Book Review: Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton
Ron Chernow has long held a storied place among historians for his vivid and eloquent tomes on great figures in American history, ranging from corporate giants like John D. Rockefeller and the Morgan family, to towering political figures including George Washington, and soon, Ulysses S. Grant. Each of these figures has already received tremendous attention from historians, and their legacies, it would seem, are somewhat settled. None will deny that Washington was a model president and leader, especially given his time or that Grant’s administration, while well-intentioned, was so scarred by repeated scandals that it has largely been deemed a failure.
But Chernow’s 2005 book, Alexander Hamilton, could not have chosen a more pivotal figure whose legacy deserves both reckoning and clarification; and Chernow accomplishes both in this outstanding, enthralling piece that firmly establishes the first Secretary of the Treasury as a flawed but prescient intellectual, military leader, and politician whose vision for America has won out above all others.
Born in the British West Indies on January 11, 1755, Hamilton was the bastard child of a single mother, living in squalor on the slave-trading outpost. Recognized for his bright intellect as a youth, local businessmen paid for Hamilton to be schooled in America, where – to make a long story short – at the ripe age of 22, he dropped out of school to work as the aide-de-camp to then-General George Washington (makes you wonder what good college is doing you, no?).
From then on, Hamilton’s career experienced a meteoric rise to fame and prominence, one which Chernow traces with a seemingly endless stream of letters and documents that follow Hamilton’s beginnings from a young man craving the opportunity to demonstrate his talents to a (still relatively young) statesman whose tenure as the Secretary of the Treasury oversaw the creation of the base of the modern American economy. This is to say nothing of Hamilton’s role as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, his status as one of New York’s most preeminent lawyers, his founding of the Bank of New York (and, indirectly, the Manhattan Company, now a part of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.), his authorship of the majority of The Federalist Papers, and other achievements. Over the course of his career, the self-conscious wunderkind from the Caribbean, who developed into a thin-skinned, headstrong political pugilist, earned as many friends as enemies for his often unyielding and outspoken views.
Indeed, Hamilton reveled in political debate and discourse, often coming out on top not through compromise or deal-making, but through sheer force of will, Herculean work ethic, and intellectual conquest. Both during and after his tenure as Treasury Secretary, Hamilton’s “swashbuckling” (Chernow’s very appropo adjective for Hamilton) often came into conflict with the more laid-back and demure Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson whose political views violently collided with Hamilton’s, creating an incredible clash of ideas whose reverberations can still be felt. Undoubtedly, populist sentiment against banks (both unjustified and not), differing beliefs regarding the size and role of government, tensions between Northern and Southern states, and widely varying interpretations of the Constitution are all issues that generate as much contention today as they did then.
The conflicting beliefs that these men shared were nearly Manichean in their differences. Hamilton, as Chernow discusses in the opening pages of the book, believed that free men and women (Hamilton was a fervent abolitionist), businesses, cities, capital, manufacturing, finance, and dynamic governance were the keys to future American prosperity. This is a striking contrast to the Locke-inspired agrarian society envisioned by Jefferson, whose misled and pernicious beliefs regarding banks, economics, and, obviously, slaveholding repeatedly come across as disappointing throughout the book. Indeed, the circumstances and outcomes of Hamilton’s repeated public and vicious bouts with Jefferson make the former seem outspoken, righteous, and nearly heroic, while the latter often chose to attack the other through intermediaries or whisper campaigns that make him seem dishonest by comparison (though there are two sides to every story, of course). The prolonged political war between these two men, fought in the White House, Congress, newspapers, Europe, the streets of New York City, and across the United States is the book’s climax and highlight.
It is through these public disputes, his deliberations, his occasional mood swings, his perennial embarrassment with his status as a bastard child, his love letters to wife, or even his agony over his extramarital affair that Chernow turns Hamilton into a fully-formed human being, lifted from the dusty volumes of history. Truly, when Hamilton meets his end at Weehawken, New Jersey during his infamous duel with Aaron Burr, it truly feels like a light went out. Hamilton’s species of forward thinking, high-minded scholars with integrity, commitment, charisma, and energy no longer exist in America, instead replaced with the kinds of vain, dramatic politicians and operatives that fuel books like This Town (another work to review!). That is not to say that Hamilton and his legendary contemporaries were not vain – Chernow provides ample evidence of this – but neither he nor his peers saw politics as an exercise in vanity. They saw it as a public service in aid of pursuing a grand experiment in human freedom and dignity; one to which Hamilton and his compatriots devoted their lives. Chernow’s work not only gives us insight into a consummate American statesman, but also reminds us that the giants who once walked in Washington are long extinct, but not forgotten.
- Alex Hasapidis