Book Review - Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is a recent one-volume biography of America’s most controversial Founding Father. In other bigroaphical works Chernow has written about George Washington, Ulysses Grant, and John D. Rockefeller.
Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine arrogance and self sufficiency?… Death comes rushing on in triumph, veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed and ready for the stroke… See thy wretched helpless state and learn to know thyself… Despise thyself and adore thy God… O ye who revel in affluence see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them… Succour the miserable and lay up a treasure in heaven.
This an excerpt from a letter written by Alexander Hamilton in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane that hit the caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton’s place of birth, on the night of August 31, 1772. What somber and precocious words for a 15 year old with no formal education…
If you’ve seen the famous play about his life or read about him you may know he essentially “wrote” his way out of poverty. Upon reading this letter it becomes no surprise that a boy as precocious with words as this would go on to become a Founding Father with lasting effects on the Legal, Financial, and Governmental institutions of the United States.
To name a few of his accomplishments
The Federalist Papers
During the run-up to the ratification of the Constitution he produced what is perhaps his magnum-opus, the Federalist Papers. James Madison and John Jay were also contributors to this herculean effort but it was Hamilton producing the bulk of the essays, sometimes publishing multiple essays in a single week. This series of essays is perhaps the most persuasive argument in defense of the American Constitution ever written. By the year 2000 it had been quoted more than 291 times in Supreme Court opinions, with the frequency of citations rising through the years. Theodore Roosevelt has said “that it is on the whole the greatest book dealing with practical politics”. It has clearly stood the test of time.
Establishment of Banks
Eager to restore America’s public credit system after the revolutionary war, he worked tirelessly as secretary of the Tresaury to establish the Bank of New York and the First Bank of The United States.
Doctrine of Implied Powers
During Washington’s first administration, the validity of every act of the executive branch was put under constitutional scrutiny. To justify many of the most important roles of the federal government, like establishing a bank, assuming state debt, levying taxes, and more, he introduced the concept of implied powers, an elegant argument for powers of the Federal Government authorized by the Constituion that, while not expressly stated, can be implied from powers that are expressly stated.
Setting the precendents for libel law
Much later in life he successfully established the precendent that truth may be used as a defence in libel lawsuits. I was personally surprised to learn that prior to this landmark case, libel law did not consider the truthfullness of the purported slander as a defence against the charge. If the satements were proven to be defamatory and libelous, your were found guilty. It didn’t matter that they were true! What a frightening thought that you would be unable to publish true but damaging remarks about a powerful or important person without fear of going to jail!
Despite his great accomplishments he was not a man without fault.
His error most notable to posterity is the Reynolds affair. This was an ongoing affair with a married woman in New York, Maria Reynolds. His behavior during this time was unusual on multiple accounts.
Firstly, he allowed the affair to continue for a very long time. It wasn’t some one-off crime of passion. This put him in an uncomfortable situation, extored by Reynolds’s husband for money and living in constant fear of the affair coming to light and damaging his public reputation.
And then, in an incredible example of poor judgement, in order to prevent his enemies from divulging the affair to the public, he did it himself by publishing a nearly 100 page pamphlet which described the affair in excruciating detail!
Though the pamphlet vindicated him from the more serious accusations of corruption as secretary of the Treasury, which was his primary worry, the damage to his reputation (and to his wife’s well-being, only God know’s the embarrassment she felt) went much further than he could have predicted.
He also published the pamphlet in spite of and against the better judgement of his close confidants who were made aware of his intentions.
This was another fault of his. Once he set his mind on something he would defend it ardently and could not possibly be persuaded against it.
John Adams Pamphlet
On the 24th of October, 1800, Hamilton published his Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States. As the title hints, in the letter Hamilton denounced many of Adams’s policy decisions as well as hit the man with personal insults, concluding that Adams was
emotionally unstable, given to impulsive and irrational decisions, unable to coexist with his closest advisors, and generally unfit to be president
Adams’s chances of reelection to the presidency in 1800 were slim, but the publication put the last nail in the coffin. It more or less ended Hamilton’s political career as well.
Ron Chernow’s Presentation of the above facts
I appreciate Chernow’s effort to present Hamilton’s greatest blunders at the same level of detail and thoroughness as his greatest accomplishments. Going into great detail and referencing the opinions of Hamilton’s contemporaries and posterity, Chernow presents as much information as possible to allow the reader to decide for herself if Hamilton is to be hated or venerated. He is perhaps the most controversial Founding Father, with general opinion of him vacillating between extremes of opinion throughtout history.
I also think Chernow does an excellent job of adding context to each of Hamilton’s major life events, sparing no details in the environment, the policital climate of the time, and the thoughts of those surrounding Hamilton. He draws references from other biographers and historians on not just Hamilton, but those of his key contemporaries like Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Burr.
Giving Eliza her due
Eliza Hamilton deserves credit in the role she played in Hamilton’s life, and Ron Chernow shows the reader more of Eliza than previous historians.
I enjoyed and learned a great deal from this biography no less than Chernow’s Washington, which I read a few months ago. Despite being more than 700 pages long and chock-full of detail, I was never bored in the slightest thanks to Chernow’s style and prose, and happily look forward to any other biography Chernow may produce in the future. 5/5.