Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

chernow_hamilton.jpgThe resurgence of interest in America's revolutionary history over the past several decades has led to some adjustments in our founding fathers' historical reputations. David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams, and the recent HBO mini-series adaptation of it, have greatly increased popular appreciation of our second president. The controversies over Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves and his relationship with Sally Hemings continue to draw great attention, with Annette Gordon-Reed taking home a National Book Award just this last year for her biography of the Hemings family.

And then there is Alexander Hamilton, hatred of whom was one of the few things John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could agree on at the close of the 18th-century. Hamilton is recognizable to most Americans as either the victim of Aaron Burr's fatal shot or the face on the $10 bill. But even amongst students of American history, there has been relatively little appreciation for Hamilton's role as a leader of the founding generation. In part this was a consequence of his untimely death, leaving decades thereafter for Adams, Jefferson, and their supporters to consecrate for history the least generous interpretations of Hamilton's actions, ideas, and policies. While Hamilton's nationalist and industrialist views won out in the long term, they were unpopular in the early 19th-century dominated by Jefferson and his successors in the Virginia dynasty. But if history proved Hamilton right, it largely failed to give him credit:

Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive... If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America's future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.

With the 2004 publication of Alexander Hamiltion, Ron Chernow has done his part to set the record straight. A seasoned veteran of financial biography after authoring well-received books about John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and the Warburg family, Chernow makes his first venture into the 18th-century with the one founding father who truly understand the economic promise of America and the role that public finance could play in fulfilling that promise. Hamilton was also the only leading founder who was not an American by birth. Hamilton's political enemies made sure that history remembered Hamilton's origins as an illegitimate child in the West Indies. The truth, of course, is more complicated, and Chernow has done revelatory work in piecing together the childhood that Hamilton was so reticent to speak of:

By the time Rachel met James Hamilton for sure in St. Kitts in the early 1750s, a certain symmetry had shaped their lives. They were both scarred by early setbacks, had suffered a vertiginous descent in social standing, and had grappled with the terrors of downward economic mobility. Each would have been excluded from the more rarefied society of the British West Indies and tempted to choose a mate from the limited population of working whites. Their liaison was the sort of match that could easily produce a son hypersensitive about class and status and painfully conscious that social hierarchies ruled the world.

The man who would one day be villainized as the puppet of aristocracy and money interests was born in the Caribbean backwaters, abandoned and orphaned in his youth, and earned his way to America on the sheer prodigious potential observed by those around him. While a student at King's College (now Columbia), he became involved in the political movement that gave rise to the revolution. Hamilton sought military service and so excelled as a young artillery officer that he caught the attention of America's leading soldier:

According to Hamilton's son, it was at Harlem Heights that Washington first recognized Hamilton's unique organizational gifts, as he watched him supervise the building of an earthwork. It was also at Harlem Heights that Hamilton's company first came under the direct command of Washington, who "entered into conversation with him, invited him to his tent, and received an impression of his military talent," wrote John C. Hamilton. It was yet another striking example of the instantaneous rapport that this young man seemed to develop with even the most seasoned officers.

Invited to join Washington's staff, Hamilton would quickly rise from mere aide or secretary to effectively function as Washington's chief of staff for much of the war. Though the relationship was not always smooth, particular when Hamilton started bristling for a field command, it would last for several decades and see Hamilton serve not just as one of Washington's cabinet members, but the most important. Just as he became the virtual chief of Washington's wartime staff, he would become the virtual prime minister of Washington's administration.

One reason that Hamilton gets so little popular credit for his role in creating our government is that his greatest influence was in areas least understood by Americans. Every schoolchild learns about the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; thus George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson get their due. Most high school and college students will have some exposure to a civics curriculum, exploring the three branches of government, the checks and balances, and the like. Very few who do not seek degrees in economics will have much exposure to the origins of our public finance or political economy. And yet this was perhaps Hamilton's most lasting gift to the nation, prodigiously captured in his 1789 Report on Public Credit:

Had Hamilton stuck to dry financial matters, his Report on Public Credit would never have attained such historic renown. Instead, he presented a detailed blueprint of the government's fiscal machinery, wrapped in a broad political and economic vision... Hamilton argued that the security of liberty and property were inseparable and that governments should honor their debt because contracts formed the basis of public and private morality... The proper handling of government debt would permit America to borrow at affordable interest rates and would also act as a tonic to the economy... America was a young country rich in opportunity. It lacked only liquid capital, and government debt could supply that gaping deficiency.

Hamilton was unrivaled as a founding father in his ability to contribute to both the political and economic origins of the American government. Hamilton was also virtually unique amongst that generation's leaders as a staunch abolitionist (in his late years Franklin would join the movement), and Chernow makes an interesting point regarding the second-order effects resulting from the shielding of the slavery question from public debate:

The bipartisan decision to shelve the slavery issue had profound repercussions for Hamilton's economic measures, for it spared the southern economy from criticism. In the 1790s, America's critical energies were trained exclusively on the northern economy and the financial and manufacturing system devised by Hamilton. This became immediately apparent in the heated debate over his funding system, which allowed southern slaveholders to proclaim that northern financiers were the evil ones and that slaveholders were the virtuous populists, upright men of the soil. It was testimony to the political genius of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that they diverted attention from the grisly realities of southern slavery by casting a lurid spotlight on Hamilton's system as the paramount embodiment of evil.

If that sounds like a backhanded complement to Jefferson and Madison, that's because it is. It is hard to come out of Chernow's account with particular esteem for either man. Madison seems somewhat more principled, at least never working through proxies or attacking the very administration he was purportedly serving. Between this account and McCullough's biography of John Adams, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that for some years in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Jefferson behaved very poorly and seemed consumed by delusional, if sincere, conspiratorial ideas regarding Britain, Alexander Hamilton, and their oppression of revolutionary France.

Chernow has done a remarkable job putting Hamilton back into his proper place in the pantheon of American heroes. He does not sidestep Hamilton's many faults, from his disastrous affair that ended in extortion and public scandal, to his wrong-headed pamphlet attacking John Adams just before the 1800 election, to his obsession with reputation and honor that ultimately resulted in his own death. But Chernow does effectively defend his subject from the lazy attacks made by so many in the last two hundred years, that he was "a slavish pawn of the British Crown, a closet monarchist, a Machiavellian intriguer, a would-be Caesar." Instead, by the end of the seven hundred-odd pages, there is no question that Hamilton "was the messenger from a future that we now inhabit," "the uncontested visionary in anticipating the shape and powers of the federal government," and that "we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton's America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world."