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Alexander Hamilton: A Biography Paperback – September 17, 1982

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Editorial Reviews

From the Back Cover

This book re-examines Hamilton's policies as a secretary of the treasury. The author presents a new and altogether convincing account of the origins and development of his subject's political and economic theories.

About the Author

Forrest McDonald is Distinguished University Research Professor of History at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. He is the author of many books on American history including A Constitutional History of the United States, E Pluribus Unum, and Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st Publ. as Norton Ppbk 1982 edition (September 17, 1982)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039330048X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393300482
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #769,838 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Wayne A. Smith VINE VOICE on May 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
You won't want to put this book about the architect of American government down. McDonald has written an extremely well researched book about Alexander Hamilton, the man who arguably did more to set the American government in motion than any of the other founders. Not only thorougly written, but the author weaves the events of Hamilton's most interesting and significant life into a very readible book. The author is a first class biographer and writer.
Although George Washington has been described as the "indispensible man" of the Revolution, the title "indispensible man of the first administration" rightly belongs to Hamilton. He faced major issues that would define how the government operated and whether or not our fledgling nation would rest upon a sound financial system.
Hamilton succeeded brilliantly. Against long odds, he dealt with the assumption issue (state debts incurred during the revolution), coinage, taxation and the establishment of the nation's credit. This was after effective adminstrative service during the Revolution as Washington's aid (as well as other important posts such as leading the storming of Redoubt No. 10 at Yorktown), writing the Federalist Papers with Madison and Jay, and pushing the ratification of the Constitution through a reluctant New York General Assembly.
The book also provides fascinating glimpses of political manuvering among the founders. Although brilliant when establishing our plan of government and enshrining ideals into our framework of governance, they plotted and schemed like the best Tammany Hall politicos. Jefferson is shown to be an idealist even in dealing with current issues.
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Format: Paperback
This book drastically changed my opinion about Alexander Hamilton. Up to the time I opened it (after four idle years on my book shelf), James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had been considered the primary gilt-edged heroes of the Revolution and main pillars upon which the Constitution was formed. Mr. Hamilton? Well, he was relegated to the less-than-heroic rank as a self-promoting, money-centered, cold and heartless calculator, notable only for his unpopular battle to establish a federal bank and his life-ending duel with Aaron Burr.
But Mr. McDonald's fascinating review of Alexander Hamilton's life added texture to the stereotype and a sympathetic understanding of Hamilton's character and intellectual brilliance.
Perhaps it was because he had few intellectual peers that Hamilton was feared and disliked by the likes of Madison and Jefferson. Perhaps it was precisely for that reason Hamilton became a favorite of George Washington and served as his aid and advisor. As General and as President, Washington maintained an Olympus view of the men of his times. He appreciated Jefferson and Madison for what they offered to our young nation. But he seems to have valued Hamilton more.
Hamilton's view of government, money and banking, his integrity and his admirable regard for honor have never really been accurately nor fully told in school room history.
But thanks to Mr. McDonald, they are easily discovered in this well-written effort, a book which is highly recommended.
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I read Forrest McDonald's "Alexander Hamilton - A Biography" after I had read Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton and McDonald's "Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution". My goal was to understand the divergence in opinions on McDonald's Hamilton: Some reviewers loved it, others thought it biased and not worth reading. I greatly enjoyed Chernow's Hamilton and McDonald's Novus Ordo and wanted to make my own decision on McDonald's Hamilton. In this review, I'm going to offer (1) the short answer, (2) a summary of what I found to be the high points of McDonald's Hamilton, and (3) this reviewer's evaluation.

The Short Answer

McDonald's work clearly is favorable to Hamilton. However, it is not biased in the sense of presenting unsubstantiated statements as facts. Nor is it biased in the sense of glossing over negative facts in order to maintain a favorable image. Rather, McDonald's biography of Hamilton focuses on Hamilton's theories of government and public finance rather than on his personal life and personal short comings. (See my review of Chernow's Hamilton which describes five aspects of Hamilton's negative side.) McDonald alludes to these personal shortcomings but they are not the primary focus of his book. Perhaps this focus on Hamilton's public role is the basis for the charges of "bias" in McDonald's book by some reviewers. If you want a broader biography that addresses Hamilton's private life as well as his public contributions, read Chernow's biography. It is an exelent presentation of both sides of Hamilton's life.

Summary of McDonald's High Points

1. Philosophy: David Hume influenced Hamilton to seek to exploit the self-interest of citizens, channeling it to support national ends.
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Format: Paperback
This is a well-written and thought-provoking book, but at the same time one that I found unsatisfactory on certain levels. For one thing, as a biography, it's limited in scope, providing little information about Hamilton's life beyond his administrative and political affairs. His childhood and youth are dispensed with in about 15 pages, and the American Revolution - in which Hamilton participated as an senior aid to Washington and as combat officer - is already over by page 25, bypassing what one assumes should have been a wealth of fascinating material. His wife is mentioned no more that the few times, his children hardly at all, and we learn very little about his personal relationships with the other leading figures of his era. A life-and-times style biography was obviously not part of the author's design in the first place, and this criticism may thus be irrelevant, but a more substantive problem is the bias that pervades his book. While it's common enough for biographers to fall in love with their protagonists, Professor McDonald to carries his enthusiasm to an extreme. I'm not a historian by any means, but I've read enough to know that the men surrounding Alexander Hamilton were a prodigiously gifted array of politicians. Yet a reader who knew nothing of the period beyond the contents of this book would have the impression that they were a collection of relative mediocrities who paled in the light of Hamilton's genius. Even Washington, who comes off better than most, seems to have achieved success only through his willingness to acquiesce, most of the time, to Hamilton's unerring behind-the-scenes guidance.Read more ›
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