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
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.