Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
It might be a bit unusual to review a work that was first published 13 years ago, but in the case of Ron Chernow’s definitive biography of Alexander Hamilton, the book is probably even more relevant today than it was in 2004.
A prodigious feat of research and scholarship, as well as a solid and thoroughly engrossing piece of writing, the book at 731 heavily-annotated pages, is formidable, yet amazingly much of it reads like a novel.
Current events, the rise of a new strain of nationalism, and the challenge of adapting to an unorthodox style of executive leadership in the person of President Donald J. Trump make revisiting the historical origins of the American constitutional form of government crucial at this time. (Not to mention the fact that this book inspired the wildly popular musical Hamilton which will arrive at the Providence Performing Arts Center for their 2018 / 2019 season.)
The founding fathers of the United States were an unusual collection of men. [Alas, with the arguable exception of the astounding letter writer Abagail Adams, wife of the second president, John Adams, the founders were all male.] Those luminaries of The Enlightenment comprise a dazzling assemblage of intellectuals, philosophers, lawmakers, men of action, military heroes, and scheming politicians, some even answering to all of these descriptions in the same skin.
Imagine the verbal jousting and conspiring that took place as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, et al. clashed, colluded and even occasionally abetted one another. Each of them would eventually serve as President of the United States, but first, they must define and establish a new nation built upon the radical idea of a democratic union of individual states.
As phenomenal as these figures were in bringing forth self-government based on largely untested ideas, it is maintained that none of these men were as brilliant as Alexander Hamilton. To many scholars and historians, he is the indispensable man among those who founded the nation.
Born illegitimate in the British West Indies, Hamilton’s improbable rise from poverty to becoming a brilliant lawyer then a military hero and George Washington’s most trusted aide is stunning. He was the first Secretary of the Treasury, one of the key shapers of the Constitution, and an influential designer of the American banking and financial system. Thin-skinned, rakish, a passionate public speaker, he sowed the seeds of his political downfall at the same time that he carved out an indelible name for himself.
[Perhaps the original “workaholic,”] Hamilton, despite marrying and fathering eight children, worked brutal hours, wrote thousands of pages outlining, defining, and defending the doctrines for establishing the treasury department and governmental operations.
[Before the Constitution was formulated, Hamilton was first was one of the principal authors of The Federalist, a collection of some 85 essays he penned alongside James Madison, and John Jay. The publication advanced the ratification of the Constitution and further explained how it best served the new country.]
A present day reader making their way through Chernow’s mammoth book will likely be dumbstruck by how many of the issues confronting the United States and its body politic today were present in the culture right from the beginning. Regional differences, states vs. the federal government, the notion of a powerful executive vs. a powerful legislature, deficit spending vs. fiscal restraint, racism, “fake news,” character assassination, power-brokering, religious prejudice, separation of powers [separation of church and state] all were rampant issues. [Slavery was a bitterly divisive indelible stain on the national honor from the beginning.]
The men who framed and first governed under The Constitution [and its mandates] were not a band of high-minded theorists [with no skin in the game.] They were not utopian idealists, academics divorced from practice or theologians bent on evincing a moral code. In many cases, they were “philosophers on horseback.” Most had fought in The Revolution. Many had leadership roles in state governments.
Somewhat incredibly, many of those qualities cited above were incorporated into each of their personalities; however, no one personified them all more than Hamilton did. As this biography illuminates his life, he emerges as nothing less than [protean,] a man for (almost) all seasons.
His humble origins and his illegitimacy were huge obstacles to be overcome, but his enormous intelligence proved to be his greatest asset. Possessed of apparently boundless energy and an extraordinary fluency of mind and expression, he could speak extemporaneously with great efafect for hours at a time. Likewise, he could write flawless prose [creating lengthy documents] on a wide variety of topics relating to politics, [law, government,] finance, and the military – usually in one draft. He was persuasive and authoritative, staying up much of the night at times to research his arguments.
Hamilton’s pride and brilliance, combined with vulnerability [to assaults on his honor] were to lead to the most astonishing demise among the founders of the nation. Despite an almost obsessive concern with personal probity, he suffered a serious moral lapse, succumbing to an affair with a woman who collaborated with her husband in blackmailing him.
Making matters worse, when his political rivals framed their extortion payments as financial malfeasance, Hamilton was forced to confess his affair publicly [in a long, ill-advised pamphlet.] The man who conceptualized the Treasury Department was willing to face moral condemnation for his personal choices to keep his professional reputation intact. His political enemies continued to smear him anyway.
His efforts were sufficient to reconcile with his beloved wife, Eliza, however, and she continued to defend his name throughout her long life, dying at age 97.
Hamilton’s death is the most shocking outcome of a life lived largely for the good of society. A believer in the primacy of the law, key member of Washington’s cabinet, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and promulgator of The Constitution, he was by all accounts a high-minded patriot. Particularly sensitive to affronts challenging his character, but he was often on the lookout for insults to his integrity.
Aaron Burr, a glib and unprincipled political opportunist, had emerged as a foe of Hamilton. Although they had been collaborators in some legal and policy matters, they had become pronounced adversaries over time. Finally, Burr, who was Vice President of the United States at the time, and Hamilton found themselves engaged in a matter of honor that, under the complex codes of the day, required them to duel.
Not legal, dueling was nonetheless still practiced rather frequently, and Hamilton’s own eldest son Philip had died in a duel in 1801. Thus on July 11, 1804, New Yorkers Burr and Hamilton met on a dueling ground where the law was less stringent. Hamilton had told his seconds he would throw away his shot, fulfilling the terms of the duel without harming his opponent. Burr, however, shot to kill, and mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day.
As Chernow’s biography abundantly demonstrates, the life of Alexander Hamilton is worthy of a major work of art, incorporating as it does enough drama and history for several productions. Can it be any wonder that the musical is so wildly popular?
To be fair, though, this book is serious history. It is long, detailed, and occasionally dry in a scholarly way. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but it reassures the determined reader many times over that the United States was envisioned by people who imagined a future that would require staunch guidelines to navigate. The Constitution stands as a sturdy framework built for real life issues, not a dusty piece of parchment under glass to be patronizingly referred to when convenient.