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Colonial Whiz Kid
By Gene Mirabelli

Alexander Hamilton

By Ron Chernow

Penguin Press, 818 pages, $35

Alexander Hamilton hasn’t fared well. He’s popularly written off as an elitist, and those noble lovers of democracy and the common man—Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Monroe—all came to hate him. What more is there to say?

Lots more. Ron Chernow’s grand 818-page biography is a compelling portrait of the most brilliant figure of the early republic. Alexander Hamilton once walked the streets of Albany. He married a local girl, Elizabeth, daughter of Philip Schuyler, the same who owned that big house on the hill overlooking the Hudson. He taught himself law in Albany and in six months was licensed to present cases before the state Supreme Court. And it was here at a dinner on State Street that he made the remarks that led to his fatal duel with that amoral opportunist, Aaron Burr. That duel is about the only thing people get right when they talk about Hamilton.

The boy was born a bastard on the violent slave-ridden sugar island of Nevis in the Caribbean. His strong-willed mother-to-be, Rachel, had been thrown into a squalid prison for adultery. Upon her release she ran off again and eventually hooked up with the feckless James Hamilton, a man on the skids. With James she had at least two sons, the second being Alexander. After the father’s desertion, Rachel and her two boys ran a small waterfront store. A raging fever ended that enterprise; Alexander and his mother lay in fever together, vomiting and defecating in a single bed until his mother expired.

Alexander Hamilton was around 12 when his mother died. At 14 he was a clerk for a St. Croix trading company; his diligence and intelligence caught the attention of a Presbyterian minister who opened his library to the bright kid and encouraged him to write. The youngster published in a local newspaper; people were impressed, a collection was taken up and in 1772, at 17, Alexander sailed north to be educated in the British colonies of North America.

Hamilton arrived in North America with meager funds, a few letters of introduction and an appetite for knowledge. In a short time he was enrolled at the Elizabethtown Academy and from there entered King’s College, now Columbia University. This energetic student was soon writing political tracts and, inspired by the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, he joined the militia and quickly became an artillery captain. He fought in and around Manhattan, and early in 1777 George Washington invited him to join his staff as an aide-de-camp, giving him the rank of lieutenant colonel. In fewer than five years, the 22-year-old Hamilton had risen from clerk in St. Croix to become an aide to America’s most eminent man.

Hamilton quickly evolved from private secretary to something akin to chief of staff and, as Chernow points out, there developed between the older and the younger man the most important collaboration in the creation of the United States. George Washington was mature, thoughtful and prudent; Alexander Hamilton, brilliant, creative and energetic. They played to each other’s strengths, eliminated each other’s weaknesses.

During the Revolution, both men learned painfully and frequently that the confederation was a pitiably loose, penniless and weak political entity. The Constitution that emerged from the Convention of 1787 was a great improvement over the Articles of Confederation, but it was a ramshackle affair completely satisfying no one, a document wide open to interpretation. Hamilton set about with his usual energy to explain the Constitution and to get it ratified, producing in the process most of the Federalist papers. Later, as Washington’s secretary of the treasury, he succeeded in having the federal government take over the states’ debts, plus the revenue streams to pay them off, and he established a central bank to give the new nation the economic muscle that the old confederation lacked.

While secretary of the treasury, Hamilton succumbed to a sexual offer by devious Maria Reynolds. Before he ended the crazy affair Hamilton found himself paying hush money to Maria’s conniving husband and that, through twists and turns, led to Hamilton’s being questioned on whether he had given insider treasury information to the blackmailer. Hamilton was scrupulously honest in his governmental duties and to clear himself of malfeasance he confessed, to an ad hoc committee, the liaison and the hush money. Word of the imbroglio eventually leaked out and Hamilton, in one of the most foolish rebuttals in political history anywhere, wrote a pamphlet detailing his adultery in order to protect his honor as secretary of the treasury.

While Jefferson was philosophizing about democracy he was also up to his neck in debt, living far beyond the income produced by his slaves. Like other deadbeats and landed gentry, he despised banks. Hamilton understood money and business because they were crucial to this man who came up working for his dinner. From their writings it’s not clear that Jefferson or Madison or even Adams, the cranky half-mad Federalist, understood the function of a central bank in the creation of a nation’s wealth.

It is one of the great ironies of history that Jefferson, whose first memory was of being carried on a cushion by a slave, and whose dying moments were made easier by having his pillows adjusted by a slave, is called the great democrat, whereas Hamilton, the impoverished orphan who earned his way in the world, who believed fervently in meritocracy and worked tirelessly against slavery, is regarded as an elitist. In 1800 crafty smooth-talking Jefferson became president, Hamilton’s Federalist Party went into eclipse, and Virginia slave holders controlled the White House for the next 24 years.

A book of 818 pages may stagger any reader’s resolve. That’s a shame. Ron Chernow’s impeccably researched biography of the Caribbean whiz kid not only puts Hamilton back in the American pantheon, it’s also an exceptionally engaging read.


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