece, “The Federalist Papers,” where he argued for a strong executive branch, a peacetime army and federal powers of taxation. In 1780s political discourse, such views were anathema. But in a brilliant flash of counterintuition, Hamilton recognized that America’s hard-won liberties were better safeguarded by a strong federal government than a fractious confederation of states.
As wunderkind Treasury secretary (he assumed the post at age 34), Hamilton continued to view the United States in evolutionary terms. In creating a central bank, he looked to British and French models. Meanwhile, archrival Jefferson was ensconced as secretary of state. The two members of the very first U.S. Cabinet vied for influence with President George Washington. In many ways, the future shape of America was born out of this seminal clash between Jefferson (agrarian idealist) and Hamilton (urban pragmatist).
Unfortunately, to get to the heart of Hamilton’s story, readers have to slog through a couple of hundred pages that are both dry and speculative. Hamilton was the only founding father born outside the colonial United States; his youth was mostly spent on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. Partly as a consequence, the details of Hamilton’s early life are sketchy. Undeterred, Chernow apparently traveled to eight Caribbean islands in the course of his research and pored over “brittle documents and ledgers devoured by illiterate insects.” The black hole of Hamilton’s youth is maddening, but try as he may, Chernow is unable to salvage many fresh, illuminating details.
The pace quickens a bit when Hamilton first arrives in the United States, but only to about 35 mph. Hamilton served as Gen. Washington’s aide-de-camp. His duties included drafting correspondence, taking minutes and translating French. During this verbose section, the epic events of the American Revolution seem oddly shunted to the background, while at center stage, Hamilton is busy requisitioning blankets. Throughout the war, Hamilton begged Washington for a chance to prove himself on the battlefield, a chance he ultimately got at Yorktown. “Restless at his desk, Hamilton longed to spring into combat,” writes Chernow, and by this point, readers may be feeling a similar itchiness.
The fact is, there’s no good reason that Hamilton’s fascinating life story must unfurl so slowly. As a biographer, Chernow made all kinds of decisions, covering certain episodes in Hamilton’s life in great detail and ignoring others entirely. Certainly he could have telescoped down some of the early parts of this 818-page tome. One can only assume that Chernow, despite his abundant talent, is in the grip of a silly literary convention, namely, that bios of major figures must be very, very long.
Once Hamilton’s life enters its well-documented period, the story takes on shading and dimension. Chernow does an admirable job of providing context, making Hamilton’s actions comprehensible to modern readers. Post-Revolution, for example, emotion was running high, and many people wanted to go to war with Britain again, this time as an ally of France. It was Hamilton who wisely counseled Washington that the United States should remain neutral. He sensed the dangers that European entanglements would pose to a fragile new country. Hamilton also was a staunch abolitionist. With visionary clarity, he foresaw that a mighty nation could be built on industry, while continued reliance on slave labor would lead only to misery, division and economic stagnation. When one considers what was at stake in the future of America, Chernow’s treatment of such issues is electrifying.
Chernow also serves up a very human Hamilton. As with so many figures past and present, there is a baffling disconnect between the public Hamilton and the private man. At the height of his power as Treasury secretary, Hamilton entered into a sordid affair with a married woman, an episode Chernow describes as “the first major sex scandal in American history.” And then there’s the duel with Aaron Burr. The book’s latter chapters are infused with trip-wire tension as events push Hamilton inexorably toward this famous event, in which he was fatally wounded. Shockingly, it represented the seventh time Hamilton had been involved in a duel, or at least the preliminaries (often duels were dropped during the early negotiation phase). This was a bizarre fascination for a man so otherwise moderate. Of the Burr affair, Chernow writes that Hamilton “also revealed anew that the man who had helped to forge a new structure of law and justice for American society remained mired in the old-fashioned world of blood feuds.”
In the end, despite its tragic arc, there’s something strangely uplifting about Hamilton’s story. More than anything, his life is a testament to the fact that ideas have a vibrant existence quite apart from the people who dream them up. Hamilton had his foibles and flaws, thoroughly human. But it was his lofty vision that endured, helping shape a nation. •
Justin Martin lives in New York City and is author of biographies of Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader.