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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

“Alexander Hamilton”, by Ron Chernow

818 pages, Penguin, ISBN-13: 978-1594200090

The first person who mentions that damn musical gets unfriended. Right, on with the review…

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow takes on the task of portraying perhaps America’s most controversial Founding Father while simultaneously providing a broad view of the landscape of early America with special emphasis on Hamilton’s achievements and his relationship to certain Founders...but before reading this book, I had to reacquaint myself with the popular image of Hamilton as a brilliant but overbearing man who was frequently involved in scandals or in conflicts with other Founders. I remember hearing that he advocated monarchy, protectionism, mercantilism; a strong federal government with a central bank; I also knew that he had something to do with the Constitution and wrote some of The Federalist Papers; I especially knew that Aaron Burr killed him in a duel in 1804; but what I didn’t know was that Hamilton, at least according to Ron Chernow, was arguably the most important Founding Father. With this book, Chernow set out to tell the full story of Hamilton’s life is it had never been told: his research included more than 22,000 pages of material, much of it coming from the 27-volume Papers of Alexander Hamilton, published by Columbia University Press. From Chernow’s prologue we see an indication of the breadth and depth of this Founder’s life and work:

The magnitude of Hamilton’s feats as treasury secretary has overshadowed many other facets of his life: clerk, college student, youthful poet, essayist, artillery captain, wartime adjutant to Washington, battlefield hero, congressman, abolitionist, Bank of New York founder, state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Convention, orator, lawyer, polemicist, educator, patron saint of the New-York Evening Post, foreign-policy theorist, and major general in the army. Boldly uncompromising, he served as catalyst for the emergence of the first political parties and as the intellectual fountainhead for one of them, the Federalists. He was a pivotal force in four consecutive presidential elections and defined much of America’s political agenda during the Washington and Adams administrations, leaving copious commentary on virtually every salient issue of the day.

Chernow is undoubtedly a Hamilton fan; however, even though his portrayal of Hamilton may not be totally objective, it is nevertheless fascinating due to its breadth and depth. Hamilton comes across as a brilliant individual sometimes centuries ahead of his time. Chernow develops a convincing case that Hamilton was without peers in his developing the necessary financial and economic infrastructure of what was going to become the modern United States (if Adam Smith was the Scottish genius who invented modern economics, Hamilton was his American counterpart who actually applied modern economics principles in the governing of a new nation; his understanding in such matters far surpassed his more famous political opponents such as Madison and Jefferson). Chernow mentions several examples of Hamilton’s unique foresight, such as defeat of the “discrimination bill” that proposed that capital gains on sales of treasury securities should flow back to the original investor; Hamilton quickly saw that such a concept was operationally unworkable and would prevent the development of a liquid market in tradable government securities and would affect the U.S. ability to issue new bonds and finance both government operations and other upcoming wars. Another bold move by Hamilton was to enforce the assumptions of all States’ debt by the Federal Government; thus, the fragmented portfolio of U.S. debt formerly backed by the weak credit of each specific State was now fully backed by the U.S., a move that reassured foreign investors and allowed the Treasury to refinance some of the bonds with much longer terms and at lower interest rates and prevented the bankruptcy of the U.S. under the mountain of debt it had amassed as a result of its wars to fight for its independence.

This book has several flaws, the first being that in a biography of such length Chernow never identifies America (either in its founding or today’s context) as a constitutional republic. He often praises America as a democracy, even though he makes it clear that Hamilton saw democracy as anti-rights and a road to mob rule. Chernow also spends a great deal of time addressing nonessentials; his discussion of the scoundrel Aaron Burr, for instance, goes on for dozens of pages, whereas The Federalist Papers, which Jefferson called “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written”, gets far less coverage. Hamilton’s development of the concept and practice of “judicial review”, which influenced Chief Justice John Marshall and was opposed by Jefferson and others because it was antidemocratic, is given barely two pages; similarly, the crucially important principle of implied powers gets only three pages. Finally, Chernow does not integrate the plethora of presented facts into principles, so the task of essentializing the 800 pages of material is left entirely to the reader.

This is a wonderfully written book that is thoroughly researched with Chernow doing an excellent job of weaving the personal Hamilton with the public doings of the statesman. The times and political milieu are also expertly drawn and brought to life; in reading of the founders it astounds me how hard fought the politics of the founding generation were compared to these last few decades, with issues of legitimacy and constitutionality at the forefront in both epochs. A warning for Jefferson fans: the author of the Declaration does not come off favorably, nor does Madison, nor Monroe (this is after the start of the Washington Administration, not before); while this might ruffle some feathers of those who have delved lightly into the period, Chernow’s documentation certainly provides a more fully drawn portrait of those who designed our republic and who played politics as deviously, roughly and ruthlessly as any Chicago ward boss.

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