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Alexander Hamilton Paperback – March 29, 2005
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Building on biographies by Richard Brookhiser and Willard Sterne Randall, Ron Chernows Alexander Hamilton provides what may be the most comprehensive modern examination of the often overlooked Founding Father. From the start, Chernow argues that Hamiltons 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. Hamiltons 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 Hamiltons 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 Hamiltons excellence that his narrative sometimes becomes hagiographic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chernows account of the infamous duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. He describes Hamiltons final hours as pious, while Burr, Jefferson, and Adams achieve an almost cartoonish villainy at the news of Hamiltons 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 Washingtons 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 alternate Paperback edition.
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 (17551804) 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 alternate Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
Up to chapter 16, “Dr. Pangloss,” the story is superbly told. But, when Thomas Jefferson enters Hamilton’s life, much of the book becomes a contrast between Hamilton, who had his own well-documented personal failings, with Jefferson who, if the text is to be believed, had nothing but personal failings. Jefferson is variously described as hypocritical, duplicitous and conniving. Undoubtedly, Jefferson fit much of this description but so did Hamilton in their Federalist-Republican (anti-Federalist) feud in the 1790’s. What bothered me was the unrelenting negative portrayal of Jefferson, Madison (after 1790) and John Adams. Hamilton is portrayed accurately and fully as a brilliant and decent man with some major flaws. Jefferson and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Madison and Adams, are portrayed as deeply flawed individuals who happened to have a few good points. The language reinforces this. If one were to count the negatively loaded adjectives and verbs accorded to Hamilton’s three main opponents, they would vastly outnumber any positive linguistic connotations. In order to sharpen Hamilton’s character portrayal, the image that Chernow gives of Hamilton’s opponents is, given other biographies of these men, less than just.
The name-calling, smear campaigns and character assassinations in the 1790’s are appalling (but less so given the 2016 Presidential campaign). However, a dozen years after independence and only a few years after the Constitution was ratified, the fears of the anti-Federalists were real ones. Jefferson’s and Madison’s hypocrisy and the foibles of John Adam’s personality notwithstanding, the concerns expressed were often genuine ones at that time about what kind of country the United States would be and how the Constitution should be interpreted. The possibility that the Jeffersonians may have had a point gets lost in Chernow’s constant barrage of claims about duplicity, hypocrisy and malevolent intentions.
So I thought this was a brilliant portrayal of the man who founded our economic and, to a large extent, our political system. The portrayal of Aaron Burr is excellent and the factors leading up to the duel are gripping. But the mid-section of the book would have been even stronger if Chernow had presented Hamilton’s foes in a fuller, less negatively charged light.
Hamilton was an illegitimate child, a fact that was to have a negative impact on his personality and character because he was hypersensitive to criticism on his birth origins. He was raised on Nevis and St. Croix in the British West Indies and showed a great talent in his early years for finance and commerce. When he arrived in America as a young man just before the Revolution, he badgered George Washington for a commission in the army and, after various arguments and other unpleasant events , he finally wound up as a colonel. During the revolution he served as Washington’s chief of staff and handled most of the chief’s correspondence. After the war he became active in politics and, as Secretary of the Treasury, he was responsible for creating the Bank of the United States, a brilliant fiscal move that established the foundation for America to prosper and become today’s world leader.
After leaving office, Hamilton practiced law but also engaged in political activity during his free time. He was easily bored and had to always be doing something like reading, writing or speaking to groups. He married Eliza Schuyler, daughter of prominent New York parents, who eventually bore him five sons and two daughters. Besides having to deal with the black mark on his birth, Hamilton had an adulterous affair with a woman named Mary (aka Maria) Reynolds, something that his political enemies used against him again and again for many years. Mary and her husband, James Reynolds (no relation, I trust), actually schemed together to blackmail Hamilton for money; he made several payments to keep the scandal quiet but to no avail.
Author Ron Chernow gives a fairly balanced picture of Hamilton’s career in politics, law, soldiering and government service. He also gives us terribly unfavorable views of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and John Adams, many more than I ever thought possible from my meager study of American history. The worst is reserved for Aaron Burr who, as Jefferson’s Vice President, managed to precipitate his historic duel with Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey. Chernow covers the aspects of this death-dealing event in considerable detail citing historic records written by eye witnesses.
The book’s pace tends at times to be slow because it’s filled with historical details, some of which are repetitive. Nevertheless it’s a fascinating read and it causes reflection on today’s electioneering for the U. S. president. It seems that scoundrels, sleazes and individuals with questionable integrity still have a place in American politics.
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Brilliantly written and researched.Read more