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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.
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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.
A passionate and controversial figure, Hamilton established the basis for the economic powerhouse that the United States would become, only to be senselessly killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States, across the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 12, 1804. Upon learning of his death there was general lamentation in New York, and other Federalist city strongholds, such as Boston and Philadelphia. Charles Biddle, Aaron's Burr friend, admitted there was as much lamentation as when George Washington died. Hamilton's public funeral was financed by the merchants of New York. Historian Ron Chernow describes the funeral scene: "... New York militia units set out at the head of the funeral procession, bearing their arms in reversed position, their muzzles pointed downward. Numerous clergymen and members of the Society of the Cincinnati trooped behind them.... Preceded by two small black boys in white turbans, eight pallbearers shouldered Hamilton's corpse, set in a rich mahogany casket with his hat and sword perched on top. Hamilton's gray horse trailed behind with the boots and spurs of its former rider reversed in the stirrups." (p. 711)
Hamilton was both hated and loved with passion. There was no middle ground for the sentiments he evoked during his lifetime. Nevertheless, both friends and foes marveled at his genius. Chernow's book has an interesting amalgam of opinions about Hamilton by famous contemporaries who knew him:
New York Judge Ambrose Spencer who frequently presided over legal courtroom battles opined that Hamilton "was the greatest man his country ever produced... In power of reasoning Hamilton was the equal of [Daniel] Webster... In creative power, Hamilton was infinitely Webster's superior." (p. 189)
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: "I have heard Samuel Dexter, John Marshall, and Chancellor (Robert R.) Livingston say that Hamilton's reach of thought was so far beyond theirs that by his side they were schoolboys -- rush tapers before the sun on noonday." (p. 189)
Fisher Ames: "With other men, law is a trade, with him it was a science." (p. 190)
Rev. John M. Mason: "...the greatest statesman in the western world, perhaps the greatest man of the age." (p. 714)
Hamilton's friend Robert Troup: "I used to tell him that he was not content with knocking down [his opponent] in the head, but that he persisted until he banished every little insect that buzzed around his ears." (p. 190)
John Quincy Adams, son of one of Hamilton's most vociferous critics and intemperate enemy, John Adams, admitted that Hamilton's financial system "operated like enchantment for the restoration of public credit." (p. 481)
Occasionally political enemies rendered backhanded praise for Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend and collaborator James Madison about the time of the Jay Treaty (a winning political issue for the Republicans) in 1793: "He is really a colossus to the anti-Republican party. Without numbers, he is a host [i.e., an army] within himself... We have only middling performances to oppose him. In truth, when he comes forward, there is nobody but yourself, who can meet him." (p. 496) Madison did not accept the challenge. He opposed Hamilton legislatively but not with the pen, and the Treaty was approved for the good of the country, which was totally unprepared for war.
When Jefferson was President of the United States, he charged Albert Gallatin, his new Secretary of the Treasury and a political foe of Hamilton, to rifle through files, dig up any financial material in the Department incriminating Hamilton of malfeasance. Gallatin went at it with gusto. Gallatin wrote years later: "Well Gallatin, what have you found? [Jefferson asked]. "I answered: 'I have found the most perfect system ever formed. Any change should be made in it would injure it. Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds. He did nothing wrong.' " (pp. 646-647) Despite their criticisms, both Jefferson and Madison as Presidents left the Hamiltonian economic system largely in place.
The praise was not restricted to sectarian Americans. The French Revolution exile, the duc de La Rochefoucald-Liancourt, noted; "the lack of interest in money, rare anywhere, but even rarer in America is one of the most universally recognized traits of Mr. Hamilton." In fact, although Hamilton would not take cases in which he deemed the defendant guilty, he frequently undertook to defend many indigent legal cases. (p. 188)
And the famous Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, arguably the greatest diplomat-statesman in history, who got to know Hamilton during his two year exile in America, opined: "I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton the three greatest men of our epoch and, if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the firs place to Hamilton. He divined Europe." Talleyrand further told an American traveler that he had known nearly all the marked men of his time, but that he had never known one on the whole equal to Hamilton. (p. 466)
Posterity, in the voice of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge has justly judged Hamilton: "We look in vain for a man who, in an equal space of time, has produced such direct and lasting effect upon our institutions and history." (p. 481) And Ron Chernow himself, who remained for the most part objective and dispassionate in the book, wrote: "If Washington was the father of the country, and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Hamilton is the father of the American government." (p. 481)
Hamilton succeeded with almost all the programs he conceived including the First Bank of the United States, the funding of the national debt, the American tax system, the efficient Custom Service, the inception of the Coast Guard; as Deputy Chief of the U.S. Army, Hamilton even contained the Whiskey Rebellion without bloodshed -- all of which promoted the peace and prosperity of the new nation. When asked, during a dinner meeting at the historic Fraunces Tavern, "Who was right about America, Jefferson or Hamilton?", another Hamilton biographer, Willard Sterne Randall responded briefly, "Jefferson for the eighteenth century, Hamilton for modern times." That is a good summation with which Chernow also would have agreed.
Miguel A. Faria Jr., M.D. is Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International. He is Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.), Mercer University School of Medicine. Dr. Faria is the author of Cuba in Revolution -- Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). He is the author of numerous articles on politics, history, and science, including "Stalin's Mysterious Death" (2011) and "The Political Spectrum -- From the Extreme Right and Anarchism to the Extreme Left and Communism" (2011 -- all posted at the author's websites: www.haciendapub.com & www.drmiguelfaria.com