By Ink Alone: Alexander Hamilton
by Matt Stevens
I recently finished this tour-de-force of a book that relates the life of Alexander Hamilton starting with his obscure birth in the Caribbean to his death at the hand of the rogue Aaron Burr. This book is a fantastic read, beautifully written. Chernow takes pains to make arguments against many of Hamilton’s detractors throughout history, and he often succeeds in defending Hamilton and in bringing his brilliance into today’s world.
Penguin Press: 2004
Most of Chernow’s previous writing consists of biographies or histories of financial greats such as J.P. Morgan and John D Rockefeller Jr. In this tome (and it is a tome at 852 pages long and even more notes), he turns his face to the first great financial wizard of America, Alexander Hamilton. Throughout the book, Chernow’s writing is clear, excessively coherent, and at times very fun to read.
Before reading the biography, I knew almost nothing of Hamilton– save the fact that his death resulted from a duel, at the hand of the vice president no less! This biography alerted me to the brilliance, the sheer talent and drive that possessed Hamilton throughout his life. But also Hamilton’s amazing ability to infuriate and turn people into enemies. That attribute eventually caused his downfall.
Hamilton was born on a Caribbean Island and later immigrated to New York at the age of 17. After failing to get into Princeton, he attended Kings College (later Columbia University) and was an early adopter of the Revolution Spirit, giving speeches on the college lawn. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he became an Artillery Commander which eventually led him to meeting General George Washington. Washington soon took Hamilton as an aide-de-camp and, eventually, Hamilton acted as Washington’s chief of staff, writing numerous correspondence for the General and in some ways, acting like the son Washington never would have.
After the war, Hamilton was a key figure from New York at the Constitutional Convention and eventually wrote The Federalist Papers with John Jay and James Madison. Though at the time it was known those three wrote them, it has only become apparent that Hamilton wrote the majority of them years later. After the adoption of the Constitution and the election of Washington as President, Hamilton followed his long patron into the Treasury Department and began to make enemies as fast as possible. Hamilton saw America as a united republic, a great power waiting to be born. He believed in the industrialization and powerful merchants as the leaders of America. This brought him into powerful conflict with history’s most notorious idealist, Thomas Jefferson, and his disciples James Madison and James Monroe.
Jefferson saw America’s path as a small agrarian society. Sadly, Jefferson’s idea of America only worked with legalized slavery, an institution he claimed he detested and yet kept slaves throughout his life. During Washington’s presidency, two political groupings started to develop: the Federalists led by Hamilton, and the Republicans (Democrat-Republicans who would later become today’s Democratic Party) led by Jefferson. Both groups saw their viewpoint (a strong union backed by a powerful national government with a very strong executive branch for Hamilton, an intensely weak federal government with unbelievably powerful states rights and most power gifted to the House of Representatives for Jefferson) at what the revolution truly meant. They were unable to understand the other side’s viewpoint, and too often, they sought to distort their enemies’ arguments in atrocious ways.
Hamilton succeeded in convincing Washington (who usually did his best to stay above politics and simply choose better policies) that a strong Treasury, with the ability to tax at the federal level and restricted from the states was the best way to grow the nation. Hamilton served five years at the Treasury and quickly built its size in terms of manpower to be larger than the rest of the executive branch combined. When he left, he returned to his law office and often tried cases before the Supreme Court. He was also still very active in politics. In 1800, he worked too diligently to have his party member, John Adams voted out of the presidency and was soon persona non grata with much of the political establishment. The ascension of his arch-rival of Jefferson to the presidency and Madison (who since he had written the Federalist Papers with Hamilton had moved to oppose most of Hamilton’s positions) to Secretary of State, left Hamilton out in the cold.
Just four short years later, Hamilton would be engaged in a duel after Aaron Burr accused Hamilton of slandering him in private conversation. Hamilton, Chernow argues, threw away his first shot and Burr shot Hamilton. Hamilton died the following day, ending the life of one of America’s most interesting and complex characters. Hamilton has left us millions of words on his political thinkings, and much of it is still very important today. We still use the Federalist Papers in cases before the Supreme Court and we still use his reports on manufacturers to understand the progression of the American economy.
Throughout his life, Hamilton was often demonized by the Jefferson faction as an aspiring monarchist with connections to Great Britain with hopes of bringing back the King. Throughout his life, Hamilton was notoriously thin-skinned and took these assertions personally, which often led him to act completely irrationally in his attempts to put them to bed. There is no evidence for this, however. In fact, there is a complete lack of evidence that Hamilton was anything other than a brilliant financier and writer who was one of our greatest patriots. Because he fought poorly against Jefferson, he came down on the wrong side of history when Jefferson led his Revolution in 1800 and he tried to push America away from the Hamilton Empire and back towards an agrarian backward, nonfunctional society.
Chernow’s book does a great service to rehabilitate Hamilton and, more importantly, to portray this multi-sided character very well.
Five out of five Melons!