A review of Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton was buried in New York City's Trinity Churchyard, where his monument reads: "The Statesman of consummate Wisdom whose Talents and Virtues will be admired… long after this Marble shall have mouldered into Dust." Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way. 

Throughout the nation's history, with the exception of the period between the Civil War and the early 20th century, Hamilton was viewed as the founding's villain—the man who sought to foist a crown upon the nation and to subvert Jeffersonian democracy. President Andrew Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, considered their Whig opponents to be the heirs to Hamilton's party of privilege and saw Jackson's war with the Bank of the United States as a continuation of the struggle between the people and the plutocrats that began with Jefferson and Hamilton. While Ivy League-educated writers such as John Torrey Morse, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt sang Hamilton's praises during the Gilded Age, dubbing him the father of American capitalism and American constitutionalism, by the turn of the century, when both the Constitution and capitalism were increasingly seen as impediments to social progress, his reputation once again began to recede. Hamilton's status was further damaged by the fact that he was a hero to Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, two chief executives guaranteed to repulse right-thinking, i.e., left-thinking, historians and political scientists.

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who elevated Thomas Jefferson into the trinity of American immortals (alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln), forcing Hamilton into deep eclipse. The only book review FDR ever wrote was of Claude Bowers's Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America (1925), a breathless account of how close the nation came to slipping into despotism, had it not been for the heroic efforts of the Sage of Monticello. FDR loved the book, and later rewarded Bowers with an ambassadorship for his work on behalf of the Democratic Party. Dumas Malone was inspired to publish his monumental biography of Jefferson as a result of reading Bowers's book, and its simplistic Manichean approach to the Hamilton-Jefferson controversy influenced the work of many 20th-century American historians. Hamilton's few lonely defenders were reduced to arguing during the Second World War that he would in fact have opposed Nazism. 

By the century's end Hamilton's reputation had improved, in part due to his record on racial matters, which set him apart from his great rival, one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia. Throughout the nation's history it appeared to be a truism that as one fell the other rose ("opposed in death as in life," Jefferson allegedly told bewildered visitors gazing at Hamilton's bust in the entrance hall at Monticello), and the 21st century may well be Hamilton's moment. 

If he is indeed rehabilitated, it will be thanks in large part to Ron Chernow's splendid new biography. The author of the blockbusters The House of Morgan and Titan (a biography of John D. Rockefeller), Chernow unearths new information about Hamilton, but more importantly this beautifully written book recounts the formidable obstacles he surmounted to become, next to George Washington, the indispensable American Founder. Chernow's Alexander Hamilton is the best biography of Hamilton ever written, and it is unlikely to be surpassed.

* * *

Born illegitimate in the West Indies on a "speck more obscure than Corsica," Hamilton suffered an endless series of personal tragedies that would have broken most mortals. Chernow notes, chillingly, that between 1765 and 1769 Hamilton's father abandoned him (at the age of ten), his mother died, then a cousin in whose care he was entrusted committed suicide, followed in rapid succession by the demise of his aunt, an uncle, and a grandmother. Unlike, say, Bill Clinton, Hamilton did not dwell on these awful events, or milk them as an all-purpose excuse for boorish behavior. In fact, he seldom mentioned his painful early years, and his triumph over these youthful horrors was heroic. Not surprisingly, Hamilton lived every day of his life as if it might be his last.

With the assistance of patrons from St. Croix impressed with his intelligence and ambition, Hamilton came to the United States in 1772 and never looked back. An agitator for revolution at King's College (later Columbia), he distinguished himself as a responsible rebel. This "committed revolutionary," writes Chernow, "had a profound dread that popular sentiment would boil over into dangerous excess…. Even amid an insurrection that he supported, he fretted about the damage to constituted authority and worried about mob rule." Moderation was the touchstone of his political philosophy, which set him apart from his famous rival from Virginia, the armchair revolutionary who extolled the virtues of shedding blood to water the tree of liberty and only belatedly, reluctantly, saw anything particularly disturbing about Robespierre and the Terror.

Hamilton served honorably, and at times heroically, as a soldier in the American Revolution, unlike many of his critics who later questioned his loyalty to the new nation and accused him of being a British agent. Chernow vividly recounts the obstacles confronting Washington's army as it faced the world's greatest superpower, and dealt with dithering state governments and a feckless Congress. For most of the war Hamilton served as Washington's ablest staff officer, possessing an innate ability to translate the General's wishes into clear prose. He was at the center of Washington's intelligence operations, and also served as his eyes and ears in dealing with political challenges that erupted in Congress and elsewhere. Over time he bristled, however, at the role of staff officer, yearning instead for a combat command. This, coupled with Washington's sometimes brittle personality, led to a brief falling-out between the two men. Their relationship was marked, Chernow observes, by "more mutual respect than true affection." Hamilton "never openly criticize[d] Washington" and understood that the Virginian "was a great leader of special gifts and the one irreplaceable personage in the early American pageant." Eventually, Washington gave Hamilton the command he wanted, and he led a critical charge at Yorktown that led to the British surrender. The wartime alliance of Washington and Hamilton would shape the course of American history, for both concluded that if the American experiment were to succeed, the nation required "a national army …centralized power over the states…[and] a strong executive," all for the sake of "national unity."

* * *

In the midst of war, Hamilton was able to compose complex essays outlining proposals for a new American government. As a Lieutenant Colonel in his twenties he developed a mastery of administration and finance and caught the eye of those willing to set aside their bias against youth and foreign birth. Not all were able to do so—and Hamilton did not help matters with his sensitivity to slights, which led him to burn far too many bridges. Nevertheless, at a time when his comrades were preoccupied with war, he was already envisioning a new government for the United States, one that would earn respect from its own citizens and around the globe. In 1780, at the ripe age of 25, he wrote James Duane a 7,000-word letter calling for a revision of the Articles of Confederation. As Chernow notes, "[S]even years before the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton became the first person to propose such a plenary gathering. Where other minds groped in the fog of war… Hamilton seemed to perceive everything in a sudden flash."

Hamilton continued to demonstrate "his unique flair for materializing at every major turning point in the early history of the republic." One such turning point was the Annapolis Convention of 1786, where Hamilton worked closely with James Madison and authored the appeal to the states calling for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation. The Annapolis communiqué, Chernow writes, "with its conception of the political system as a finely crafted mechanism, composed of subtly interrelated parts, had a distinctly Hamiltonian ring. It reflected his penchant for systemic solutions, his sense of the fine interconnectedness of things." At the Constitutional Convention Hamilton was unusually silent, perhaps due to the political split in the New York delegation, until he rose on June 18, 1787, to deliver a six-hour speech that would, as Chernow puts it, acquire "diabolical status in the rumor mills of the early republic, providing gloating opponents with damning proof of his supposed political apostasy." He proposed a president and Senate that would be elected for life, dependent on good behavior. 

It is quite possible, as Forrest McDonald has suggested, that Hamilton was attempting to provide "cover" for the more moderate delegates who wished to enhance the powers of the central government. His more radical proposals suddenly rendered their proposals almost benign. Hamilton sought to push the new government as far in the direction of permanence and stability as republican principles would permit. Still, this was a long way from endorsing a monarchy or the creation of an aristocracy of wealth. In fact, Hamilton's proposed House of Representatives was more democratic than the one ultimately approved by the convention: he proposed a House "chosen directly by universal male suffrage every three years." 

It was in this speech that Hamilton uttered a line that is cited, usually out of context, to this day: "Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many." Many historians and journalists have taken to citing the first sentence while ignoring the second to prove that Hamilton advocated a hereditary aristocracy or a plutocracy (see Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States for an example of this). That is nonsense.

* * *

Hamilton's reservations about the new Constitution, Chernow correctly observes, "had less to do with the powers of the new government than with the tenure of the people exercising them." Nevertheless, no one worked harder, with the possible exception of James Madison, to secure the adoption of the Constitution. Hamilton urged the holdout delegates to sign despite their misgivings; fought against powerful forces led by Governor George Clinton in his home state of New York, narrowly winning ratification (30 votes in favor, 27 opposed); and perhaps most importantly, marshaled his formidable pen in the ratification cause by composing some 51 of the 85 essays in The Federalist. For this masterpiece alone Hamilton deserves inclusion in the ranks of the American pantheon. 

Hamilton pleaded with George Washington to accept the presidency, noting that the whole American experiment would collapse without strong leadership—"it is to little purpose to have introduced a system, if the weightiest influence is not given to its firm establishment in the outset." Washington wasted little time in selecting Hamilton as his Secretary of the Treasury, although he apparently first offered the job to Robert Morris. Hamilton was warned by friends that he would be harshly criticized in the job since he would, in essence, become the nation's tax collector. The warnings proved prescient, because every proposal he offered to elevate the nation beyond its lowly status—"a central bank, a funded debt, a mint, a customs service, manufacturing subsidies"—became the subject of various conspiracy theories, and each had the added disability of appearing to be "a slavish imitation of the British model." 

It was not long before Jefferson and Madison began to suspect the worst in Hamilton, including personal corruption; thus began the bitter battles of the 1790s that launched the American two-party system. Though Hamilton engaged in his share of mudslinging, he preferred to openly confront Jefferson, while the latter opted to use surrogates, such as the scurrilous James Callender, whom Jefferson described as "a man of genius." Callender and other Jeffersonian operatives portrayed Hamilton as the corrupt agent of Great Britain, an accusation that persists even today. It is no exaggeration to say that Hamilton was one of the first victims of the politics of personal destruction.

* * *

Chernow brings a fresh, balanced perspective to this ancient struggle; nonetheless, one reads his account persuaded more than ever that had Jefferson and Madison's positions prevailed in the early republic, American history would have taken a very different and disturbing turn. It was Washington's statesmanship that prevented this from happening; unlike his counterparts from the Old Dominion, Washington was a nationalist to the core, and he generally sided with Hamilton's proposals to consolidate federal power and expand the presidency's role. Washington and Hamilton built the foundation that set the United States on the path to superpower status, and enabled the nation to become the defender of liberty around the globe. It is telling that toward the end of his life Washington maintained steady contact with and expressed warm praise and affection for Hamilton, but refused to have any contact with Jefferson. 

As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton was a stunning, though at the time controversial, success. "Bankrupt when Hamilton took office, the United States now enjoyed a credit rating equal to that of any European nation. He had laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism," writes Chernow. "If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government." His specific accomplishments included the creation of a national bank, assuming and funding the debt of the states and the Confederation Congress, and creating the Customs Service and the Coast Guard. Additionally, he played a key role in Washington's issuance of the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, which enhanced presidential control of foreign policy, and in the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

Although the latter was dismissed then and now as a contrived show of force by a power-mad Hamilton, the rebellion raised, as Hamilton saw it, the question whether law or force would prevail in America; the former being the definition of liberty, the latter the definition of despotism. As he once expressed it, "A sacred respect for the constitutional law is the vital principle, the sustaining energy of a free government." In popular government, the difficulty of instilling in the citizenry the notion that obedience to law is liberty is perennial. A similar situation would confront Abraham Lincoln on a much larger scale in less than four-score years. Hamilton saw the Whiskey Rebellion as posing in unambiguous terms the question, "Shall the majority govern or be governed? …[T]hose who preach doctrines, or set examples, which undermine or subvert the authority of the laws, lead us from freedom to slavery."

When Hamilton left the Washington Administration in January 1795, his greatest accomplishments were behind him. He had, at best, an uneasy retirement. He fought valiantly for the Jay Treaty, published a letter detailing his extra-marital affair with Maria Reynolds (pace Bill Clinton, again), battled the slightly deranged John Adams throughout his presidency and ultimately undermined Adams's bid for re-election, lost his eldest son in a duel in 1801, and then was himself felled in the famous "interview" at Weehawken in July 1804. Chernow deals with all these events elegantly and comprehensively. 

One minor flaw in the book is its overstated account of Hamilton's commitment to abolition. Hamilton detested slavery, as demonstrated by his early and repeated plea to allow slaves to fight for the Revolutionary cause in exchange for their freedom, and his role as a founder of the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, but he never elevated the issue to the forefront of his concerns. As Yale historian Joanne Freeman observes, when Hamilton cared deeply about a problem he focused on it with a peculiar intensity, and never let go. This simply cannot be said about Hamilton and slavery.

* * *

In 1960, historian Merrill Peterson published his award-winning book, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. Peterson contrasted the "spacious grandeur" of Jefferson's plantation at Monticello with Hamilton's "shabby" and neglected Harlem home, and saw them as symbols of their respective standing. For decades (not any more, to be sure) Monticello served as a Potemkin Village where evidence of the existence of Jefferson's slaves (his "family") was concealed from visitors—emblematic of the 20th-century's airbrushing of history by pro-Jeffersonian politicians and scholars. The crowded, slighted Harlem "Grange" and the Trinity Church gravesite, in the midst of New York's poverty and great wealth, is the more revealing destination for Americans seeking the truth about their nation's mixed record of triumph and failure. One can only hope that such a journey, accompanied by a reading of Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, will prompt Americans to grant Hamilton his long overdue honors.