Alexander Hamilton — American patriot, financial genius, builder of the United States!

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

A review of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2004)

This book is the most comprehensive biography of Alexander Hamilton released in modern times. It tells the story well and is written in florid detail supported by a fount of scholarly research and previously undisclosed material from Hamilton's voluminous writings. Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) was born in the West Indies (Nevis), descended from the laird of Grange in Scotland on his father's side of the family and from French Huguenots on his mother's side. Brought up in relative poverty, Hamilton was soon recognized as a child prodigy by Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister in the islands. As an extremely proficient clerk at aAlexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow Counting House in St. Croix, young Alexander Hamilton's employers also appreciated his precocity and intelligence. Knox arranged for Hamilton, now age 17, to receive financial assistant from the admiring islanders, who backed Hamilton to travel to America and study on scholarship. America was then a land in revolutionary turmoil, rebelling against British rule. As a student, Hamilton soon became embroiled in the heat of politics and revolution. Hamilton studied at Kings College (later Columbia University) in New York, but as open rebellion erupted in America, Hamilton joined the ranks of the revolutionaries. He wrote incendiary articles, orated for the revolution, and when war came he served as an artillery officer in the New York militia. Discovered by George Washington, Hamilton was made an military adjutant and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the Revolutionary Army. He was commissioned and served six years under George Washington (1776-1781), became a hero of the Battle of Yorktown (1781), served brilliantly as Secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795), and later as Deputy Chief of the U.S. Army (as Major General; 1799-1800).

A passionate and controversial figure, Alexander Hamilton established the basis for the economic powerhouse that the United States of America would become, only to be senselessly killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States at the rocky ledge of Burr-Hamilton DuelWeehawken, New Jersey across the Hudson River on July 12, 1804 (photo, left). Upon learning of his death, there was general lamentation in New York and other Federalist city strongholds, such as Boston and Philadelphia. Charles Biddle, Aaron Burr's friend, admitted there was as much lamentation as when George Washington died. Alexander Hamilton's public funeral was financed by the merchants of New York. Historian Ron Chernow describes the funeral scene:  "...New York militia units set out at the head of the funeral procession, bearing their arms in reversed position, their muzzles pointed downward. Numerous clergymen and members of the Society of the Cincinnati trooped behind them.... Preceded by two small black boys in white turbans, eight pallbearers shouldered Hamilton's corpse, set in a rich mahogany casket with his hat and sword perched on top. Hamilton's gray horse trailed behind with the boots and spurs of its former rider reversed in the stirrups." (p. 711)

Hamilton was both hated and loved with passion. There was no middle ground for the sentiments he evoked during his lifetime. Nevertheless, both friends and foes marveled at his genius. Chernow's book has an interesting amalgam of opinions about Hamilton (photo, right) by famous contemporaries who knew him:Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull

New York Judge Ambrose Spencer who frequently presided over legal courtroom battles opined that Hamilton "was the greatest man his country ever produced... In power of reasoning, Hamilton was the equal of [Daniel] Webster... In creative power, Hamilton was infinitely Webster's superior." (p. 189)

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story stated, "I have heard Samuel Dexter, John Marshall, and Chancellor (Robert R.) Livingston say that Hamilton's reach of thought was so far beyond theirs that by his side they were schoolboys—rush tapers before the sun on noonday." (p. 189)

Fisher Ames commented, "With other men, law is a trade, with him [Hamilton] it was a science." (p. 190)

Reverend John M. Mason called Hamilton "...the greatest statesman in the western world, perhaps the greatest man of the age...." (p. 714)

Alexander Hamilton's friend Robert Troup said, "I used to tell him that he was not content with knocking down [his opponent] in the head, but that he persisted until he banished every little insect that buzzed around his ears." (p.190)

John Quincy Adams — son of one of Hamilton's most vociferous critics and intemperate enemy, John Adams — admitted that Hamilton's financial system "operated like enchantment for the restoration of public credit." (p. 481)

Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United StatesOccasionally his political enemies rendered backhanded praise for Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson (photo, left) wrote to his friend and collaborator James Madison at about the time of the debate on the Jay Treaty (a winning political issue for the Republicans) in 1793: "[Hamilton] is really a colossus to the anti-Republican party. Without numbers, he is a host [i.e., an army] within himself... We have only middling performances to oppose him. In truth, when he comes forward, there is nobody but yourself, who can meet him." (p. 496) Madison did not accept the challenge. He opposed Hamilton legislatively but not with the pen, and the Treaty was approved for the good of the country, which was totally unprepared for war.

When Jefferson was President of the United States, he charged Albert Gallatin, his new Secretary of the Treasury and a political foe of Hamilton's, to rifle through files, dig up any financial material in the Department incriminating Hamilton of malfeasance. Gallatin went at it with gusto. Gallatin wrote years later: "Well Gallatin, what have you found? [Jefferson asked]. "I answered: 'I have found the most perfect system ever formed. Any change that should be made in it would injure it. Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds. He did nothing wrong.' " (p. 646-647) Despite their criticisms, both Jefferson and Madison as Presidents left the Hamiltonian economic system largely in place.

And praise for Hamilton was not restricted to sectarian Americans. The French Revolution exile, the duc de La Rochefoucald-Liancourt noted, "the lack of interest in money, rare anywhere, but even rarer in America is one of the most universally recognized traits of Mr. Hamilton." In fact, although Hamilton would not take cases in which he deemed the defendant guilty, he frequently undertook to defend many indigent legal cases. (p. 188)

And the famous Charles Maurice de TalleyrandTalleyrand-Perigord (photo, right), arguably the greatest diplomat-statesman in history, who got to know Hamilton during his two year exile in America, marvelled at Hamilton's honesty and integrity, but most of all his intelligence. Talleyrand opined: "I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton the three greatest men of our epoch and, if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton. He divined Europe." Talleyrand further told an American traveler that he had known nearly all the marked men of his time, but that he had never known one on the whole equal to Hamilton. (p. 466) After his treason trial in 1807, Aaron Burr traveled in Europe for four years. While in Paris, Burr called on Talleyrand who was then Foreign Minister for Napoleon. Talleyrand told his secretary to tell Burr, "I should be glad to see Colonel Burr, but please tell him that a portrait of Alexander Hamilton always hangs in my study where all may see it."  Wittily, Chernow states that "Burr got the message and left." (p. 720)

Posterity, in the voice of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge has justly judged Hamilton: "We look in vain for a man who, in an equal space of time, has produced such direct and lasting effect upon our institutions and history." (p. 481) And Ron Chernow himself, who remained for the most part objective and dispassionate in the book, wrote: "If Washington was the father of the Tomb of Alexander Hamiltoncountry, and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Hamilton is the father of the American government." (p. 481)

In conclusion, Hamilton (Tomb of Alexander Hamilton, left) championed the executive branch of government and an independent judiciary, strengthening the national government. He succeeded with almost all the programs he conceived, including the First Bank of the United States, which promoted commerce; the funding of the national debt that provided financial confidence in the new nation; the American tax system that funded constitutional government; the efficient Custom Service, which largely funded the national debt; the inception of the Coast Guard,which protected custom duties and guarded against smugglers — in short, America's financial and commercial system. As Deputy Chief of the U.S. Army, Hamilton even contained the Whiskey Rebellion without bloodshed — all of which promoted the peace and prosperity of the new nation. When asked, during a dinner meeting at the historic Fraunces Tavern, "Who was right about America, Jefferson or Hamilton?", another Hamilton biographer, Willard Sterne Randall responded briefly, "Jefferson for the eighteenth century, Hamilton for modern times." That is a good summation with which Chernow also would have agreed.

Written by Dr. Miguel Faria

Miguel A. Faria Jr., M.D. is Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International. He is Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.), Mercer University School of Medicine. Dr. Faria is the author of Cuba in Revolution — Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). Dr Faria has written numerous articles on Stalin, communism, and the Soviet Union, all posted at the author’s website: www.haciendapub.com & www.drmiguelfaria.com

Copyright ©2014 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. The Penguin Press, New York, NY, 2004, 818 pages, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

The photographs used to illustrate this commentary came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Chernow's Alexander Hamilton.

 


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Better read Americans!

Literacy at the time of the American Revolution and the founding of the nation was higher than it is today. That was one reason Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense, was so widely read and influential. Americans were better informed, more vigilant of their government, and more attentive of their natural and constitutional rights. They were also better read, particular as to history, opinion political tracts, as well as legal treatises. In fact, in many of those occasions when Alexander Hamilton pleaded a legal case in court with political or constitutional ramifications, the courtrooms were packed not only by citizens, but also by legislators eager to hear him, learn, and be informed. Such was the occasion when Hamilton established the need in court, not only to ascertain damages but also to establish the justice and the truth of the defamatory statement in alleged cases of libel.

Ironically, this happened in January 1803 and February 1804, when Hamilton was defending the pamphleteer Harry Croswell for seditious libel against, not President John Adams in violation of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, but President Thomas Jefferson of freedom of the press notoriety and tree of liberty fame. Eventually, Hamilton's arguments that the truth of the claims made by a writer (or defendant) should be admissible evidence for the defense of an alleged libel case, became incorporated by legislation in judicial proceedings.

Because Americans were better read and better informed they were less susceptible to be hoodwinked by demagogues and the passions of the moment. That may have been one reason the American Revolution did not turn the sanguinary way of the French Revolution. It is also a reason we are today more susceptible to modish ideas, such as the Gramscian (socialist) philosophy of transforming American society from individualism and freedom to collectivism and serfdom — by subverting the mass media, institutions, and the popular culture.

Alexander Hamilton

Additional books worth mentioning in the context of this review:

1. Randall, Willard Sterne. Alexander Hamilton: A Life. HarperCollins, 2003.

2. Brookhiser, Richard. Alexander Hamilton, American. Simon and Schuster, 2000.

I recommend all three of the Hamilton books. These books tell the story with differing perspectives, flare, and scholarship. Chernow's book is the most comprehensive and scholarly, but it is less apt to draw conclusions as to historic figures' character and motives. Although most of the protagonists, including the Founders themselves, are basically described as good, their personalities, nevertheless, seem to come in shades of gray as to motives and personal foibles. Only George Washington and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton are depicted in pure white glowing terms. Burr is only a few shades darker than Hamilton, whose immense achievements as well as incredible misjudgments, are emphasized in this biography.

Randall's book correctly exalts Hamilton and is written in engaging prose with novelistic flare. But he is apt to leave out material that is contentious. He draws conclusions when evidence points in a plausible direction. For example, for Randall the plausible love affair between Angelica Schuyler and Hamilton is almost a certainty. And the contrast in the portrayal of the two women closest to Hamilton cannot differ more between the two authors.

Chernow, who refers to Elizabeth as Eliza, exalts the loyal and devoted wife who worshiped her husband and his memory. Randall, on the other hand, calls her Betsy and describes her as a timid and depressive wife, always in the background. Randall, by contrast, exalts Angelica, who plays a momentous role in the life of Hamilton, even when she is across the Atlantic. She is the cultured and cosmopolitan socialite, the muse whom Hamilton adores.

Chernow attributes Angelica limited importance, a tangential role in Hamilton's life. Chernow has done considerable research on Hamilton's wife, following her life and career for nearly half a century after Hamilton's death and is by far closer to the mark on Eliza's role and personality. Randall has done more work on Angelica. It is obvious, from the work of both authors the Schuyler sisters shared Hamilton's life to some degree and both played momentous political and romantic roles in his remarkable life and career.

Randall's book is still my favorite biography of Hamilton in terms of narrative and perspective. Chernow is best as far as material and scope. They are both exemplary, complimenting each other for the most part. Brookhiser's book is also good but is the most elementary and, frequently Brookhiser's opinions interject themselves in the book. This last, short book should serve as an introduction to the life of Hamilton. — MAF

Today in History

Today in History

On Aug. 24, 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces invaded Washington D.C., setting fire to the Capitol (which was still under construction) and the White House, as well as other public buildings.

In A.D. 79, long-dormant Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in volcanic ash; an estimated 20,000 people died.

1572: the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of French Protestants at the hands of Catholics began in Paris.
1821: the Treaty of Cordoba was signed, granting independence to Mexico from Spanish rule.

1912: Congress passed a measure creating the Alaska Territory. Congress approved legislation establishing Parcel Post delivery by the U.S. Post Office Department, slated to begin on January 1, 1913.

1932: Amelia Earhart embarked on a 19-hour flight from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, making her the first woman to fly solo, non-stop, from coast to coast.

1949: the North Atlantic Treaty came into force.
1954: President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Communist Control Act, outlawing the Communist Party in the United States.

1964: the first Roman Catholic Mass celebrated in English took place at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis.

1970: an explosives-laden van left by anti-war extremists blew up outside the University of Wisconsin's Sterling Hall in Madison, killing 33-year-old researcher Robert Fassnacht.

1992: Hurricane Andrew smashed into Florida, causing $30 billion in damage; 43 U.S. deaths were blamed on the storm.
2006: the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto was no longer a planet, demoting it to the status of a "dwarf planet."

Ten years ago: An independent commission said the blame for abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison lay mainly with the American soldiers who ran the jail, but said senior commanders and top-level Pentagon officials could also be faulted for failed leadership and oversight. Chechen separatists set off bombs aboard two Russian airliners that crashed after taking off from the same Moscow airport, killing 90 people. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who famously theorized that terminally ill patients go through five stages of grief, died in Scottsdale, Arizona, at age 78.

Thought for Today:

"Of the twenty or so civilizations known to modern Western historians, all except our own appear to be dead or moribund, and, when we diagnose each case... we invariably find that the cause of death has been either War or Class or some combination of the two." — Arnold J. Toynbee, English historian (1889-1975).

Copyright 2014, The Associated Press.

9-11 in history

Today in History

September 11, 2001: On America's single-worst day of terrorism, nearly 3,000 people were killed as 19 al-Qaida members hijacked four passenger jetliners, sending two of the planes smashing into New York's World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the fourth into a field in western Pennsylvania.

1714: The forces of King Philip V of Spain overcame Catalan defenders to end the 13-month-long Siege of Barcelona during the War of the Spanish Succession.

1789: Alexander Hamilton was appointed the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

1814: An American fleet scored a decisive victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Champlain in the War of 1812.
1857: The Mountain Meadows Massacre took place in present-day southern Utah as a 120-member Arkansas immigrant party was slaughtered by Mormon militiamen aided by Paiute Indians.

One year ago: A car bomb tore through a Libyan Foreign Ministry building in the eastern city of Benghazi on the anniversary of a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate there as well as the 2001 terror attacks in the United States.

Courtesy of the Associated Press, 2014