by Ron Chernow
(The Penguin Press, 818 pages, $35)
If not for his visage on the $10 bill, Alexander Hamilton would be only dimly remembered by the average American. Of all the framers, few did more, but many rate far higher with posterity. Washington is recognized by all as the Atlas on whose shoulders the new nation rested, Jefferson as the visionary whose words continue to fire the love of liberty even today, Madison as the theoretical wizard who erected an ingenious and durable democratic structure. Even John Adams and Benjamin Franklin have lately gotten lots of attention. Lacking a place in our wallets, Hamilton might be only slightly less obscure today than Gouvernor Morris.
Historians understand how badly Hamilton has been overlooked. He was a crucial military aide to Washington during the Revolution and a virtual prime minister in his presidency. He was one of the chief authors of the Federalist papers, helping to win support for the new constitution — and providing definitive guidance on its meaning. He did much to design a fiscal and financial system that helped unleash the greatest economic power in history.
He was an unlikely candidate for obscurity, living a life rich in color, drama and controversy, all of which come through vividly in Ron Chernow’s exceptionally thorough and absorbing account. “The bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar,” as John Adams sourly described him, was born in 1755 on the island of St. Croix, only to suffer the death of his mother and the disappearance of his father. He didn’t arrive in America until 1773, but before he was out of his teens, the King’s College (later Columbia) student was writing widely read polemics denouncing British treatment of the colonies. When war broke out in 1775, he joined a militia company, and within two years Washington had entrusted him with so much authority that General Horatio Gates, hero of Saratoga, fumed that the commander-in-chief would delegate “dictatorial power to an aide-de-camp sent to an army 300 miles distant.” With Washington reluctant to spare him for combat duty, Hamilton nearly missed the chance to win the battlefield glory he craved.
But his most important contributions were still ahead of him. With the new nation adrift under the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton played the central role in bringing about the Philadelphia convention that drafted a new constitution. As Publius, he made the case for a stronger national government, persuading New York to ratify the new Constitution and wining such popular acclaim that there was talk of renaming New York City “Hamiltoniana.” The first Treasury Secretary, he restored the government’s solvency, established the first Bank of the United States, preached the need for sound money, and grasped the capitalist character of his countrymen. “As to whatever may depend on enterprise,” he declared, “we need not fear to be outdone by any people on earth.” But he also helped bring about the demise of his own Federalist Party, and was reduced to “a glorified has-been,” in Chernow’s words, before dying in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.
EVEN IN HIS OWN time, Hamilton never won the hearts of the people. He lacked the political skills of many of his rivals, bravely took controversial positions (such as endorsing the abolition of slavery and defending the rights of Loyalists after the Revolution), and often went out of his way to alienate even his allies. Embroiling himself in “the first great sex scandal in American political history,” as Chernow puts it, further diminished his stature. His shocking death at 49 as Chernow notes, left him unavailable to defend his record against adversaries who long outlived him.
He also found few disciples in later generations. Liberals generally regarded him as a defender of aristocratic privilege and economic inequality. Conservatives saw him as an overzealous centralizer hostile to state prerogatives and agrarian individualism. Neither depiction is quite fair. Hamilton suffered from having a far better understanding of economics than romantics like Jefferson, who regarded banking as “an infinity of successive felonious larcenies.” Then, as now, those defending the workings of a capitalist economy often found themselves caricatured as apologists for greed. His campaign for a strong national government was not the product of ideological zeal or lust for power, but the result of his dismay with the grave shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation — and his fear that the new nation would disintegrate into separate, warring countries. Chernow quotes historian Bernard Bailyn, who notes that the authors of The Federalist believed a stronger central government” did not betray the Revolution, with its radical hopes for greater political freedom than had been known before. On the contrary, it fulfilled those radical aspirations, by creating the power necessary to guarantee both the nation’s survival and the preservation of the people and the states’ rights.” Probably no one but Madison did as much to create, sell, and implement the constitutional system that Americans take for granted as Hamilton. Nor did anyone of his generation do more to facilitate the capitalist economy that would make the nation rich as well as strong.
Chernow has made it his task to capture Hamilton the man as well as secure his proper place. He is generous with superlatives. “In all probability,” he writes, “Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he had a deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.” A few people might contest that claim — John Marshall, John C. Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis come to mind — but it’s a plausible one. “No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together,” says Chernow. “He was the messenger from a future we now inhabit.” Though John C. Miller’s magisterial 1959 biography is a better choice for understanding Hamilton’s importance to the new nation, it will be hard to improve on this book as an intimate portrait of the man.
BUT IF CHERNOW IS INTENT ON trumpeting the neglected virtues and achievements of his subject, he is too honest a biographer to discount his deep flaws and failures. The paradox of this book is that the evidence he assembles is likely to leave the reader with a lower regard for Hamilton than the author exhibits. Hamilton proposed at the Philadelphia convention to make the presidency not only a lifetime post — an “elective monarchy,” as he called it — but a hereditary one, and would have preferred to virtually abolish state governments. Though he scrupulously avoided conflicts of interest as Treasury Secretary, he was blind to the character of assistant secretary William Duer, whose use of inside knowledge for personal profit, notes Chernow, “fed unjust scuttlebutt that the new Treasury Department was a sink of corruption.”
His political judgment was often disastrously unreliable. His affair with Maria Reynolds gave his enemies a priceless weapon against him. In 1796, he supported Thomas Pinckney over John Adams, which Chernow describes as “a mistake that would haunt him the rest of his life.” In 1800 he made a far worse one — writing a lengthy, bitter anti-Adams tract that did fatal damage to the president’s re-election campaign, delivering the White House to Hamilton’s longtime nemesis, Thomas Jefferson. It also wrecked any remaining political future the author had. Franklin’s assessment of Adams might have been more aptly applied to Hamilton: “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”
His belief in strong central government often carried him away, as when he called for vigorous application of the Alien and Sedition Acts and proposed breaking the states into smaller, weaker units. As de facto commander of the army assembled when war with France loomed, he actively entertained the notion of going to war with both France and Spain to grab Florida, Louisiana, and South America. Adams said that if he had given Hamilton a free hand with the army, he would have needed another army to disband it.
He also displayed an almost pathological inability to accept the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics. Hot-tempered and obsessed with upholding his honor, he had a habit of inviting his enemies to settle their disputes with firearms. Before the confrontation with Burr, Chernow says there were six occasions when Hamilton “had been involved in the duel preliminaries that formed parts of affairs of honor.” Even by the standards of his day, Hamilton was appallingly reckless. In 1797 he challenged James Monroe, a Jeffersonian and former ambassador to France, whom he blamed for the exposure of the Maria Reynolds affair. But in 1800, Hamilton outdid himself. Upon hearing reports that John Adams had called him a British lackey, he wrote an angry letter demanding that he take responsibility for the charge. Marvels Chernow, “Hamilton was, implausibly, commencing an affair of honor with the president of the United States” — the first step toward a duel. Adams was sensible enough to ignore him.
Yet until the showdown with Burr, one friend said, Hamilton probably had never fired a pistol since the Revolutionary War. He accepted Burr’s challenge for the baffling explanation that he had to do so to preserve his political prospects. When the moment came, though, he apparently chose to fire his weapon harmlessly into the air — giving his opponent the chance to do likewise and allow the dispute to be resolved without bloodshed. Burr, however, wasn’t privy to Hamilton’s plan and made full use of his opportunity. Hamilton lingered for 31 hours before dying, leaving his seven children fatherless, his wife bereft and financially straitened, and the fledgling nation without the talents that had once been such an asset. In the end, the one thing greater than Hamilton’s genius for government was his aptitude for self-destruction.