Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow: A review

Alexander HamiltonAlexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Like most who have ever had a course in American history in high school or college, I was somewhat familiar with the broad outlines of Alexander Hamilton's life. The problem is that those courses generally have a very Jeffersonian bias and that tells only half the story. Ron Chernow set out to balance the books a bit. He succeeded admirably.
"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."  - Ron Chernow
Chernow's book read like a novel; something from Dickens, perhaps.

His mother in the West Indies left the man she was married to and tried to get a divorce. Eventually, the divorce was obtained by her husband, but its terms prevented her from marrying anyone else. She had a lover named James Hamilton with whom she lived. They presented themselves as husband and wife and in time two sons were born to them. The older was Alexander.

While the children were still young, Mr. Hamilton abandoned them, and, only a couple of years after that, their mother died, leaving them essentially as orphans in the world. They were taken in to be raised by different families. 

Chernow engages in some speculation here. The man who took in Alexander had a son about Alexander's age who became his best friend, and according to Chernow, the two could have passed as twins, they looked so much alike. There is some suspicion that this foster father may in fact have been Alexander's natural father. His mother had had a rather checkered sexual history, it seems. But we'll probably never know. 

Alexander's intelligence quickly brought him to the attention of people who were interested in furthering his education, and, in time, money was raised to send him to school in America. He arrived at a time of turbulence, just when the colonies were growing restless under British rule, and there he found his calling in life. What a life!

  • He became aide-de-camp to George Washington in the Continental Army. Through all their ups and downs, he was close to Washington throughout the great man's life and the two greatly esteemed each other.
  • He was the primary author of The Federalist Papers, which outlined how an American government could work.
  • He became the leader of the Federalist faction in politics.
  • He founded the Bank of New York.
  • He married Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler, with whom he had eight children.
  • He was the first Treasury Secretary of the United States and set up the financial system that rescued the new country and is the one which we still operate under today.
  • He engaged in titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Burr.
  • He had a short and squalid sexual affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds which became public and the notoriety followed him throughout the rest of his life.
  • He was a prolific writer of pamphlets and essays for newspapers that explained his perspective on the issues of the day.
  • He was a successful lawyer who often took on unpopular cases and frequently won them. 
  • He was an uncompromising abolitionist and argued throughout to get rid of slavery in the new country.
  • He was a scrupulously honest public servant who never took the opportunity to enrich himself from that service and who was in debt when he died. His widow and children were rescued from poverty by the efforts of his friends and admirers. 
This is just a very short list of his lifetime of accomplishment.
"Give all power to the many,  they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many. " - Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton was all about checks and balances in government. He feared the domination of the few by the many and of the many by the few. He argued for a strong executive branch as a balance to the excesses of legislatures, and for an independent judiciary as a check on both.

Hamilton was an outspoken man who made friends - like Washington - who stayed loyal to him to the end, but he also made powerful enemies like Jefferson, John Adams, and Madison who excoriated him through surrogates who wrote terrible outright lies about him in the press of the day, lies which many in the public believed.
"Through the years, Hamilton was to exhaust himself in efforts to refute lies that grew up around him like choking vines. No matter how hard he tried to hack away at these myths, they continued to sprout deadly new shoots. These myths were perhaps the inevitable reaction to a man so brilliant, so outspoken, and so sure of himself."  - Ron Chernow 
Thus we see that a media which promulgates lies about people in the public eye is not a new invention in our country.

This is a fascinating book. I ended it with a new and enhanced appreciation of Hamilton as perhaps, with Washington, the most indispensable of the founding fathers. Moreover, I learned a greater appreciation of George and Martha Washington as human beings and of the remarkable Eliza Hamilton who was Hamilton's anchor in the world and who stood by him through all of his difficulties, some of which he brought on himself. 

One story, perhaps, illustrates the relationship of the Washingtons and the Hamiltons. After the notorious Reynolds affair became public and Hamilton was at his lowest ebb in the public eye, George Washington, who was already retired from the presidency, sent Hamilton a gift of a fine wine cooler along with a note that assured him of his continuing esteem. It was a gift and a note that Eliza Hamilton treasured all the long years of her life until she died at 97, fifty years after her beloved Alexander had fought that ill-considered duel with Aaron Burr. 

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5 comments:

  1. I have my eye on this biography. I saw the HBO miniseries John Adams, which doesn't portray Hamilton in a favorable light; that's the view I got, though Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson didn't come out too clean either. I just bought a biography of Aaron Burr, titled Burr; it's part of a series on American history, and I want to read soon. Luckily I'll find the rest of the books on sale if I wait long enough.

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  2. By the way, I bought the recording of Hamilton the musical. I still have to listen to it though.

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    1. This biography is very favorable to Hamilton, although it portrays his warts as well. I think most biographies and novels about the founders of the country tend to glorify them rather than portraying them as the fallible human beings that they were. I saw that HBO series, too, and found John Adams quite unlikable in it, and apparently he was pretty unlikable as a person. He certainly was an implacable enemy of Hamilton. I'll be interested to read what you think of the musical.

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  3. Having read three presidential biographies in the past couple years (Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy), I am in awe of others who read this type of book. As Carmen noted, none of them come out completely clean and I feel that is because they are human beings. But I also admire the ones who had strong views and the zeal to serve their country. I have a blogger friend who is slowly making her way through biographies of all the Presidents. This sort of reading is an education in itself. I find it interesting that Hamilton was an abolitionist and has been often portrayed negatively.

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    1. Once again, one has to consider the source and the source of much (most) of the bad press given Hamilton was Southern slaveowners - namely Jefferson and Madison.

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