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Alexander Hamilton Paperback – Illustrated, March 29, 2005
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The #1 New York Times bestseller, and the inspiration for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton!
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.
"Grand-scale biography at its best—thorough, insightful, consistently fair, and superbly written . . . A genuinely great book." —David McCullough
“A robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all." —Joseph Ellis
Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time. “To repudiate his legacy,” Chernow writes, “is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.Historians have long told the story of America’s birth as the triumph of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we’ve encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton’s famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804.
Chernow’s biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America’s birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.
". . . [A] biography commensurate with Hamilton's character, as well as the full, complex context of his unflaggingly active life.... This is a fine work that captures Hamilton's life with judiciousness and verve." —Publishers Weekly
"A splendid life of an enlightened reactionary and forgotten Founding Father. Literate and full of engaging historical asides. By far the best of the many lives of Hamilton now in print, and a model of the biographer’s art." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"A robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all." —Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
"A brilliant historian has done it again! The thoroughness and integrity of Ron Chernow’s research shines forth on every page of his Alexander Hamilton. He has created a vivid and compelling portrait of a remarkable man—and at the same time he has made a monumental contribution to our understanding of the beginnings of the American Republic.” —Robert A. Caro, author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson
"Alexander Hamilton was one of the most brilliant men of his brilliant time, and one of the most fascinating figures in all of American history. His rocketing life-story is utterly amazing. His importance to the founding of the new nation, and thus to the whole course of American history, can hardly be overstated. And so Ron Chernow's new Hamilton could not be more welcome. This is grand-scale biography at its best—thorough, insightful, consistently fair, and superbly written. It clears away more than a few shop-worn misconceptions about Hamilton, gives credit where credit is due, and is both clear-eyed and understanding about its very human subject. Its numerous portraits of the complex, often conflicting cast of characters are deft and telling. The whole life and times are here in a genuinely great book." —David McCullough, author of John Adams
About the Author
- Publisher : Penguin Books (March 29, 2005)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 818 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0143034758
- ISBN-13 : 978-0143034759
- Lexile measure : 1280L
- Item Weight : 2.25 pounds
- Dimensions : 9.1 x 5.9 x 1.8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #5,817 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The main reason I felt annoyed by Chernow's description is how he calls Alexander an "ardent abolitionist" (p. 579), "Hamilton's staunch abolitionism" (p. 579), "uncompromising abolitionist" (p. 592), and "fervent abolitionist" (p. 752). Now, because Chernow does not describe what an abolitionist is, let me point a common one from McPherson as "one who before the Civil War had agitated for immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States". If we use this definition Hamilton clearly does not qualify. I could probably accept that Chernow is using a broader use of abolitionist, but "ardent", "staunch", etc. imply that Hamilton pushed against slavery strong and hard. Chernow never gives us any evidence of this. He certainly proves that Hamilton personally was not fond of slavery and was probably ahead of his time in thinking blacks and whites equals. We are told that his time growing up in the Caribbean must have caused him to sympathize with slaves, but there is never any documentation offered to corroborate this. Hamilton did support arming slaves and giving them their freedom in the Revolutionary War, but he couched it in being the practical thing to do against the British. His economic vision did not have slaves, but I would count that as antislavery rather than abolitionist. The only real leg of this stands on his involvement in the New York Manumission Society (note it is not called the abolition society) which advocated for people slowly, gradually giving slaves their freedom. This is to Hamilton's credit, but he was hardly alone. The book itself points out, "One is further impressed by the sheer number of people in the Manumission Society who had been close to Hamilton since his arrival in America among them Robert Troup, Nicholas Fish, Hercules Mulligan, William Livingston, John Rodgers, John Mason, James Duane, John Jay, and William Duer." There is also the inconvenient fact that Hamilton certainly bought and sold slaves for his extended family, and may have owned slaves himself (many in the Manumission society did), and Chernow only notes as "Hamilton's marriage into the Schuyler family may have created complications on his stand on slavery. ... There is no definitive proof, but three oblique hints in Hamilton's papers suggest that he and Eliza may have owned one or two household slaves as well". This alone means he was not a "fervent" or "uncompromising" abolitionist for me. That these purchases "may have been made for John and Angelica Church and undertaken reluctantly by Hamilton", hardly changes the fact that Hamilton was compromising on slavery. This culminates in Chernow carefully stating "Few, if any, other founding fathers opposed slavery more consistently, or toiled harder to eradicate it than Hamilton". Then Chernow admits that "John Adams never owned a slave and had a good record on slavery, which he denounced as a "foul contagion in the human character" and then faults Adams for defending slaves as a lawyer and not using political power to free slaves (which seems to apply to Hamilton, at least to me). For Benjamin Franklin who was stridently against slavery only in his old age, he points out Franklin owned slaves in his younger years. He does not point out that Franklin wrote a petition to Congress asking for slavery to be abolished. The fact is that all of the Founding Fathers accommodated slavery because they thought the union of the United States was worth the moral stain. Hamilton was a fervent unionist and that took priority for him. He was very likely antislavery but given how prolific a writer he was, he wrote very little on the subject, which may point out the actual strength of his views. Certainly saying he was uncompromising is hyperbole of the worst degree when he bought and sold slaves for others. Because, if we believe Chernow, "Hamilton --- opinionated, almost recklessly candid --- was incapable of this type of circumspection". There is also a Phocion essay by Hamilton (in order to score points against Jefferson) that sheds some light on Hamilton's abolitionism. Chernow describes, "He was trying to turn southern slaveholders against Jefferson by asking whether they wanted a president who "promulgates his approbation of a speedy emancipation of their slaves." Hamilton was trying to have it both ways. As an abolitionist, he wanted to expose Jefferson's disingenuous sympathy for the slaves. As a Federalist, he wanted to frighten slaveholders into thinking that Jefferson might act on that sympathy and emancipate their slaves." Do you think a staunch abolitionist would write that? Do you find Chernow's explanation convincing as to why someone who was an "uncompromising abolitionist" would write such a thing?
This leads to another criticism I have. Chernow's picture of Hamilton as recklessly candid only applies to certain aspects of Hamilton. My problem then is that Chernow is not careful with such language. He says categorical things far too often, I think. For example, "The incident [supporting federal tax collectors] again showed that Hamilton, far from being a crafty plotter, often could not muzzle his opinions", or such as quoting Nathaniel Pendleton on Hamilton as "The frankness of his nature was such that he could not easily avoid the expression of his sentiments of public men and measures and his extreme candor in such cases was sometimes productive of personal inconveniences" or Eliza Hamilton with Alexander having "a character perhaps too frank and independent for a democratic people." And again with "Throughout his career, Hamilton was outspoken to a fault" (which really does raise the question of why he didn't say more on slavery if he was a fervent abolitionist). While at the same time acknowledging that in other cases that "To be sure, Hamilton had been cunning, quick-footed, and manipulative and had placed [John] Adams in an awkward spot". Or "Hamilton was coaxing Washington to dabble in a dangerous game of pretending to be a lofty statesman while covertly orchestrating pressure on Congress. The letter shows Hamilton at his most devious, playing with combustible forces" when Hamilton encouraged soldiers (and Washington to help the soldiers) to exert pressure on Congress. If one were looking at this encouragement of soldiers with very eyes very critical of Hamilton, it could almost seem like a coup, though I'd agree it was just Hamilton being crafty. This Hamilton is not crafty when he voices his opinions but is crafty when pursuing goals seems a bit incongruous.
This really leads to my point that Hamilton was a type of politician, and so he often would say what helped his side. Chernow appears to me to want to minimize, and I think it makes all the other people look like terrible people with Hamilton remaining untarnished as somehow less flawed. The problem is that Hamilton was flawed. The end of Hamilton's life is especially flawed, with him supporting the Alien and Sedition Acts which showed that Hamilton's devotion to liberty was not as strong as one would expect of the person who wrote many of The Federalist Papers. When you support putting people in prison for saying mean things about the government, you have gone wrong somewhere.
In addition, I find Chernow's coverage of the French Revolution (and strangely, he omits the Haitian Revolution) lacks the nuance I would have expected. He gives Hamilton a lot of credit for being mistrustful of the French Revolution, and says Hamilton understood it better than those like Jefferson who had actually lived in France. On the other hand, Hamilton thought France was going to invade the US long after that was a remote possibility, so I feel it is unfair to keep giving Hamilton credit for "prescience" when he predicted so many things. He's bound to get some right and some wrong. Hamilton could be brilliant, but I find it difficult to believe he was especially insightful about the French Revolution. Just in general, Chernow takes a very dim view of the French Revolution (and pretty much lumps all the stages of the revolution together without discussing how much the pendulum had swung back and forth between different parties) and so views it mostly through the prism of the Reign of Terror. That he never speaks of the Vendeé which is where there was far more evil killing tells me he is not analyzing the French Revolution very completely. The amount of literature debating that revolution is immense, and its consequences so huge that it is honestly hard to say anything more than that the number of people who died is a tragedy. It does appear that the end results were most likely a more republican, liberal Europe, though.
If you come at this book aware of the extreme pro-Hamilton bias, the book does offer some positives. It covers the years of Hamilton's life fairly comprehensively, not giving short shrift to his time as Treasury Secretary or after. He does offer insight into Hamilton's psyche and explains the life of Hamilton's wife Eliza, who had important contributions to the country.
This is somewhat marred by Chernow often stating one view and then conceding later that the earlier view was too simplistic. For example, when he talks about the American Revolution, he begins by describing the British as having an "invincible military" (p.70) and crediting Hamilton with prescience for saying that the Americans could use militia to beat the British. The British were the strongest naval power, but their army was hardly considered invincible. It also states America faced "the military strength of the most colossal empire since ancient Rome, they decided to fight back". One need only look at the Spanish empire of the same time period (or at its peak long before 1776) to see the absurdity of this statement. This is not to say that the US would obviously be victorious, just that the British were not a military juggernaut, and were aware of the difficulty of keeping the American colonies; they just bungled it. Later, Chernow corrects this narrative, by noting how important the Continental Army, foreign assistance, the alliance with France, and European powers declaring war on Great Britain were, and so I will give him a somewhat of a break on this.
In the end, Hamilton really was quite important to all sorts of US precedents and history, and so pointing out his deserved role in history is important. I just wish it had been done without overly glorifying Hamilton at almost every turn. The end of the book is actually better in this case, because Hamilton made so many "lapses of judgment" that even Chernow must concede case after case of Hamilton saying and doing problematic things (such as support for the Alien and Sedition Act or his desire to undemocratically change the vote counting when Federalists lost).
I wish I could say that I'd recommend this book, but I cannot. I have to believe there are more objective histories of Hamilton out there that do not frame almost every Hamilton fault as a faulty misjudgment while every one of Hamilton's enemies' missteps are a fault of their character. Hamilton's importance to the US constitution and government structure are undeniable, and a balanced approach to Hamilton would really be helpful in pointing this out without verging hagiography.
The rest of this review is skippable if you accept what I say above. The rest is simply me commenting on why I think Chernow's framing is more misleading than helpful. It is not usually that Chernow is stating a wrong fact, but using an argument that seems more like excusing Hamilton or making Hamilton's enemies sound bad than making a balanced historical judgment. I think this happens every once and a while in all works, but the number is large in this case. I have more, but a sample is below.
"At the time they met, Madison was a priggish bachelor and tight-lipped about his private affairs. No personal gossip ever smudged the severe rectitude of James Madison's image." This is stated as a bad thing, rather than simply pointing out that Madison did not have affairs and kept his private life actually private.
"Hamilton fretted that whether by chance or design Adams might sneak past Washington in the voting. So he approached [electors in states] and asked them to deny their votes to Adams to insure that Washington became president. ... Adams came to view Hamilton's actions as unforgivably duplicitous. In fact, Hamilton had approached only seven or eight electors, so that his actions could have accounted for just a small fraction of Adams's thirty-five-vote deficit. And Hamilton had been motivated by a laudable desire to help Washington, not harm Adams, whom he favored for vice president." If Hamilton had explained this to Adams, it would might be laudable, but I think sneaking to electors to ask them to withhold votes should be viewed as political choice that is not very laudable.
"When Pendleton returned to the scene the next day, he tracked down Hamilton's bullet and discovered that it had smashed the limb of a cedar tree more than twelve feet off the ground. The spot was also approximately four feet to the side of where Burr had stood---in other words, nowhere in the vicinity." I have to think that being shot at at close range is not a pleasant experience and my experience with gunshots has made it clear to me that it is often difficult to determine where they are coming from. Is it really so hard to believe that Burr thought Hamilton had shot at him and simply missed? Some simple trigonometry also shows this. They were ten paces, say that's 8 yards or 24 feet. Four feet to the side means the angle would be about ten degrees off. In the split seconds of a gun firing it would seem a bit cockeyed but I'm not sure I'd say that it was clearly aiming to miss from a being shot at perspective.
"Once upon a time, Thomas Jefferson had lauded Louis XVI as "a good man," "an honest man." Now, he asserted that monarchs should be "amenable to punishment like other criminals."" You will notice that these two statements are not in contradiction with each other. A good person, who is a monarch and has committed a crime, should be amenable to punishment like other criminals is probably something that most people would agree with today.
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
Top reviews from other countries
A phenomenal man and yet so human and fragile, and in some ways so deeply flawed.
This is an amazing book about a truly amazing man.
I was fortunate to be given a free ticket to see Hamilton and although I had already bought a ticket, I happily accepted the free one and I saw the musical. I am a Hamilfan and proud of it and like so many people I have the mixtape, the original broadcast, the Hamildrops etc etc and I hang on to Lin Manuel Miranda's every word.
I also have the Hamiltome and Chernow. I decided to read Chernow because I thought it would help me understand Hamilton and enhance my enjoyment of the musical second time round.
And it will because of course Lin Manuel Miranda is an amazing man and the musical brings Alexander Hamilton to life.
But the book etches the man upon your soul.
In some ways his death was just such an utter loss, but in other ways it was a dramatic end to a incredibly dramatic life. I finished reading this and just felt rather shell shocked. I also felt that Hamilton had a very cavalier attitude about the impact of his death on his wife and seven children.
But I also feel incredibly educated, for want of a better word. I am not an American and there are things about US politics that confuse me e.g. the two party system, the political ideologies etc. I now know what it is all about! At least a little.
And this means that I can go forth and bore my colleagues, friends and family to death.
This also mean that when I watch the musical for the second time I will be able to pick up all the nuances and references and just have a richer experience.
Ron Chernow is a brilliant author. He has written a huge tome of US history in a way that is accessible and enjoyable and I can well see why Lin Manuel Miranda was so captivated. It is the kind of book and life story that deserve a musical. Reading this has left me feeling exhilarated and hungry for more. I now want to know more about Jefferson, Burr and the other founding fathers, but I also want to know more about American slavery and so I will be reading Grant next.
The unsung hero here is Eliza Hamilton who sounds like the most amazing woman. 'Bests of wives, best of women.' And I think she would have had to be with a man like Hamilton. I wish someone would tell her story.
I thoroughly enjoyed this and I am glad I started it at the beginning of the year. I now have whole year to bask in the life of Hamilton, the writing of Chernow and the music of Lin Manuel Miranda.
We are waiting in the wings for you
You could never back down
You never learned to take your time
Oh, Alexander Hamilton
When America sings for you
Will they know what you overcame?
Will they know you rewrote your game?
The world will never be the same, oh
The ship is in the harbor now
See if you can spot him
Another immigrant comin' up from the bottom
His enemies destroyed his rep America forgot him
We fought with him
Me, I died for him
Me, I trusted him
Me, I loved him
And me, I’m the damn fool that shot him
There’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait
What’s your name, man?
Songwriters: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Alexander Hamilton lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
First let’s appreciate the skills of the biographer. His subject was a great man with eloquence and many talents. His breath of knowledge and knowhow few could match, covering first and foremost law, then finance and economics, military administration and tactics, and science of government. He was “a thinker and doer”, “unashamedly brainy to appeal to the masses” (p.627). He was a visionary, well ahead of his time, and a fierce pioneer, who was effective in meticulously forging a way to turn his vision into reality. He laid down the constitutional framework and built the federal financial system – institutional infrastructure needed for the flourishing of this modern market economy when America was still a largely rural economy. He was a powerful steam engine spearheading towards a future that only few could see. When he was so far ahead of time, he found himself a lone voice in the wilderness. He was given the opportunity and he did not squander it but made something out it – he could because he was full of ideas. Proposals after proposals, he never lost sight of his vision. He tried to explain but out of self-interest or out of their wildest imagination, he invited critics and suspicions all his life. He put his head down as the doer, but calumnies plagued his whole career. For a man of honour, he fought many battles to clear his reputation. Sadly he “was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth” (p. 629) which was quite the opposite to who he was – a self-made man, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy.
Hamilton was a prolific writer; he incessantly published papers, official reports, pamphlets, essays, newspaper articles. In addition, there were private papers and letters. Because his life intertwined with so many prominent figures of the time, one can imagine the colossal volume of materials to sieve through and sort for the biography, which demonstrates the biographer’s excellent organisational skills. The end product flows smoothly as if without effort. Secondly, I am most impressed by the versatility of the biographer’s writing skill. A biographer is naturally a narrator. However, Hamilton is a challenging subject as the biographer is required to make lucid many varied technical details of his pioneer thinking in historical critical moments that shaped the world, such as the development and debate on the Constitution, Hamilton’s federal fiscal and financial system and its opposition, the development of political thoughts for a new country, in particular the inner conflict of Hamilton if a republican government could deliver a proper balance of liberty and order. I believe the biographer has done a marverllous job in introducing us to the controversies that Hamilton was embroiled in.
But my biggest enjoyment of this biography is probably not the intent of the biographer! It reads to me the redemptive story of Hamilton – his testimony of God! To me who shares his faith, it is an exhilarating read to see the providence of God working marvellously in his life. His life, plainly and faithfully told by the biographer, speaks for itself. Things that the biographer finds puzzling, like Hamilton’s injudicious behaviour in the whole Reynolds Affair at the height of his power and fame, his vision for the army during the Quasi-War with France in 1798-1800, the “execrable” idea of the Christian Constitutional Society, and his preoccupation with religion in his final years, make sense if one understands the challenges of Christian walk. For example, I see striking parallels in David sinning with Bathsheba and Hamilton sinning with Reynolds – the injudicious behaviour, the coverup and the subsequent compulsion to confess when exposed. His many inner struggles also makes perfect sense in the light of the Bible.
I find his dying scene particularly moving for its gospel light. When Eliza was called to his deathbed following the duel with Burr, Hamilton’s words of comfort to her were, “Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian.” Do we feel the weightiness of that name? He was entreating her to live like one worthy of that call. However powerful, influential and capable he was on earth, at his deathbed, he could promise nothing except to point Eliza to their Almighty God who is greater than he, loves her more perfectly and in whom their hope is found. He died a repentant sinner, having “a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He repeated to the Bishop present that “he was dying in a peaceful state, and that he was reconciled to his God and his fate.” On our measures, it was a tragic end to a great man’s life, but God single-handedly turned it into a good ending of eternal hope that we all share.
Burr, on the other hand, was a contrast to Hamilton. Both were orphaned from a young age. Who was more likely to be a principled and religious man with integrity from family background? I imagine it would have been Burr because he was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the renowned American theologian of all time, while Hamilton was illegitimate. But then Burr was “a dissipated, libidinous character” and “had been openly accused of every conceivable sin: deflowering virgins, breaking up marriages through adultery, forcing women into prostitution, accepting bribes, fornicating with slaves, looting the estates of legal clients. The grandson of theologian Jonathan Edwards had sampled many forbidden fruits (p. 682).” He lived to 77 while Hamilton died in his hand at the age of 49 in the infamous duel. What memory did he leave? “The death mask of Aaron Burr is haunting and unforgettable, with the nose twisted to the left, the mouth crooked, and the expression grotesque, as if all the suppressed pain of his life were engraved in his face by the end. John Quincy Adams left this epitaph of the man: “Burr’s life take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in profound oblivion.” (p.722)” What biblical doctrine does it shine out for us? Election of God’s people – i.e. they are chosen by God and not the other way round.
How does the biographer achieve telling all these without it being intentional? He seeks to tell the story faithfully and authentically and comprehensively, and the story will speak for itself.
My interest, like many others I'm sure, was sparked by Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical "Hamilton" and I have enjoyed reflecting as I progress through the book on the similarities and differences between the reality, and what Miranda showed us in his performance. Chernow does a great job of bringing the reader into the mind of many of the people of the time and gives ample credit where it is due. I would be interested now to read biographies on Jefferson, Madison and Burr to see how the "Villains" of Hamilton's life are viewed differently in another context.
If you've read this far chances are you are the kind of person who will enjoy this book and I can't recommend it enough to you.