Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is the basis for the highly acclaimed Broadway hip-hop musical “Hamilton”. Before this musical I thought Hamilton was the most underrated Founding Father of the United States and felt that a hip-hop version of his life would not do him justice. I turned down tickets for the show when it was in preview. I have not seen the show to take its measure, but it did revive Hamilton in the minds of America; encourage knowledge of history that is lacking among young people; and retained A.H. on U.S. currency. I found it reprehensible that our political correctness would remove the founder of the U.S. Treasury as the face of the $10 bill. Hamilton’s contributions were immense: co-author of The Federalist Papers; First Secretary of the Treasury; establishment of coinage in the U.S.; developer of the U.S.’ first tax and budget systems; creator of a National Bank that permitted borrowing; originator of the Customs Service and the Coast Guard; and interpreter of the Constitution’s “implied powers” that was reinforced by Supreme Court Justice Marshall and subsequently used by President Jefferson to support the Louisiana Purchase, even he opposed Hamilton’s interpretation before becoming President. He was also the first true immigrant Founding Father, and one from the lower class (and viewed as a bastard).
Like many biographies, this one does put a gloss on the subject. Nonetheless, Chernow does address Hamilton’s jingoistic executive approach to power, which I had not realized about him. I also held Washington in higher regard after reading this biography. Washingotn was never considered a great general, nor the intellectual equivalent of his peers. His skill his ability to read people and situations extremely well and balance the partisans that surrounded him. His first administration appears to be the Hamilton Administration as he supported what Hamilton devised, while holding him in check. In this regard modern Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan seem to be comparable but lesser equivalents.
The highly partisan and abusive nature of politics at that time make our current depraved situation seem tame. The Louisiana Purchase as a political ploy of Jefferson to increase the power of the slave holding South prompts New England States (Federalists) to consider seceding. It is not the civics lesson you learned about the Louisiana Purchase`. While slavery was clearly an issue at the Constitutional Convention, how emotionally charged it was early in our history was surprising to me, considering abolitionists (of which Hamilton was one) were not strong in the “North”.
The reason why Hamilton decided to duel Burr is peculiar and remains a mystery. By even current standards it would hardly constitute slander and could easily have been remedied. Hamilton and Burr careers had waned and neither was in good financial condition (Burr was insolvent). Even considering pride, the decision is inexplicable to me, as Hamilton was one of New York’s best lawyers.
Burr was a capable lawyer and his statesmanship was evident in the politically motivated impeachment trial of Justice Chase. Burr effectively saved the independence of the Federal Judiciary to the disappointment of President Jefferson. Most interesting, Burr as Vice President presided over the trial in the Senate at a time that we was indicted and wanted for murder in NY and NJ for the killing of Hamilton in the duel.
This book is over 700 pages, so it cannot be digested in one read. It is a mixture of primary and secondary sources and encourages reading of other Founding Father biographies to compare different interpretations.
Reading this highly regarded biography is certainly worth your time.