This book is the best biography I have read in a very long time. Chernow’s research is amazing in it’s scope and breadth. One only has to peruse the sources, footnotes, and acknowledgments to appreciate the magnitude of his work. After reading it, one cannot help but think that the subject himself would have approved of its thorough and well executed design. Despite the level of scholarship demonstrated, it’s not a dry tome. Chernow’s treatment of Hamilton appears sympathetic, to be sure, but also very fair.
The author does not hesitate to render judgment, both positive and negative. However, these judgments don’t come across as mere opinions or preferences. Instead, the author gives sound reasons for his conclusions. Some of these conclusions are generally accepted aspects of Hamilton’s character and life, and others contradict what has been said about the man. Chernow does not deify Hamilton, but the reader is left with a great respect and admiration for this sometimes under-appreciated founder.
Alexander Hamilton was a prodigy and a genius. When one considers all of his numerous accomplishments, this conclusion is inescapable. He was a brilliant autodidact and an entirely self-made man who pulled himself out of extremely meager circumstances. It is fair to say that events for the United States would have played out much differently had he not fulfilled all of his numerous roles, any one of which, would have earned him a significant place in history. Without Hamilton, it’s unclear if George Washington would have been successful as the general of the Continental Army. If Washington was the country’s “indispensable man”, then Hamilton was Washington’s, serving as his Aide-de-Camp through much of the war (and later in his presidency).
Somehow, even in the midst of the busiest of times executing, and later drafting, orders on behalf of Washington, Hamilton found the time to read up on monetary policy. He made himself an expert through his “part-time” study of such light reading as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, David Hume’s Political Discourses, and Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce.
Wanting to further prove his martial merit (he’d already been in battle and had at least one horse shot out from under him), he managed to separate from Washington long enough to receive a command of his own. He acquitted himself admirably, commanding three battalions in one of the war’s last battles, the siege of Yorktown in 1781 .
After the war, Hamilton completed his education, compressing three years of legal study into nine months, and began a prosperous legal career. At this same time, he also managed to write the Continentalist essays and involved himself in New York politics.
He became one of three New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Although not entirely satisfied with the resulting document, once committed, he threw himself wholeheartedly into its defense. After the convention, he organized and supervised the publication of The Federalist, writing at least 50 of the essays himself, sometimes churning out up to 5 within the space of a week. (Hamilton’s pen was so prolific that he wrote more than 20,000 pages in his life.) His opponents, the anti-Federalists, could not keep up. Hamilton’s efforts may have been the deciding factor in the ultimate ratification of the Constitution by the states.
After Washington assumed the presidency, Hamilton put his unparalleled knowledge of monetary policy to use and became the first Secretary of the Treasury. He successfully argued for the assumption of state debts by the federal government and the establishment of the first national bank – a private, but partially government-owned institution. He firmly established the principles of financial trading. Due to his efforts, the creditworthiness of the United States was restored.
Hamilton’s accomplishments as Treasury Secretary were not achieved without a struggle. His congressional opponents tried to exhaust him by demanding detailed reports on the workings of the treasury department with incredibly short delivery dates. Hamilton nearly killed himself fulfilling these requests, but he did so brilliantly and completely, in turn exhausting congress going through them meticulously. He dazzled them with his brilliance and many were simply intellectually incapable of comprehending his plans.
Not content to establish the customs service and the coast guard, and create a stable monetary system for the new government, Hamilton also dabbled in the affairs of state, much to the chagrin of Thomas Jefferson. He was once again an indefatigable assistant to Washington.
Hamilton left the cabinet after Washington’s first term, returning to his New York law practice to repair his family finances, but Washington continued to rely upon him, as did many other cabinet members. He unhesitatingly responded to their queries for assistance and advice with detailed answers, even though no longer in the employ of the government.
When John Adams took office, he did not replace Washington’s cabinet. They remained loyal to Hamilton and continued to rely on him extensively. This was one of the reasons that Adams, as well as Jefferson, developed an intense hatred for Hamilton. It was during Adams’ presidency that the venerable Washington was called upon to resume his generalship because of the looming prospect of war with France. He would only do so on the condition that Hamilton be second in command. By this time, Washington and Hamilton had developed a mutual respect that elevated Hamilton to the status of peer. This is conveyed by Washington’s correspondence with Hamilton.
Hamilton began his decline when Washington died. Freed of the tempered restraining influence of Washington, Hamilton’s judgment faltered. At this point, the book became almost unbearably sad. Hamilton engaged in a number of political feuds with Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and others that clouded his perspective. None of these men behaved well. (The reader is left with a less than positive impression of Jefferson and Adams.) He began to see things in an overly pessimistic light which ultimately resulted in the loss of his political influence and finally his life, at the hands of an incensed Aaron Burr.
Chernow packed a huge amount of information into his 750 page volume. I finished the book having developed an appreciation for Hamilton, his brilliance, and his invaluable contributions and sacrifices in the service of his country. I also closed the final pages with a sense of melancholy at the fallibility and foibles of even so magnificent a mind as Hamilton. I find it tragic that his life was cut short. I wonder what other feats of intellectual prowess he might have accomplished had he lived.