by Ron Chernow
Penguin. 818 pp. $35.00
The 20th century was not kind to Alexander Hamilton. His fame peaked early, spurred by Henry Cabot Lodge’s admiring biography (1882) and by Republican eulogists as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. Though many Progressives liked Hamilton’s expansive view of federal power, his support for banks and bonds rankled them; they felt it wiser to combine his principles with those of his bitter rival, Thomas Jefferson. In that alleged synthesis, Hamilton was not so subtly demoted: in the famous formula of the political journalist Herbert Croly, Hamiltonian means were to be mustered for the sake of Jeffersonian ends.
Franklin D. Roosevelt made clear his opinion of the two founders by celebrating the Virginian—he put Jefferson’s face on the nickel and consecrated the Jefferson Memorial—and by consigning Hamilton, gently but firmly, to the infamous company of the robber barons and economic royalists. Hamilton, said FDR, was “the most brilliant, honest, and able exponent” of the view that “popular government was essentially dangerous and essentially unworkable.” And there Hamilton languished, as Jefferson’s anti-democratic foil, for the rest of the century.
Today, circumstances are much altered. Capitalism bestrides the globe, conservative Republicans have dominated national politics, and Jefferson’s reputation suffers from a generation’s sustained assault by scholars and popular writers consumed by his unsavory relation to slavery. The time has therefore become ripe for a Hamilton revival, and signs of it have been visible in everything from editorials in the Weekly Standard propounding a Hamilton-inspired vision of “national greatness” to a major Hamilton exhibition at the New-York Historical Society this fall.
If this rehabilitation succeeds, it will be thanks in no small part to Ron Chernow’s outstanding biography, which has seized a favorable moment to make the strongest possible argument for the man and his policies. Alexander Hamilton is not only the longest and most comprehensive biography of its subject to appear in nearly 50 years. It is an impassioned defense and the most absorbing psychological portrait of him ever produced.
Hamilton was born on the fly-speck island of Nevis, in the West Indies, and spent his childhood there and on St. Croix. Though Hamilton never returned to the Caribbean and rarely spoke of his upbringing, Chernow emphasizes how much he was haunted by the scenes of his youth, especially the viciousness of slave society and the languid morals of the islands.
For examples of the latter, Hamilton did not have to look far. It is hard to imagine an unhappier marriage than that of his mother Rachel to John Lavien, who had her thrown in prison because she would not sleep with him but apparently would with others. Upon her release, Rachel abandoned her husband and son on St. Croix and fled, without benefit of divorce, to St. Kitts and eventually into the arms of James Hamilton, with whom she had two more children. Alexander, the second of these, was born in 1755 (other historians say 1757). A decade later James Hamilton abandoned his family. Alexander’s mother died two years after that; the next year his cousin, the guardian of the orphaned brothers, committed suicide; and in rapid succession their aunt, uncle, and grandmother died, too.
Despite a childhood that would make Bill Clinton’s look like a picture of normalcy, Hamilton found a way to rise. Taken in by Thomas Stevens, a successful merchant, the boy prospered as a clerk in the local branch of a New York mercantile firm. He began to write for the newspaper, and his precocity induced a group of his employers and friends to assemble a scholarship fund for him. In 1772 or early 1773 he sailed away from St. Croix and into American history.
At Columbia University (then King’s College, a Tory stronghold), Hamilton became an ardent and intelligent supporter of the colonies’ claims against Great Britain. He unsheathed his pen in the New York papers, and then his sword, progressing within a year from artillery captain to General George Washington’s aide-de-camp, in which capacity his pen was again pressed into service. After years of entreaties, Washington finally yielded and returned Hamilton to combat duty, just in time for him to lead the decisive charge at Yorktown in 1781.
The book’s centerpiece is Hamilton’s political life, especially his role in establishing a national government. As a political thinker, his greatest achievement was The Federalist, the series of newspaper essays (1787-88) that he organized in defense of the proposed Constitution. Hamilton, who wrote the majority of them, recruited John Jay and James Madison to share the labor.
Yet his decade-long collaboration with Madison, culminating in The Federalist, soon crumbled under the pressures of interpreting and implementing the Constitution whose ratification they had helped to secure. Hamilton and his Federalist-party allies saw the new charter as a broad grant of national authority; Madison and Jefferson insisted that it was a Constitution of carefully enumerated powers, meant to leave the states as the primary political actors.
The dispute came to a head in the vitriolic party battles of the 1790’s, at the center of which were Hamilton’s policies as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Chernow’s familiarity with economics and economic history (his previous books include Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller, as well as The House of Morgan) pays dividends in his account of Hamilton’s financial reforms. With the exception of Forrest McDonald, no other historian has written so lucidly on Hamilton’s policies to fund the national debt, to have the federal government assume the states’ debts from the Revolutionary War, and to establish a national bank. The point of these programs, all enacted in George Washington’s first term, was to establish America’s good faith with its foreign and domestic creditors, thus stimulating the economy and, Hamilton hoped, binding the Union closer together.
Hamilton’s system worked like a charm, but it had the unanticipated consequence of triggering his own political demise. His enemies, particularly Jefferson and Madison, “adhered to a static, archaic worldview that scorned banks, credit, and stock markets,” writes Chernow. “Like landed aristocrats throughout history, they betrayed a snobbish disdain for commerce and financial speculation.” They saw Hamilton’s system not as an instrument of constitutional government but as an engine of corruption, designed to arrogate power to the executive branch and, through its moneyed influence, to suborn the legislature, erecting on the ruins of republicanism a pseudo-aristocracy of finance and a pseudo-monarchy with Hamilton as prime minister. In the political wars of the 1790’s, Chernow is firmly on Hamilton’s side.
But his portrait shows Hamilton’s limitations, too. For all of his genius and blazing self-confidence, Hamilton lacked a certain salutary self-restraint. When his natural candor combined, as it often did, with his ready indignation and sensitivity to slights, he made and kept enemies. Sometimes he doubted gloomily that he could ever be accepted as an American. Chernow perceptively observes that Hamilton was at his best when under George Washington’s authority and watchful eye.
The Farewell Address, largely drafted by Hamilton, was his last great service to Washington. After that, his political influence and standing slowly declined. His earlier adulterous affair with the blubbering Maria Reynolds was revealed in the press and, in his usual spirit of overkill, Hamilton replied in an excruciating, pamphlet-length confession. In 1800, he published an essay that was so extraordinarily critical of President John Adams, a fellow Federalist, that its final, grudging endorsement of Adams’s reelection came as a cruel anticlimax.
Yet Hamilton could rise above old animosities and party differences. To break the electoral tie in that presidential election, he advised his loyalists to support Jefferson, not the scoundrel Aaron Burr, whom he considered the greater evil. Chernow concludes with the steps and missteps of Hamilton’s later life, down to the heartbreaking scene of his eldest son’s death in a duel in defense of his father’s honor; and finally to Hamilton’s own death at Vice President Burr’s hands in their duel at Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804.
Despite the many excellences of Alexander Hamilton, Chernow’s research is not always as painstaking as one might hope. His account of the thought and actions of Jefferson, Madison, and Adams relies heavily on their biographers at the expense of primary sources. Historians will also take him to task for embellishing the record. He paints Hamilton’s mother, for instance, as more of a libertine than she probably was.
More seriously, Chernow presents something of a caricature of Hamilton’s great antagonists. He assails Jefferson and Madison not only as slaveholding hypocrites—a common Federalist charge that has once again come into vogue—but as thinkers whose outlook was fundamentally anti-modern. In Chernow’s view, they failed or refused to see that America’s rise would be based on banks, stock markets, manufacturing, immigration, strong executives (in business and politics), and vigorous nationalism. Hamilton was “the prophet of the capitalist revolution in America,” he writes, the “messenger from a future that we now inhabit.”
To make this case, Chernow not only overstates the extent of Jefferson’s agrarianism but neglects almost entirely the Virginian’s efforts as a scientist, educator, and reformer. He also fails to do justice to the economic thought of Jefferson and Madison, whose concerns about the inegalitarian aspects of modern manufacturing did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm for commerce and trade, which they considered civilizing influences of the highest order.
Likewise, Chernow exaggerates Hamilton’s affinities with modern America, especially when it comes to politics. It is crucial to recall that, in the six-hour speech at the Federal Convention in which Hamilton outlined his own hopes for the Constitution, he recommended that the President and members of the Senate serve for life, on the condition of good behavior. Indeed, Hamilton was so busy warning the American people against self-flattery that he rarely had a good word for them himself. They were always on the verge of disappointing him and of betraying their own cause. He was not, to say the least, the kind of glibly optimistic democratic politician so popular today.
A final difficulty lies in Chernow’s suggestion here and there that Hamilton’s belief in energetic national government paved the way for the modern regulatory and social-welfare state. This was also a favorite theme of Hamilton’s defenders in the Progressive era. But there is less to this supposed similarity than meets the eye. A huge gulf remains between Hamilton’s loyalty to what he called a “limited Constitution” and today’s “living Constitution,” which seems capable of justifying virtually any activity that the federal government sees fit to undertake. In this, as in much else, Hamilton remains much closer to the principles of Jefferson and Madison.
But it is not necessary for Chernow to stretch a point in order to vindicate his hero. One of Alexander Hamilton‘s charms is that it pays more attention than any previous biography to Eliza Hamilton, who outlived her beloved husband by a half-century. She impressed on her family a singular duty: “Justice shall be done to the memory of my Hamilton.” With this sprawling, enthralling biography, Ron Chernow has come closer than anyone else to fulfilling her charge.