Fall 2012Vol. 7, No. 3

This article is from TOS Vol. 7, No. 3. The full contents of the issue are listed here.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

New York: Penguin Press, 2004. 818 pp. $35 (hardcover).

Alexander Hamilton

In Alexander Hamilton , Ron Chernow takes on the task of portraying America’s most controversial Founding Father. The book provides a broad view of the landscape of early America, with special emphasis on Hamilton’s achievements and his relationship to certain Founders.

Before reading this book, my thoughts coincided with the popular image of Hamilton as a brilliant but overbearing man who was frequently involved in scandals or in conflicts with other Founders. I remember hearing that he advocated monarchy, protectionism, mercantilism, a strong federal government, and a central bank. I also knew that he had something to do with the Constitution and wrote some of The Federalist Papers. I knew that he famously feuded with Aaron Burr, who killed him in a duel in 1804. What I didn’t know was that Hamilton was arguably the most important Founding Father.

Chernow identifies his inspiration for this book in the prologue, where he introduces Hamilton’s widow, Eliza, in her mid-90s, having outlived her husband by fifty years. She was

committed to one holy quest above all others: to rescue her husband’s historical reputation from the gross slanders that had tarnished it. For many years after he died, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and other political enemies had taken full advantage of their eloquence and longevity to spread defamatory anecdotes about Hamilton, who had been condemned to everlasting silence. (p. 2)

Eliza had unearthed a wealth of material, and had left the project to her children to tell the full story so that “Justice shall be done to the memory of my Hamilton” (p. 3).

Because the full story had not been told, Chernow set out to tell it. But Chernow did not begin with a preset view of Hamilton’s role in the founding of the nation. Rather, he approached the subject inductively. His research included more than twenty-two thousand pages of material, much of it coming from the twenty-seven-volume Papers of Alexander Hamilton, published by Columbia University Press. Again from Chernow’s prologue, we see an indication of the breadth and depth of this Founder’s life and work:

The magnitude of Hamilton’s feats as treasury secretary has overshadowed many other facets of his life: clerk, college student, youthful poet, essayist, artillery captain, wartime adjutant to Washington, battlefield hero, congressman, abolitionist, Bank of New York founder, state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Convention, orator, lawyer, polemicist, educator, patron saint of the New-York Evening Post, foreign-policy theorist, and major general in the army. Boldly uncompromising, he served as catalyst for the emergence of the first political parties and as the intellectual fountainhead for one of them, the Federalists. He was a pivotal force in four consecutive presidential elections and defined much of America’s political agenda during the Washington and Adams administrations, leaving copious commentary on virtually every salient issue of the day. (p. 5)

Chernow begins Hamilton’s story in the Caribbean, showing how this bastard child, born in 1755 and orphaned at age thirteen, took steps toward becoming a self-made man.

Chernow describes the origin of Hamilton’s lifelong business erudition. As an orphan, Hamilton took a job as a clerk with the import-export firm Beekman and Kruger, where he quickly grasped the complex workings of commodities trade among international merchants. “He had to mind money, chart courses for ships, keep track of freight, and compute prices in an exotic blend of currencies, including Portuguese coins, Spanish pieces of eight, British pounds, Danish ducats, and Dutch stivers. If Hamilton seemed very knowing about business as a young adult, it can partly be traced to these formative years” (p. 29).

Next, we are told about a pivotal event in Hamilton’s adolescence: a hurricane that devastated the island of St. Croix. The seventeen-year-old wrote an eloquent letter to a local publication describing the disaster. The letter combined “a cross between tragic soliloquy and a fire-and-brimstone sermon . . .” that resulted in “a subscription fund . . . taken up by local businessmen to send this promising youth to North America to be educated.” Hamilton, Chernow observes, had just “written his way out of poverty” (p. 37).

Then, Chernow guides us through Hamilton’s college years in New York, which overlapped the early stages of the Revolutionary War. Here we see a sampling of Hamilton’s oratory skills, including a glimpse of his first speech against the British sanctions in Massachusetts: “[H]e said that such actions ‘will prove the salvation of North America and her liberties’; otherwise ‘fraud, power, and the most odious oppression will rise triumphant over right, justice, social happiness, and freedom’” (p. 55).

After the war broke out, Hamilton organized, coordinated, and drilled a volunteer group of students who “marched briskly with the motto ‘Liberty or Death’ stitched round their leather caps” (p. 63). He soon left school to become an artillery captain, further displaying his leadership skills. When General George Washington was desperate for capable, trustworthy men, he observed Hamilton’s courage and skills, and promoted him to aide-de-camp. This began a synergistic twenty-two-year bond between the two.

Chernow shows how this relationship reinforced both men’s strengths and minimized their weaknesses. “Hamilton’s mind was so swift and decisive that it could lead him into rash decisions. Washington’s management style was the antithesis of this. ‘He consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely.’” Although they had different strengths, the author continues, “both men longed to see the thirteen states wedded into a single, respected American nation” (p. 290).

Recounting a series of crucial events in American history, Chernow shows how Washington and Hamilton acted in unison. As Washington’s right-hand man, Hamilton was present at all the major battles during the Revolutionary War, including the British surrender, where, Chernow notes, “Because of his valiant performance at Yorktown, Hamilton became a certified hero” (p. 165).

After the war, the freed colonies needed a new government. Hamilton worked tirelessly with James Madison and others to draft a constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention; and Hamilton, sure of Washington’s character and abilities, pleaded with him to serve as the first president. The respect was mutual. When Hamilton sent Washington the two-volume set (of which Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 essays) of The Federalist Papers, explains Chernow, “Washington replied that he had seen no better gloss on the Constitution than The Federalist and predicted that ‘when the transient circumstances and fugitive performance which attended this crisis shall have disappeared, that work will merit the notice of posterity’” (p. 270–71).

When it came time for Washington to select his staff, he enlisted Hamilton to serve as treasury secretary, because of his organization skills, integrity, business experience, banking and markets expertise, and general breadth of knowledge. Thus, Hamilton became the principal architect of the government’s economic policies, which were based on sound money, aimed at paying down the national debt, and oriented toward free trade.

During Washington’s second term, when warring France and England were both demanding the young nation’s support, Hamilton convinced the president to make a landmark decision specifying that American self-interest required abstention from entanglement in foreign conflicts. Chernow explains: “With the Neutrality Proclamation, Hamilton continued to define his views on American foreign policy: that it should be based on self-interest. . . . This austere, hardheaded view of human affairs likely dated to Hamilton’s earliest observations of the European powers in the West Indies” (p. 436).

Chernow shows how Washington continued to support Hamilton, who by now had many opponents and was the target of several investigations as treasury secretary. Although not one penny went unaccounted for, Hamilton was caught paying blackmail—with his own money—to a husband and wife complicit in an adulterous affair in which he was involved. This angered many people associated with Hamilton and led many to shun him. But, Chernow explains, one man emphatically did not. In the midst of this scandal, Hamilton received a wine cooler as a gift from his good friend, because “Washington thought Hamilton was being persecuted and . . . he wanted to express solidarity with him” (p. 537).

In closing this segment about the duo, Chernow emphasizes the essence of their ideological bond: “On fundamental political matters, Washington was simply more attuned to Hamilton than he was to Jefferson. For that reason, Washington willingly served as the political shield that Alexander Hamilton needed as he became America’s most influential and controversial man” (p. 290).

Chernow tells of the misrepresentations of Hamilton’s ideas put forth by his opponents. “Hamilton evoked a thriving future economy that bore scant resemblance to the static, stratified society that his enemies claimed he wanted to impose. His America would be a meritocracy of infinite variety, with a diversified marketplace absorbing people from all nations and backgrounds” (p. 376).

It is a testimony to the political genius of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that they diverted attention from the grisly realities of southern slavery by casting a lurid spotlight on Hamilton’s system as the paramount embodiment of evil. They inveighed against the concentrated wealth of northern merchants when southern slave plantations clearly represented the most heinous form of concentrated wealth. Throughout the 1790s, planters posed as the tribunes of small farmers and denounced the depravity of stocks, bonds, banks, and manufacturing—the whole wicked apparatus of Hamiltonian capitalism. (p. 307)

Other Founders opposed Hamilton’s foreign policy as well. The new party (the Democratic Republicans), led by Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, applauded France for its revolution. Chernow describes Hamilton’s prophecy: “Long before Napoleon came on the scene [Hamilton] predicted that ‘after wading through seas of blood . . . France may find herself at length the slave of some victorious . . . Caesar’” (p. 459). On the other hand, England, for all its monarchy, was still the freest European country. It was in the early stages of its Industrial Revolution, and Hamilton wanted to emulate that model. Nevertheless, despite being denounced as a monarchist or Anglophile, he sought a British brain drain by plotting to hire away managers and workers involved in the British textile revolution. Chernow concludes: “His objective was to promote American prosperity and self-sufficiency and make the country ultimately less reliant on British capital. Hamilton wanted to use British methods to defeat Britain economically” (p. 296).

This book has several flaws, the first being that in a book of such length Chernow never identifies America (either in its founding or today’s context) as a constitutional republic. He often praises America as a democracy, even though he makes it clear that Hamilton saw democracy as anti-rights and a road to mob rule.

Chernow also spends a great deal of time addressing nonessentials. His discussion of the scoundrel Aaron Burr, for instance, goes on for dozens of pages, whereas The Federalist Papers, which Jefferson called “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written” (p. 319), gets far less coverage. Hamilton’s development of the concept and practice of “judicial review,” which influenced Chief Justice John Marshall and was opposed by Jefferson and others because it was antidemocratic, is given barely two pages. Similarly, the crucially important principle of implied powers gets only three pages.

Finally, Chernow does not integrate the plethora of presented facts into principles, so the task of essentializing the eight-hundred pages of material is left entirely to the reader.

Even so, anyone interested in the heroes of America’s founding will find this book enlightening and eye opening. Readers will come to see Alexander Hamilton as a Founder whose full story needed to be told. Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is, indeed, an act of justice.