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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
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.
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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.
Chernow sets the record straight by the telling of the true nature of the political machinations afoot to besmirch the towering figure that was Alexander Hamilton. His ongoing commentary throughout the tale belies a sensitive, if not prescient, reading of the times, of human nature and of the souls involved in this dramatic and awe inspiring history.
The fracas and frustrating scenes of today's American political goings-on can now be seen with a new light after reading this incredibly well researched history.
By stripping away all of the malicious and duplicitous and self serving commentary about Hamilton, Chernow paints a true picture of what really went down for this poor man. From his immigrant roots to his amazing sacrifices in public office to his tragic, heart wrenching demise, we see a courageous, but flawed human.
Hamilton's industry and prodigious accomplishments are awe inspiring and terrifying at the same time.
Chernow's exhaustive research and meticulous annotation throughout gives credence and veracity to the tale; Hamilton would be proud. It is as if the author was possessed of the spirit and drive of his subject himself.
As something of a student of American history and politics, I can attest that this is by far the best book I've ever read on the subject matter.
Looking at contemporary politics with a newly informed framework and mindset, it makes total sense that Mr. Trump can be prevailing the way he is today. He is a most pernicious, demagogic, immoral and unprincipled a human being as has ever sprung up from the body politic of America. The insanity of Mr. Trump's success gives credence to Hamilton's fear that the American people might not be capable of discerning that this truly despicable person is not fit for the highest office in the land. That he just panders to the basest of human failings and weaknesses is not apparent to his ardent supporters boggles the mind of right thinking people the world over.
On the other hand, my faith in American political wisdom holds that we shall see a moderate and sensible outcome. Fanatics and demagogues don't play well with the moderate, middle of the road American sentiment. Which Hamilton saw and defended and cultivated.
And it is my fervent hope this moderating spirit of the general public will check the excessive, nasty and brutish sectors of the body politic that has thrust Mr. Trump onto the national stage. (I believe that Faith is needed but energetic action is required to effect the right outcome.)
My further hope is that the system will work just as Hamilton had designed the system to work. Checks and balances to protect and to preserve the liberty we hold so dear and which is the envy of those oppressed by the flawed and poorly constructed, unenlightened governments alive and well that capriciously rule billions the world over, stifling human progress at every turn and chance.
Let me close by saying Mr. Chernow has given us a gift of immense value. A clear understanding of what a truly American character is made of, what a beautiful yet flawed human being can accomplish and a subtle call to action to all of us lest we lose this great enterprise to the folly of human weakness.
We need to know our past clearly and without prejudice in order to move forward and to positively contribute to the enlightenment of future generations and the advancement of human civilization.
South Jamesport, NY
9th July 2016
Ron Chernow takes us through the events, fleshes out the people involved and the various relationships between all the characters. Also, as you go through the chapters of the book, you will find the events that Lin-Manuel Miranda incorporated into Hamilton: The Musical. I've been listening to the Original Cast Recording while reading the book. Actually, I listen to the cast recording all the time: You should get the album, too!!
It's a fantastic journey. Thank you, Ron!!