Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton is on the U.S. $10 bill. I'd be willing to wager a good many of those bills that most Americans have no idea why. He wasn't president. He wasn't Benjamin Franklin. He doesn't even have a big old memorial. What makes this guy important?

Ron Chernow's book will tell you that, for starters, if he hadn't done a brilliant job as the nation's first Treasury secretary, there wouldn't be a U.S. $10 bill. There might not be a United States. Alexander Hamilton is big, it's exhaustive, it's very well-written, it's often insightful--and it makes an well-argued case for Hamilton's genius and his contributions.

If the book has a weakness, it's that--like many other books of its stripe--it gets a little too sympathetic towards its subject. Chernow is not out to do a whitewash job; we get a full view of Hamilton's personal failings and his political missteps; but Chernow invites us to infer that Alexander Hamilton was never wrong on matters of policy.

Perhaps that's inevitable. We do, as has often been pointed out, live in Alexander Hamilton's American rather than Thomas Jefferson's. We're not a loose agglomeration of sturdy, independent yeomen; we're an industrial, mercantile society with a strong central government. Yet I don't think it's wrong to say that we're living with the defects, as well as the virtues, of the Hamiltonian vision. I suspect, for instance, that Jefferson would regard Donald Trump as a perfect exemplar of Homo hamiltonensis: a speculator, a crony capitalist, a would-be autarch, a demagogue, and a moneyed corruptor of public virtue.

That's not a concession that Ron Chernow makes. Jefferson, like the other actors in this book, appears only in so far as he impacted Hamilton; his own views are not brought forward, and reading this book will not give you a sense of their merits (whatever they might be).

Similarly, Hamilton's own views are presented through a slightly rosy lens. His enemies often accused him of being an aristocrat and of favoring a monarchy. Chernow goes to great lengths to counter these charges. And yet ... Hamilton's friend Gouverneur Morris wrote, in his own private diary and in preparation for delivering Hamilton's formal eulogy: "He was on principal opposed to republican and attached to monarchical government." I'm not so sure that we can dismiss this evidence, as Chernow does, by saying that "Morris distorted and exaggerated Hamilton's views no less than his Republican enemies".

On the other hand, Chernow does show just how deep those distortions were, and how baseless. Perhaps his most telling point is that Hamilton's most vicious opponents, the ones who accused him of wanting to establish an American aristocracy, were southern slave-holding landed gentry. How much more aristocratic can you get? It's hard not to agree with Chernow's point that their real objection was that a Hamiltonian aristocracy would be one of earned merit, rather than birth.

I can't in good conscience recommend this book to anyone who isn't at least a bit familiar with revolutionary-era history. It's 722 pages long; it's not suitable as an introduction! However, if you are interested in the subject, Alexander Hamilton is not only a good book, but an important one. Hamilton was as crucial a figure as Washington or Franklin or Jefferson. It's certainly time he got his recognition.

There are so many good histories and biographies of the Founding Fathers that I couldn't possibly list them all. Specifically, however, Chernow's own Washington: A Life, David McCullough's John Adams, and Joseph Ellis's Passionate Sage and American Sphinx shed more light on some of the other dramatis personae.


  1. An aristocracy of meritocracy of course would fall prey to the same issues that exist in corporations today. Is there truly an objective measure of one's work? Perhaps in IT there is, however in the slippery world of human interactions it is easy to slant a perception toward good or ill. Sounds like a decent book that I shall not invest in soon due to a hefty backlog. Still, good to know about Hamilton. It is a fascinating point that he's #10.

    1. In terms of political power, it's less a question of objective measure and more a question of who bosses whom around. Jefferson and Madison affected to believe in the wisdom of the Common Man, and therefore wanted a weak president and a strong congress. Hamilton and John Adams were skeptics about the wisdom of the mob and were therefore accused of being aristocrats, crypto-monarchists, etc. The irony is that the Jeffersonians were themselves member of the Virginia planter aristocracy, while Hamilton was born poor and illegitimate.

      Incidentally, this book was the basis for a hit Broadway musical. Which I shan't be seeing because I don't care for the musical style, but still.