Author: Ron Chernow
Reviewed by Dash Happenstance and Matthew Thomas Ingersoll Esq.
How to describe Alexander Hamilton? It is no easy task. He was a man of such astounding ambition, with a range of talents so diverse and masterful, that superlative adjectives hardly do. He was a combination of Mozart, Plato and Napoleon. A scholar on horseback. A disciplined bon vivant. A free-thinking laborer. An unapologetic abolitionist. A geyser of genius. To tell the tale of such a titanic life, one needs a master historian and storyteller equal to the task - we get that and more in Ron Chernow’s sublime Alexander Hamilton, one of the greatest biographies you will ever read.
Now famously the inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational musical, it becomes clear upon completion how Hamilton's life could inspire such a sparkling work of art. His tragedies and triumphs are a perfect match for the theatre, and Chernow chronicles his saga with an urgency and insight few could ever match.
Chernow begins by guiding readers through Hamilton’s lineage, providing context for the protagonist’s Dickensian beginnings. It remains the most extraordinary and improbable journey of any of the founders. George Washington had a cantankerous mother, Benjamin Franklin an abusive older brother and John Adams an almost puritanical upbringing - but their hardships pale in comparison to Hamilton’s. Born out of wedlock on a small Caribbean island, orphaned after watching his mother die of fever, Hamilton seemed preordained to toil away in obscurity. Alexander and his brother were “surrounded by failed, broken, bitter, people", and raised amongst the “commonplace violence of most slave-ridden sugar islands.” A place where “the horror was mingled incongruously with the natural beauty of turquoise waters, flaming sunsets, and languid palm fronds.” Rich in intellectual ability and drive, but poor in every other way, Hamilton leveraged his smarts into a clerkship where he engaged in a “fast-paced modern world of trading ships and fluctuating markets” on the Island of St. Croix. The job afforded him “valuable insights into global commerce and the maneuvers of imperial powers.” When a hurricane came and ravaged the island, Hamilton “composed a long, feverish letter to his father, trying to convey the hurricane’s horror”. The letter found its way to publication, and made such a splash, that his acquaintances and bosses took up a collection to pay for his passage to America, where an education could be found suitable for his talents, in the hopes that he'd return to the island as a doctor one day.
Hamilton settled in New York, where he enrolled in King’s College (now Columbia), and soaked up the revolutionary atmosphere like a sponge. He was soon penning scathing articles rebuking British loyalists and arguing for a free and independent country. He mounted soapboxes and performed miracles of oratory, gathering an extensive network of friends and contemporaries. He joined a local militia in preparation for the fight, praying for a chance to distinguish himself upon the field of honor. It did not take long. Hamilton’s bravery always left an enduring image. He was a man “famished for combat” who displayed an “indifference to danger” and seemed “ubiquitous on the battlefield.” General George Washington, a man besieged by deserters, incompetence, and a distressing lack of resources plucked Hamilton from the front lines, desperate for anyone who could be relied upon. He proved a Godsend. “As Hamilton evolved from private secretary to something akin to chief of staff, he rode with the general in combat, cantered off on diplomatic missions, dealt with bullheaded generals, sorted through intelligence, interrogated deserters, and negotiated prisoner exchanges.” This gave him a “wide-angle view of economic, political, and military matters, further hastening his intellectual development.” Seeded in the revolution, Washington and Hamilton would produce what can only be described as the greatest partnership in American history.
A bottomless source of anxiety for both men was fighting the war while answering to fragmented sources of authority, including colonial state governments and an ineffectual “national” congress. Neither would soon forget the logistical nightmare created by a neutered central government. After the war, Hamilton settled into peacetime by practicing law, though he was never far-removed from politics. When the time came to replace the feckless Articles of Confederation with a sturdier national government Hamilton threw himself into the task. He faced headwinds from a number of powerful forces, including New York’s own governor, who saw any increase in federal power to be at the expense of the states. When the Constitution was offered as an alternative, Hamilton devoted his pen and voice to the cause, offering a vigorous argument in favor of this new, stronger system of government. Hamilton’s herculean effort became what is known today as the Federalist Papers, a set of essays that offered arguments in favor of the Constitution, and has been cited countless times by courts interpreting the document’s meaning throughout the nation’s history. “More than anyone else, Hamilton engineered the transition to a postwar political culture that valued sound and efficient government as the most reliable custodian of liberty.”
After the Constitution prevailed, Washington was named the country’s first president. He quickly turned to the man who had earned his unwavering trust to be the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. At the time, Hamilton was making a fine living as a lawyer in support of his growing family, but as he told a friend, he took the low paying post because “it is the situation in which I can do the most good.” A man of “incorrigible honesty” and “irreproachable integrity”, Hamilton set the standard for government officials, and “severed all outside sources of income while in office, something that neither Washington, nor Jefferson or Madison dared to do.”
Hamilton’s contributions at the Treasury were numerous, long lasting and crucial to the health and survival of our country. His elegant bronze statue, which still graces the south patio of the Treasury Building is testament to his innovations and influence. His decision to have the central government assume the states’ war debt consolidated power in the fledgling federal government, producing a stable commerce amongst the states and access to easier credit abroad. His treasury’s issuance of bonds provided the nation with an influx of cash to fuel its growth. He founded the Coast Guard to ensure stability in trade and commerce, and created the government-backed Bank of the United States, all funded primarily from tariffs on imports and taxes on whiskey. He also designed the Jay Treaty, an agreement between Britain and the U.S. that helped avert further war and establish years of peaceful trade. (This drove the Francophiles Jefferson and Madison insane). With his analytical mind and genius for numbers, it is easy to forget about Hamilton’s gifts as a writer. But his “skill with the quill is undeniable” when reading Washington’s famous farewell address, which Hamilton largely structured and wrote on behalf of America’s most beloved patriarch.
While guiding readers through this incredible journey from orphaned islander to nation builder, Chernow underlines the irony that Hamilton’s greatest strengths were also his Achilles heel. His gallantry, respect and love of women produced a deep bond of love and affection between him and his wife Eliza, but also led him to stray and partake in affairs during her absences. His liaison with the unscrupulous Maria Reynolds led to America’s first sex scandal, and heaped lasting damage upon his home life and political career. His humble origins fueled an unquenchable thirst for success and renown, but also left him inordinately sensitive to any perceived slights to his professional name and reputation, real or imagined. Additionally, Hamilton’s ability to bolster his causes and eviscerate his opponents through his essays garnered him international acclaim, while also creating a visceral, almost paranoid hatred of the man amongst his political enemies.
These faults embroiled Hamilton in a number of affairs of honor throughout his life. Only one such affair actually advanced to the dueling ground, albeit with mortal consequences. At dawn on Wednesday, July 11, 1804 on the shores of the Hudson River at Weehawken, New Jersey, Alexander Hamilton dueled his longtime political rival and Vice-President of the United States Aaron Burr. Burr would fatally wound Hamilton with a single shot, sending the nation’s first Treasury Secretary to his premature grave.
It’s a funny business that when reading biographies of history's greatest actors, it is often the little things one remembers most. Hamilton was a such a protean genius and rare spirit, that it can be hard to relate to him. But the quiet scenes of him nursing his sick children, laying a blanket upon an ailing friend, reciting the Lord’s prayer with an orphan he had taken in, speaking at abolitionist societies, sending money to far flung relatives, (and even Aaron Burr), walking arm in arm with his grief stricken wife after his son’s death, and of course, throwing away his shot against Burr, provide real windows into the soul of the man. While his drive, achievements, and shortcomings seem otherworldly, Chernow’s exquisite details show the tender and kind heart that lurked beneath the suit of armor.
The reading of this extraordinary life feels especially poignant in today’s political climate. While Hamilton’s journey was many things, it is also the ultimate immigrant’s story. It reminds us of the innumerable contributions made by people who came to this country seeking a better life. A nation’s greatest natural resources are its people, and immigrants, people who actually chose their new home, are often the most invested in contributing to and ensuring their adopted homeland’s success. Unfortunately today, the United States finds itself with a President who built the bulk of his campaign on fueling mistrust and resentment of these very people. It is a dark time when our leaders betray our ideals, and a watchful and engaged citizenry becomes more indispensable than ever. Alexander Hamilton started his life as a penniless orphan in the Caribbean, and would become one of the country’s greatest founding fathers. His story is what the inscription upon the Statue of Liberty embodies:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
It is sweet justice to see Hamilton begin to occupy his rightful place in history. One prays that our country’s recent immigrants will take solace in his story and rise above the bigotry and scapegoating currently being heaped upon them. Hamilton’s story remains as vital today as it was upon his death. All praise to Ron Chernow, for helping us not only to admire the man, but to love him.