Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
Any writer who wishes to write definitively and authoritatively on the immensely rich and complicated life of Alexander Hamilton is engaging in a difficult task, and Ron Chernow (whose works on Guilded Age-era financial tycoons is not familiar to me as of yet) does a fantastic job in a variety of respects in this very detailed book (of more than 800 pages once the index is included) that includes research done in St. Croix, Nevis (where Hamilton was born as an illegitimate child), Bequia (an island in St. Vincent & The Grenedines where Hamilton’s reputed father spent some desperate years towards his later life) and Denmark (which was the colonial master of St. Croix where Hamilton’s mother married poorly to a reputed Jew and then slept around on him and where Hamilton spent much of his difficult childhood and where he first practiced his skill of writing for a local newspaper as a freelance jouranlist teenager).
Whether it is a good or a bad thing, I identify very strongly with the youth and striving nature of Alexander Hamilton, a founding father who has been greatly slandered and libeled as having been a corrupt and venal aristocrat on the English model, despite his horrific childhood as the illegitimate child of disputed birth (his mother Rachel was an adulteress divorced by her crypto-Jewish husband on St. Croix and his official father was a downmarket scion of honorable Scottish ancestry, and there are efforts at using DNA evidence to solve the mystery of his questionable parentage). A child of immense poverty and loss, he grew up in St. Croix among the horrors of plantation slavery and exploitation, where his hard work gave him an opportunity of escape to New York (where he made his home, never returning to the haunted places of his youth). His reticence in later years to talk about his childhood and youth, which were the constant subject of slander and libel from political rivals, as well as his extreme frankness in bearing his heart to an astonished world, leads me to think that his childhood was probably abusive, as the psychology done by the writer would seem to indicate a sensitive and bright child who had survived immense abuse and trauma, with a prickly defensiveness of someone who never feels at home or comfortable or safe that is a constant part of his adult life and his habits of writing prolifically and engaging in numerous quarrels.
Despite some criticism at some elements of Alexander Hamilton’s life and behavior (including his lamentable adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds as well as his incorrigible tendencies to write at length and far too openly and far too indiscreetly, tendencies I can empathize with, as well as his occasional waspish comments towards others), the book is a largely sympathetic one that seeks to overturn the centuries of calumny and lies that have surrounded this founding father’s reputation. It is particularly tragic and ironic that a man whose life is a testament to the power of the American dream of reinvention and a rise from obscure and dishonorable origins to a position of respect and honor and power should be seen as an privileged aristocrat when he was instead an immense workaholic driven by intense nightmares from his past. Particularly notable is Alexander Hamilton’s intense bravery as well as his defiant support of those who were being taken advantage of by the mob. Notably among the founding fathers of our country (and the only foreigner among them), he was profoundly afraid of both tyranny and anarchy, fearing the ferocious and irrational passions of the mob as much as corrupt and tyrannical authorities. Even today few people have the sort of balanced political worldview that Hamilton did, as well as the pessimistic feelings about the wisdom of the American populace that are necessary to achieve popularity in our republic.
Much of this volume is devoted to the relationship between Hamilton and other founders (his relationship with George Washington appears particularly symbiotic, in that Hamilton provided the brains and energy in the relationship and Washington provided the discretion and deft political touch), and much of it is also devoted to untangling the immense amount of writing generated by Alexander Hamilton, including plans that eventually led to the creation of West Point as our military academy, as well as the original interpretation of the Constitution established through his essays in the Federalist Papers (which he mostly wrote), as well as his lengthy and prophetic papers to Congress about finances and manufacturing while he was Secretary of the Treasury, as well as his massive trove of mostly pseudonymous editorials written from his time in St. Croix where he began writing prolifically as a teenager to the pamphlet wars against Aaron Burr’s gubernatorial campaign of 1804 in New York that led to his politically-motivated death in a duel for which he is well-remembered today. Often the author tends to take a startled expression of frustration at the fertile mind of Alexander Hamilton that allowed him to write far more than anyone can profitably read in lifetime. Perhaps readers of my own voluminous writings will empathize with the difficulty Chernow faced in doing justice to Hamilton as a writer and a political thinker.
Among the more touching aspects of this work is its devotion to giving a fair hearing of the honorable conduct and reputation of Eliza Hamilton, who has often been ignored and shunted aside and libeled by historians as a result of her own modesty, which has often overshadowed her intense loyalty to her husband during her long widowhood (of about 50 years in length) as well as her lifelong devotion to God and to the cause of helping orphans (like Hamilton) receive education and the chance of a better life. Her nobility of character, and the obvious love and mutual devotion that both Hamiltons had to each other (as well as, intriguingly enough, to Eliza’s sister Angelica, the subject of a great deal of speculation about a supposed menage a trois within the Hamilton family). This book does not skimp on the less savory aspects of Hamilton’s life, but it is written with a great deal of tact and skill, and those who are curious about an honest and candid but largely sympathetic account of America’s most influential founding father never to have been president and who are willing and able to read over 700 pages of material devoted to his life (from his difficult childhood in the Caribbean to the aftermath of his duel and its effects on Aaron Burr and Eliza Hamilton and the Hamilton children) will find themselves richly rewarded with an well-written account of an immensely important life.