The Importance of Being Alexander Hamilton
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Reviews in American History 33.1 (2005) 8-14

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The Importance of Being Alexander Hamilton

Ron Chernow. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Press, 2004. xi + 818 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00 (cloth); $26.00 (paper).

Poor Alexander Hamilton. The boy genius of the Revolution, he was hooted off the national stage at the age of 45. He died in a duel that never should have been fought. And while counted among the founders, he suffers from comparative neglect. According to The New York Times Magazine, Mount Vernon had nearly 800,000 visitors in 2003, and Monticello had over 464,000. Even the Adams National Historical Park drew 217,000, while Hamilton's Grange managed to attract only 13,413. The man whom Talleyrand claimed was the greatest of his epoch might even be bounced off the $10 bill by Ronald Reagan. Hamilton should file a grievance with the American Historical Association.

There seems to be an unending stream of full-length biographies about other founders. Jefferson remains a perennial favorite. A slew of Franklin biographies have appeared in the last few years. Even prickly John Adams has re-emerged from the shadows thanks to David McCullough. And Hamilton can hardly be said to have lived a colorless life. If the books published about him recently are to be believed, he seems to have spent most of his forty-nine years either fighting or fornicating—a seemingly ideal candidate for a door-stopper of a biography. The simplest explanation for this relative neglect is that Hamilton has always served as an easy (and easily caricatured) foil for Jefferson, and Jefferson's recent diminishment at the hands of various historians has undoubtedly contributed to the mini-revival of Hamilton underway. He is currently the subject of an extensive exhibit at the New-York Historical Society and of an exhaustive and, at times, exhausting 779-page biography by Ron Chernow.

Many readers will already be familiar with Chernow's work. He has written well-received (and long) biographies of J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that he is paid by the pound. But Hamilton certainly deserves the attention. As Chernow persuasively argues, "If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other [End Page 8] 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" (p. 4).

The story that Chernow tells is a familiar one and does not substantially alter what is known about Hamilton. That said, Chernow provides us with the best portrait yet of the man himself, and that is no small matter for a founder who was so mercurial, charming, infuriating, brilliant, idiotic, and ultimately tragic. The book is less successful, though, at placing Hamilton in historical context. Although remarkably prophetic about what sort of country America would become, Hamilton was very much a figure of the eighteenth century. While someone like Franklin seems capable of being re-invented for every age, Hamilton is a more difficult challenge. So, for a truly outstanding biography of the man, you need a sure grasp of his time, and it is here, unfortunately, that Chernow falls short.

Hamilton's truncated life encompassed a rise and fall that were positively dizzying. He was most likely born in 1755 on the British island of Nevis. His father, James Hamilton, was a younger son of a Scottish laird. His mother, Rachel Faucette Lavien, left her first husband, who obtained a divorce decree that did not allow her to remarry, a legal blow that meant that Hamilton was illegitimate. James Hamilton abandoned the family in 1765. Rachel died in 1767 (while Alexander was lying ill in the bed with her), and the continuing legal machinations of her first husband deprived Alexander and his brother of any of her property. At 14, he found himself a destitute orphan with scarcely a friend in the world. The sources for...