Tuesday, November 8, 2016

No. 186: Chernow's Superb Biography of Alexander Hamilton—An Election Day Special

Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, a superb biography of our first Secretary of the Treasury, inspired the smash Broadway hit, Hamilton: An American Musical. The 818-page book, published in 2004, provides fascinating details about many of the founders of our great nation. For example, the book delves into Hamilton's abolitionist views as well as the views of other founders on the subject of slavery.

Chernow describes Hamilton's birthplace on the Caribbean island of Nevis, and his early life on other islands there. His apparent illegitimate birth plagued his entire life. When he immigrated (yes, he was an immigrant) to New York City as a young man, he became a prodigious student, reader, and writer, and he built an amazing life as an attorney and political leader.

George Washington was Hamilton's greatest supporter. Hamilton was Washington's top assistant during most of the Revolutionary War. Toward the end of the war Hamilton achieved the military rank of general and became a battlefield hero. He later ran the Treasury Department, which was the dominant cabinet department during Washington's administration. The Treasury Department dwarfed the State Department, which at the time was headed by Thomas Jefferson.

Chernow examines in detail Aaron Burr's career, which in many ways was parallel to Hamilton's career. Burr was Jefferson's vice president at the time of the fateful duel that ended Hamilton's life. The duelists and their seconds crossed the Hudson River in separate boats to meet at Weehawken, New Jersey, because dueling was illegal in New York State at the time. As is common in such incidents, there are conflicting views about precisely what happened. Chernow believes that Hamilton purposely fired the first shot into the trees high above Burr.

Chernow devotes considerable space to Hamilton's beloved wife Eliza, who survived him by about half a century. They had eight children. One thing I never knew before was that Philip, their eldest and a handsome young man in the prime of his life, died in a duel about two years before Hamilton's death. Hamilton never fully recovered from the shock of that loss. They named their youngest child Philip (nicknamed Little Phil), who was born after his eldest brother's death.

Chernow provides detail about Hamilton's philandering, especially an affair that resulted in his paying blackmail in what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to keep the matter secret. Apparently the affair was a major obstacle that prevented Hamilton from occupying a prominent position in the government after he left Washington's cabinet.

Throughout the book are descriptions of the prickly (to put it mildly) relationship between Hamilton and Jefferson. Hamilton was an admirer of Great Britain and its form of government. Jefferson had spent a substantial amount of time in France and was an admirer of the French, even after the nasty developments that occurred during the French revolution.

Chernow describes in detail Hamilton's strained relationships with other founding fathers, including not only Jefferson, but also John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, and others. Hamilton's friendship with Madison, for example, was on and off. In the early days of their close relationship, they worked together on The Federalist Papers, although Hamilton wrote most of the pieces in that famous series. Hamilton and Madison later had a falling out.

Chernow describes how Hamilton became the leader of the Federalists in the original two-party system and served as a member of the Constitutional Convention. Hamilton laid the groundwork for what became the New York Stock Exchange, and he developed our tax system. He created our first central bank, the Coast Guard, and the Customs Service. Early in 1795, at age 40, he resigned as Secretary of the Treasury. Here are two sentences (buried on page 481) that summarize Chernow's views on Hamilton's contributions to his adopted country:
Hamilton's achievements were never matched because he was present at the government's inception, when he could draw freely on a blank slate. If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.
General Observations
Chernow's book is so well written that it is a delight to read. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in learning about the beginnings of the United States. Readers will recognize the relevance of many parts of the book to happenings in our country today, even including the presidential election campaign of 2016.

This is the first Chernow book I have read. It is so superb that I am determined to read his two other major books—about John D. Rockefeller (Titan) and about John Pierpont "J.P." Morgan (The House of Morgan).

An Interesting Coincidence
When I acquired Chernow's book about Hamilton, I was startled by the back cover of the dust jacket. Two of the three testimonials were written by two of my favorite authors—Robert Caro and David McCullough. I have read all their books. Caro has written about Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and about Lyndon Johnson. The biography of Johnson now consists of four major volumes; Caro's faithful readers anxiously await the fifth and presumably final volume. McCullough has written about Harry Truman, John Adams, the early life of Theodore Roosevelt, the Wright Brothers, the Johnstown Flood, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the building of the Panama Canal, among other persons and events.