Friday, March 11, 2005

Alexander Hamilton

Some ten to fifteen years ago there was a "Got Milk" commercial where this guy who had just eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was trying to call in to a radio station to answer the question "Who killed Alexander Hamilton in the famous duel?". The commercial revealed that it was Aaron Burr. I was only ten or fifteen years old at the time, but for years that one commercial had comprised nearly all of my knowledge of Alexander Hamilton. Later, after reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams, I learned that Adams held Hamilton in very low regard. Until I held Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton in my hands, Alexander Hamilton was a complete mystery to me.

In a sense Alexander Hamilton is the quintessential American. He was born out of wedlock in the West Indies and his early childhood is marked by his becoming an orphan at a fairly young age. Hamilton's story is that of a self made man. He displayed brilliance at university and his rise to prominence was assured during the Revolutionary War where he served with skill and bravery before becoming General George Washington's most trusted aide. It was with the rise of Washington that Hamilton's influence reached the top levels of the new government. Hamilton was appointed the first Treasury Secretary and still in his thirties he essentially created the entire economic system of the United States. He was also the primary author of the Federalist Papers (along with John Jay and James Madison), which were a defense of the Constitution and an explanation of what each branch of government should and could do. It was brilliant work.

While Alexander Hamilton should rightly be considered a giant in an age of brilliant accomplished Americans founding this Union, Chernow's biography does not flinch from Hamilton's many imperfections and flaws. Hamilton's greatest scandal was an affair that he had with a married woman while he was also married. But, he was also a man who could not bear any perceived slight on his honor which led him to be very defensive and arrogant and prickly and may be the primary reason why this most brilliant of men and Founding Father never became President.

Ron Chernow's portrayal of Hamilton is undeniably sympathetic, but I feel that Chernow gives a fair picture of who Hamilton was, why he is one of the most important figures in American history, and why he inspired such hatred and dislike during his time and after. Chernow's Hamilton is a talented and brilliant man, yes, but one with just as many flaws and problems as any other man. Here we see as complete of a picture of that fatal duel as any could likely present, and Chernow touches upon several different perspectives on what may have actually happened (see Joseph Ellis's account in "Founding Brothers" for another).

This is an absolutely first rate biography that, while there is a slow start to this book covering Hamilton's early years, is worth the time it takes to read to learn about this Founding Father of this country.

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