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Alexander Hamilton [Paperback]

Ron Chernow
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (462 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Building on biographies by Richard Brookhiser and Willard Sterne Randall, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton provides what may be the most comprehensive modern examination of the often overlooked Founding Father. From the start, Chernow argues that Hamilton’s premature death at age 49 left his record to be reinterpreted and even re-written by his more long-lived enemies, among them: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe. Hamilton’s achievements as first Secretary of the Treasury, co-author of The Federalist Papers, and member of the Constitutional Convention were clouded after his death by strident claims that he was an arrogant, self-serving monarchist. Chernow delves into the almost 22,000 pages of letters, manuscripts, and articles that make up Hamilton’s legacy to reveal a man with a sophisticated intellect, a romantic spirit, and a late-blooming religiosity.

One fault of the book, is that Chernow is so convinced of Hamilton’s excellence that his narrative sometimes becomes hagiographic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chernow’s account of the infamous duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. He describes Hamilton’s final hours as pious, while Burr, Jefferson, and Adams achieve an almost cartoonish villainy at the news of Hamilton’s passing.

A defender of the union against New England secession and an opponent of slavery, Hamilton has a special appeal to modern sensibilities. Chernow argues that in contrast to Jefferson and Washington’s now outmoded agrarian idealism, Hamilton was "the prophet of the capitalist revolution" and the true forebear of modern America. In his Prologue, he writes: "In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did." With Alexander Hamilton, this impact can now be more widely appreciated. --Patrick O'Kelley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

After hulking works on J.P. Morgan, the Warburgs and John D. Rockefeller, what other grandee of American finance was left for Chernow's overflowing pen than the one who puts the others in the shade? Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) created public finance in the United States. In fact, it's arguable that without Hamilton's political and financial strategic brilliance, the United States might not have survived beyond its early years. Chernow's achievement is to give us a biography commensurate with Hamilton's character, as well as the full, complex context of his unflaggingly active life. Possessing the most powerful (though not the most profound) intelligence of his gifted contemporaries, Hamilton rose from Caribbean bastardy through military service in Washington's circle to historic importance at an early age and then, in a new era of partisan politics, gradually lost his political bearings. Chernow makes fresh contributions to Hamiltoniana: no one has discovered so much about Hamilton's illegitimate origins and harrowed youth; few have been so taken by Hamilton's long-suffering, loving wife, Eliza. Yet it's hard not to cringe at some of Hamilton's hotheaded words and behavior, especially sacrificing the well-being of his family on the altar of misplaced honor. This is a fine work that captures Hamilton's life with judiciousness and verve. Illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Washington is revered as the "father of his country" and the "indispensable man." Jefferson is the "apostle of liberty," the author of our most sacred national document, and his idealism, though flawed, continues to inspire us. And Alexander Hamilton? He inspires admiration for his financial acumen and respect for his drive to rise above the genteel poverty of his youth. Yet he seldom is accorded the affection reserved for some of our national icons. But as Chernow's comprehensive and superbly written biography makes clear, Hamilton was at least as influential as any of our Founding Fathers in shaping our national institutions and political culture. He was the driving force behind the calling of the Constitutional Convention, and he was instrumental in overcoming opposition to ratification. In Washington's cabinet, he consistently promoted a national perspective while placing our economy on a sound financial footing. Chernow, who has previously written biographies of J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, acknowledges Hamilton's arrogance, his bouts of self-pity, and his penchant for cynical manipulation. But this self-made man was capable of great compassion and was consistently outraged by the institution of slavery. Although his understanding of human limitations made him suspicious of unrestrained democracy, his devotion to individual liberty did not falter. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"...[N]obody has captured Hamilton better than Chernow..." —The New York Times Book Review





"...[A] biography commensurate with Hamilton's character, as well as the full, complex context of his unflaggingly active life.... This is a fine work that captures Hamilton's life with judiciousness and verve." —Publishers Weekly



"A splendid life of an enlightened reactionary and forgotten Founding Father. Literate and full of engaging historical asides. By far the best of the many lives of Hamilton now in print, and a model of the biographer’s art."—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)



"A robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all." —Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation



"A brilliant historian has done it again! The thoroughness and integrity of Ron Chernow’s research shines forth on every page of his Alexander Hamilton. He has created a vivid and compelling portrait of a remarkable man—and at the same time he has made a monumental contribution to our understanding of the beginnings of the American Republic.” —Robert A. Caro, author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson



"Alexander Hamilton was one of the most brilliant men of his brilliant time, and one of the most fascinating figures in all of American history. His rocketing life-story is utterly amazing. His importance to the founding of the new nation, and thus to the whole course of American history, can hardly be overstated. And so Ron Chernow's new Hamilton could not be more welcome. This is grand-scale biography at its best—thorough, insightful, consistently fair, and superbly written. It clears away more than a few shop-worn misconceptions about Hamilton, gives credit where credit is due, and is both clear-eyed and understanding about its very human subject. Its numerous portraits of the complex, often conflicting cast of characters are deft and telling. The whole life and times are here in a genuinely great book." —David McCullough, author of John Adams

About the Author

Ron Chernow is the prize-winning author of five previous books. His first, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award. His two most recent books, Alexander Hamilton and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, were both nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. Chernow lives in Brooklyn, New York.

From The Washington Post

An illegitimate orphan from the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton rose to become George Washington's most trusted adviser in war and peace -- only to be snared in a sex scandal and killed in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr. None of the American Founders had a more dramatic life or death than Hamilton -- and none did more to lay the foundations of America's future wealth and power. Revered by Lincoln Republicans, Hamilton fell out of favor in the middle of the 20th century thanks to the influence, first in the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and then in today's Republican Party, of Southern and Western conservatives and populists for whom Hamilton's arch-rival, Thomas Jefferson, was the greatest of the Founding Fathers. But recent scholarship has replaced the sanitized image of Jefferson as an egalitarian idealist with the theorist of states' rights, pseudoscientific racism and agrarian economics who sold slaves to pay for his luxuries. Because Hamilton was an abolitionist, promoter of high-tech capitalism and champion of a world-class military, he is an ancestor whose attitudes do not embarrass contemporary Americans. In Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow, the author of The House of Morgan, The Warburgs and Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller, has brought to life the Founding Father who did more than any other to create the modern United States.

The self-made man and the immigrant who achieves success are figures dear to American culture; Hamilton, alone among the prominent Founders, was both. Chernow writes, "no immigrant in American history has ever made a larger contribution than Alexander Hamilton." Hamilton, who became one of the first American leaders to call for the abolition of slavery, grew up in the Caribbean slave societies of Nevis and St. Croix. He was the illegitimate child of James Hamilton, the younger son of a Scots laird, and Rachel Faucette, a woman of British and French Huguenot descent who had fled from her first husband. (Chernow's extensive research has uncovered nothing to substantiate claims that Hamilton, by way of his mother, was partly black.) Hamilton and his brother, James Jr., were abandoned by their father in 1765 and orphaned when their mother died in 1767. Hamilton was 12. Sent to New York as a scholarship boy, the orphan from the West Indies flourished at King's College (now Columbia University), penned an anti-British polemic, "The Farmer Refuted," and, when the Revolution broke out, became an artillery captain whose exploits inspired Washington to make Hamilton his aide-de-camp. Hamilton's transformation from outsider to insider was complete when he married Elizabeth "Eliza" Schuyler, a member of one of the richest and most politically influential families in New York.

Like Washington, Hamilton sought to replace the Articles of Federation with a stronger national constitution and took part in the Philadelphia convention. In the fall of 1787, Hamilton recruited John Jay and James Madison to help him write the essays that became the Federalist Papers, to persuade New York's ratifying convention to approve the new federal constitution. According to Chernow, "Hamilton supervised the entire Federalist project. He dreamed up the idea, enlisted the participants, wrote the overwhelming bulk of the essays, and oversaw the publication." While romantic agrarians like Jefferson dreamed of an isolationist America uncorrupted by manufacturing, Hamilton realized that to survive in a world of rival great powers the United States would have to adopt selected elements of the economic and military policies of Britain and France. As Washington's secretary of the treasury, Hamilton infuriated populists by refusing to distinguish between the original holders of Revolutionary War-era debt -- many of them soldiers -- and the speculators who had bought them out. In Chernow's words, Hamilton's refusal "established the legal and moral basis for securities trading in America: the notion that securities are freely transferable and that buyers assume all rights to profit or loss in transactions." Jefferson, Madison and other Southern agrarians were bribed into acquiescing in Hamilton's financial system by the decision to place the permanent U.S. capital on the Potomac. According to Chernow, "Madison and Henry Lee speculated in land on the Potomac, hoping to earn a windfall profit if the area was chosen for the capital." Hamilton went on to oversee the creation of the First Bank of the United States, the ancestor of today's Federal Reserve.

Even more important for America's future prosperity were Hamilton's plans for government-encouraged industrial capitalism. His ambitious industrial corporation, the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SEUM), was a failure. But in his Report on Manufactures (1791), he made the classic "infant-industry" argument that American industries needed assistance from the federal government if they were to catch up with British manufacturing. Hamilton's most important successors in American politics were Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, who, as president, presided over the enactment of Hamiltonian policies such as federal investment in railroads, national banking and support for U.S. industries by means of high tariffs (Hamilton himself had preferred "bounties" or subsidies to infant industries as an alternative to tariffs).

Hamilton had no more doubt than Lincoln did later that the constitution empowered the federal government to suppress insurrections. When an excise tax in 1794 provoked thousands of mostly Scots-Irish backwoodsmen to assault federal tax officials in what became known as "the Whiskey Rebellion," Hamilton insisted on a strong response. President Washington agreed: "If the laws are to be trampled upon with impunity, and a minority is to dictate to the majority, there is an end put at one stroke to republican government." In an echo of the Revolutionary War, the two men led a military expedition before which the rebels melted away.

A third reunion of Washington and Hamilton as military leaders came in 1798-99, when war loomed with France and President John Adams asked Washington to come out of retirement to lead an army that Hamilton organized. When Adams adopted a conciliatory policy toward France, Hamilton was furious and penned a denunciation of the president. "In writing an intemperate indictment of John Adams," Chernow says, "Hamilton committed a form of political suicide that blighted the rest of his career." Hamilton's denunciations of Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson's scheming vice president, led to Hamilton's shooting death in the famous duel at Weehawken, N.J., on July 11, 1804. Hamilton, who had become an increasingly pious Christian after his son, Philip, died in a duel, deliberately missed Burr. Chernow makes the interesting suggestion that Hamilton's willingness to fight a duel, along with his hypersensitivity about honor, reflects the influence of his West Indian background. In the West Indies as in the South, "plantation society was a feudal order, predicated on personal honor and dignity, making duels popular among whites who fancied themselves noblemen."

In this magisterial biography, Chernow tells the story not only of Hamilton but also of his wife, Eliza, a remarkable woman who died at the age of 97 in 1854. The year before, "When the ninety-five-year old Eliza dined at the White House . . . she made a grand entrance with her daughter. President Fillmore fussed over her, and the first lady gave up her chair to her. Everybody was eager to touch a living piece of American history." Generations earlier, Eliza had endured with stoic dignity the controversy over Hamilton's affair with Maria Reynolds, a woman who seduced the treasury secretary so that her husband could blackmail him (Chernow provides a good account of this, the first political sex scandal in American history.) Today Eliza is buried next to her husband in the Trinity Churchyard in New York City, which Jeffersonians once called "Hamiltonopolis."

"The magnitude of Hamilton's feats as treasury secretary has overshadowed many other facets of his life: clerk, college student, youthful poet, essayist, artillery captain, wartime adjutant to Washington, battlefield hero, congressman, abolitionist, Bank of New York founder, state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Convention, orator, lawyer, polemicist, educator, patron saint of the New-York Evening Post, foreign-policy theorist, and major general in the army," writes Chernow. His verdict is persuasive: "If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America's future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together."

Reviewed by Michael Lind


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

On the night of April 18, 1775, 800 British troops marched out of Boston to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock and seize a stockpile of patriot munitions in Concord, Massachusetts. As they passed Lexington, they encountered a motley battalion of militia farmers known as Minutemen, and in the ensuing exchange of gunfire the British killed 8 colonists and then 2 more in Concord. As the redcoats retreated helter-skelter to Boston, they were riddled by sniper fire that erupted from behind hedges, stone walls, and fences, leaving a bloody trail of 273 British casualties versus 95 dead or wounded for the patriots.

The news reached New York within four days and a mood of insurrection promptly overtook the city. People gathered at taverns and street corners to ponder events while Tories quaked. The newly emboldened Sons of Liberty streamed down to the East River docks, pilfered ships bound for British troops in Boston, then emptied the city hall arsenal of its muskets, bayonets, and cartridge boxes, grabbing a thousand weapons in all.

Armed with this cache, volunteer militia companies sprang up overnight. However much the British might deride these ragtag citizen-soldiers, they conducted their business seriously. Inflamed by the astonishing news from Massachusetts, Alexander Hamilton, then a student at King’s College (later Columbia University), was that singular intellectual who picked up a musket as fast as a pen. Nicholas Fish recalled that “immediately after the Battle of Lexington, [Hamilton] attached himself to one of the uniform companies of militia then forming for the defence of the country by the patriotic young men of this city under the command of Captain Fleming.” Fish and Robert Troup, both classmates of Hamilton, were among the earnest cadre of King’s College volunteers who drilled before classes each morning in the churchyard of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel. The fledgling volunteer company was named the Hearts of Oak. The young recruits marched briskly past tombstones with the motto of “Liberty or Death” stitched across their round leather caps. On short, snug green jackets they also sported, for good measure, red tin hearts that announced “God and our Right.”

Hamilton approached this daily routine with the same perfectionist ardor that he exhibited in his studies. Troup stressed the “military spirit” infused into Hamilton and noted that he was “constant in his attendance and very ambitious of improvement.” Never one to fumble an opportunity, Hamilton embarked on a comprehensive military education. With his absorbent mind, he mastered infantry drills, pored over volumes on military tactics and learned the rudiments of gunnery and pyrotechnics from a veteran bombardier. There was a particular doggedness about this young man, as if he were already in training for something far beyond lowly infantry duty.

On April 24, a huge throng of patriots massed in front of city hall. While radicals grew giddy with excitement, many terrified Tory merchants began to book passage for England. The next day, an anonymous handbill blamed Myles Cooper, the Tory president of King’s College, and four other “obnoxious gentlemen” for patriotic deaths in Massachusetts and said the moment had passed for symbolic gestures. “The injury you have done to your country cannot admit of reparation,” these five loyalists were warned. “Fly for your lives or anticipate your doom by becoming your own executioners.” A defiant Myles Cooper stuck to his post.

After a demonstration on the night of May 10, hundreds of protesters, armed with clubs and heated by a heady brew of political rhetoric and strong drink, descended on King’s College, ready to inflict rough justice on Myles Cooper. Hercules Mulligan recalled that Cooper “was a Tory and an obnoxious man and the mob went to the college with the intention of tarring and feathering him or riding him upon a rail.” Nicholas Ogden, a King’s alumnus, saw the angry mob swarming toward the college and raced ahead to Cooper’s room, urging the president to scramble down a back window. Because Hamilton and Troup shared a room near Cooper’s quarters, Ogden also alerted them to the approaching mob. “Whereupon Hamilton instantly resolved to take his stand on the stairs [the outer stoop] in front of the Doctor’s apartment and there to detain the mob as long as he could by an harangue in order to gain the Doctor the more time for his escape,” Troup recorded.

After the mob knocked down the gate and surged toward the residence, Hamilton launched into an impassioned speech, telling the boisterous protesters that their conduct, instead of promoting their cause, would “disgrace and injure the glorious cause of liberty.” One account has the slightly deaf Cooper poking his head from an upper-story window and observing Hamilton gesticulating on the stoop below. He mistakenly thought that his pupil was inciting the crowd instead of pacifying them and shouted, “Don’t mind what he says. He’s crazy!” Another account has Cooper shouting at the ruffians: “Don’t believe anything Hamilton says. He’s a little fool!” The more plausible version is that Cooper had vanished, having scampered away in his nightgown once Ogden forewarned him of the approaching mob.

Hamilton knew he couldn’t stop the intruders but he won the vital minutes necessary for Cooper to clamber over a back fence and rush down to the Hudson. Of all the incidents in Hamilton’s early life in America, his spontaneous defense of Myles Cooper was probably the most telling. It showed that he could separate personal honor from political convictions and presaged a recurring theme of his career: the superiority of forgiveness over revenge. Most of all, the episode captured the contradictory impulses struggling inside this complex young man, an ardent revolutionary with a profound dread that popular sentiment would boil over into dangerous excess.

From AudioFile

From the age of 19, when he was aide-de-camp to General Washington, to age 49, when he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton was one of the giants of Revolutionary-era America. As Chernow describes in this biography, Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, designed the financial system that became the hallmark of our capitalist democracy. He was also the primary author of the Federalist Papers and exponent of the federalist point of view, in opposition to the Republican position espoused by Jefferson. (All biographies of Hamilton paint Jefferson in dark tones; this one is relentlessly savage toward the Virginian.) Scott Brick delivers a highly professional, straightforward narration that holds one's interest throughout. Straight narrative can become boring, and Brick is never that. Nor does he become lazy in the course of 36 hours. His voice and evident interest are fresh throughout. R.E.K. © AudioFile 2004, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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