Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2004. 818 pp. $35 (hardcover).
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). . . .