Book Reviews

Alexander Hamilton book by Ron ChernowRon Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 818 pages.

           Ron Chernow's magisterial biography commemorates the 200th anniversary of the death of Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), who was killed in a duel by then vice president Aaron Burr. Because of the savage politics and pathological enmity between Hamilton and his detractors (Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe), his reputation has suffered neglect, when in fact he might have been the most important architect of our post-Revolutionary American experiment.

           Hamilton's was "the most dramatic and improbable life of any of the founding fathers" (p. 713), a life "so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up" (p. 4). He grew up on St. Croix in the West Indies and by age fourteen his life was a tragedy of Dickensian proportions: his father deserted the family, his mother died, his cousin who was supposed to care for him committed suicide, and his aunt, uncle and grandmother all died. Family assets were auctioned to pay debts. He never finished high school or college. At age seventeen the orphaned, penniless Hamilton sailed to New York City, which would become his home, and began to evidence traits that would characterize his entire life—unrelenting drive, superhuman stamina for work, and a prodigious intellect. By age twenty-two he was Washington's de facto chief of staff. After distinguishing himself as a hero in the Revolutionary War (he fought in the front lines for five years), he eventually became a key contributor to the Constitution, the primary energy behind the Federalist Papers (he wrote 51 of the 85 articles), and the first Secretary of the Treasury at age thirty-four. He founded our first central bank and financial markets, and articulated a prescient, entrepreneurial vision for a vibrant, capitalist, global economy (in contrast to Jefferson's backward-looking dream of a bucolic, agrarian America). He organized the Coast Guard and wrote plans for a military academy to train a standing army. He practiced law as one of the country's leading attorneys and started a newspaper. His published, collected works of legal, political and personal papers run to over 30 volumes.

           Hamilton was a genius administrator, a captivating speaker, a brilliant theorist in economics, history, law, politics and international relations, an unapologetic and outspoken abolitionist who also cared for orphans, and a government servant of impeccable integrity. By all accounts he was a doting father to his children: "His eight children never appeared to utter a single unkind word about their father" (p. 208). Despite his humiliating affair with the nearly illiterate Maria Reynolds, he was a loving husband to his devoted Eliza, who lived to age 97, stood by Hamilton, and worked mightily to restore his reputation after he died at age 49. Hamilton was also a complicated man. He had a massive ego, loved the cut and thrust of debate, was dreadfully insecure, did not know the meaning of compromise, and had a pronounced depressive streak later in life. His oldest son Philip died in a duel at age 20.

           He was never a church attender, but Chernow insists that late in his life Hamilton's religiosity was authentic and sincere. On his death bed after his duel with Burr, Hamilton longed to take communion, confessing, "I am a sinner. I look to His mercy. I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ" (p. 707).