“Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow
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Micah Reader in September 2016 by Brenda Levenson
Save for the fact that Alexander Hamilton’s portrait appears on our current ten-dollar bills, he is less known by the general public than the other founding fathers of the United States, as one reader pointed out. Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton provides a comprehensive view of his subject’s staggering achievements, all of which have contributed to shape the country we call America.
Orphaned at the age of 14, Hamilton became a clerk in the import-export business of Beekman and Cruger in the island of St. Croix. Having spotted the young boy’s intelligence and organizational skills, they sponsored his education in the United States where he arrived two years later. Princeton rejected his application, King’s College, later known as Columbia University, accepted him.
The Revolutionary War interrupted Hamilton’s studies for a while. Readers commented on his “knack for recognizing the people who could help him,” a trait he shared with George Washington who made him his nearly indispensable aide-de-camp. Hamilton earned the title of Colonel in his early twenties. One can wonder at how he managed to absorb in that time the best of European philosophy from Montaigne, David Hume, John Locke, to Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot. For lighter reading he turned to the 17th century plays of Molière and Plutarch’s Lives. He also developed his own philosophy that the government “would both steer business activities and free individual energies,” writes Chernow. Warning against excessive powers from the states, Hamilton envisioned “a fusing of the states” and a federal government in which a balance of powers would be an essential element. The Supreme Court’s lack of importance in the 18th century surprised our group. If you ever wondered, as did many of us, how political parties came to be, the answer is to be found in Chernow’s volume.
Eliza Schuyler, the daughter of a prominent family in Albany, N.Y., who became Hamilton’s wife and the mother of his eight children, was deserving of our attention and admiration. She was an extraordinary and strong woman, whose grace and intelligence overcame her husband’s infidelity and the opprobrium that followed him.
Jefferson and Hamilton could not have been more different personalities, and as such one of the many objects of our discussion. Where Jefferson “was a man of the country,” Hamilton “was a city man” as well as an abolitionist of slavery which he had seen at close quarters in St. Croix. Jefferson had lived in France and traveled through other parts of Europe, and yet it is Hamilton, who had done neither, who comes out as the more cosmopolitan of the two. Their views of the French Revolution and its aftermath were divergent as were their ideas on what the future of the United States would be. Jefferson was anchored in an 18th century nation that would remain rural, assuming that slavery would continue to exist and make that possible. Hamilton was a visionary who contemplated a country in which a professional army was essential, rather than the state militias of his opponent. He predicted that the Atlantic Ocean would not prevent foreign attacks, thus the necessity of a navy. One noted that, if Hamilton is remembered above all as being the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, his accomplishments touched upon every aspect of the United States’ system as a basic democracy, from education, civil rights, justice and more. His mind was constantly working in different directions, his attention “telescopic,” going from the most important issues “to the size of the buttons” on military uniforms, observed a reader.
Biographies cannot avoid “a certain bias” towards the individual they are portraying, remarked one reader, but Chernow appears to have covered the flaws as well as the qualities of Alexander Hamilton. His portraits of Jefferson and Madison challenge the icons of history books, but he does remind us that the latter “was the father of the Constitution.” adding that “then Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.”
As our leader observed, reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is indeed relevant to our times. The aphorism that “the more things change, the more they remain the same” reflects our current electoral campaign. Hamilton viewed a government “that would have the continuity of a monarchy with the liberties of a republic, guarding against anarchy and tyranny.” So far we have succeeded, so far….