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Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth Hardcover – February 15, 2002
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"A superb book about how and why one of the greatest of Americans has been one of the least appreciated. Knott’s penetrating and sensitive account of the vicissitudes of Alexander Hamilton’s public image over two centuries contains within it a subtle and profound commentary on the images Americans have had of themselves."—Forrest McDonald, author of Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution and The American Presidency "Knott has done for Alexander Hamilton what Merrill Peterson did for Thomas Jefferson, and in the process he has made clear, as never before, the contours of American political history. No one interested in our national trajectory or in the current prospect can afford to ignore this fine book."—Paul A. Rahe, author of Republics Ancient and Modern "Tracks the ups and downs of Hamilton on the stock market of historical reputation. Its appearance now is a welcome sign that a low-selling blue chip is recovering its true value."—Richard Brookhiser, author of Alexander Hamilton, American "Fascinating and illuminating."—John Steele Gordon, author of Hamilton's Blessing "An exceptional book-sweeping in scope, engagingly written, and highly informative."—Richard K. Matthews, author of If Men Were Angels
From the Back Cover
"Knott has done for Alexander Hamilton what Merrill Peterson did for Thomas Jefferson, and in the process he has made clear, as never before, the contours of American political history. No one interested in our national trajectory or in the current prospect can afford to ignore this fine book."-- Paul A. Rahe, author of Republics Ancient and Modern
"Tracks the ups and downs of Hamilton on the stock market of historical reputation. Its appearance now is a welcome sign that a low-selling blue chip is recovering its true value."--Richard Brookhiser, author of Alexander Hamilton, American
"Fascinating and illuminating."--John Steele Gordon, author of Hamilton's Blessing
"An exceptional book-sweeping in scope, engagingly written, and highly informative."--Richard K. Matthews, author of If Men Were Angels
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Top Customer Reviews
Written primarily in 2001 and published in 2002, 'Persistence of Myth' pre-dates the current Hamilton craze by over a decade. The book also places the image projected of Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway musical 'Hamilton' in context ... Hamilton the man is a rather protean figure. He can be the visionary of the modern United States of America, a monarchy loving elitist, or the "can-do" immigrant varying upon the craftsmanship of the portrayer.
Knott's noteworthy debunking of the "great beast" statement frequently attributed to Hamilton is very effective. References to the "quote" appear repeatedly throughout the book, while the fragile underpinning of its source is surgically belied on p. 155 and fn 27, p. 275. Generations of Americans have had their opinions of Hamilton formed by what appears to be an unsubstantiated tale.
While Knott's treatment of Hamilton is a sympathetic advocacy, it doesn't veer off into an anti-Jefferson screed. It seems only intent on achieving a more balanced view of Hamilton, a truly great American (both he and Jefferson were "great" - the greatness of the Founding Fathers is not a zero-sum game. But, in addition to being political rivals, Hamilton and Jefferson serve as foils for one another. The contrasts, which aid understanding, often appear as criticisms). Only the prickliest Jefferson lovers would likely object (and they have!).
In a 1922 speech Calvin Coolidge, who himself has been subject to wavering public opinion, stated that “when America ceases to remember [Hamilton's] greatness, America will be no longer great” (p. 109). To appreciate the greatness of Hamilton there are several key resources available. Ron Chernow's 'Alexander Hamilton' is among them, as is Forrest McDonald's 'Novus Ordo Seclorum'. Carson Holloway's 'Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration' is a worthwhile read. 'Persistence of Myth' is another.
Addressing the issue of reputation and character, Abraham Lincoln used a simile: "The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." So too with Hamilton - to remind ourselves of his greatness we have to look past the shadow and find the tree as best we can.
Hamilton did enjoy a significant career. He was aide de camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War (where he frequently clashed with his commanding officer), author of some of the Federalist Papers, political theorist, lawyer, Secretary of the Treasury who put the infant American republican on a firm financial foundation. This is the positive legacy of Hamilton.
Probably the reason that Hamilton's legacy is tainted is due to failures in his character. Aside from being inept as a political leader, Jefferson and even Adams can be said to run circles around him, Hamilton managed to clash with the first five presidents at one time or another. Possibly the only way he avoided clashes with John Quincy Adams was due to the latter's choice of overseas diplomatic postings during Hamilton's heyday.
Hamilton's fall came about during an investigation into alleged financial improprieties as Secretary of the Treasury. In a move that set any number of precedents, Hamilton confessed to adultery with one Maria Reynolds and the focus shifted away from the criminal charge of corruption to the moral one of adultery. Hamilton's weakness for the ladies was well known, Martha Washington named her tom cat Hamilton due his tendency to seek out new ways to father litters on unsuspecting female cats.
In those days resignation was the only option open, certainly preferable to prison, and Hamilton gave up his cabinet post. Although certainly accomplished, absence from the trappings of power seemed to make Hamilton nuts and more than a little bit of a nuisance to the other founding fathers. After trying to stage a political comeback by promoting war with France (a war the US was both unwilling and unable to prosecute), Hamilton ensured the defeat of his party's candidate for president in 1800 and the elevation of his rival Jefferson as president and the man who would later shoot him on the field of honor, Aaron Burr as vice president.
I had high expectations of this book, and was hoping this would be a book not unlike those on Merrill Peterson on the legacy of Jefferson and Lincoln and how the interpretation of their respective legacies changed over time. The one conclusion that one gets from reading this book by Stephen Knott is that Hamilton lacks this dimension. There are also sour grapes with regard to Jefferson and the even more human Adams.
Knott's problem is that he seems to have only a limited understanding of the legacy of the other founding fathers and assumes that anything that Hamilton was in favor of that was subsequently adopted was due to America's first Secretary of the Treasury. While it is nice that Hamilton was a proponent of the Navy, it really took John Adams who had been talking about establishing a navy since Hamilton was an undergraduate.
Hamilton's reputation suffered markedly during two distinct periods, the period from Jefferson's presidency and up to the Civil War. Knott sees Hamilton's resurgence in popularity after the Civil War as a defeat of the Jeffersonian notion of state's rights that died at Appomattox. Of course, Jefferson's only legacy was not just about the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions. It was Jefferson that Lincoln turned to when he called for a new birth of freedom at Gettysburg, a feature that Knott seems to resent.
Where Hamilton's stock tends to rise is with times of plutocratic ascendency and the Gilded Age was a time in which Hamilton's reputation rose to heights previously thought impossible to obtain. This phenomenon and its causes appears to be lost on Knott who is insistent that America would be a better place if only it reconciled itself to Hamilton's legacy.
However, it was during this time that Henry Adams reproduced the quote that has affected Hamilton's legacy forever more. `Your people is a great beast." Knott devotes a great deal of space, too much really, to try to discredit the accuracy of the quote. However, he might have wondered why people felt that this quote worked to sum up Hamilton's attitude to the masses. Effort might have been put to better use acknowledging that the Federalist forces that Hamilton led were not exactly the forces of populism.
Subsequently, Hamilton's reputation received blows, from which it scarcely recovered from at the hands of Southern historians like Claude Bowens and William Dodd and the pro-Jefferson vision of Franklin Roosevelt. Knott is positively resentful of the Jefferson memorial when he reflects that a simple statue in front of the Treasury building eulogizes Hamilton.
Hamilton's legacy during the post WWII period withstood numerous ups and downs. While the popularity of books about the founding fathers continue to be popular, Hamilton's legacy is of such a mixed variety that it would be impossible for it to return to the high water mark of the gilded age, despite concerns about Jefferson's position regarding slavery. Were there no Jefferson, there would be no Lincoln. Hamilton may have belonged to a society for the abolition of slavery, but that really is not the critical portion of his legacy.
The primary problem that Knott has is that Hamilton can never stand alone as the presiding genius of the early Republic. While a proponent of a strong federal government, his plutocratic and fundamentally undemocratic bias will always prevent him from being accepted in the same way as Jefferson and Lincoln. Hamilton is fundamentally the yin to Jefferson's yang and together they represent what is the real American experience.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Construction on the myth began years before Alexander Hamilton died on July 12, 1804.Read more