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  • American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy, and: The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America's Most Elusive Founding Father
  • Kevin M. Gannon (bio)
American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy. By John Lamberton Harper. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 347. Illustrations, Cloth, $30.00.)
The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America's Most Elusive Founding Father. Edited by Douglas Ambrose and Robert W. T. Martin. (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2006. Pp. x, 299. Cloth, $45.00.)

Given the current deluge of books about "The Founders"—their virtues, relationships, honor, public lives, private lives, accomplishments, legacies, scandals, duels, and seemingly anything else Founder-related—it is appropriate to ask whether this burgeoning literature really needs two more volumes about Alexander Hamilton. Numerous critics have characterized the surfeit of books about the Founders as "Founders chic," a fad that serves only to obscure much of the wider and more meaningful aspects of the early republic's history. Yet still they come, and people [End Page 168] still buy them. Clearly there is an abiding interest in the Revolutionary-era elite that seems unlikely to wane any time soon. But the criticisms associated with the pejorative "Founders chic" are, in many cases, salient. Books on the founding elite run the real risk of focusing so narrowly upon a small (albeit disproportionately powerful) group of individuals (almost always men) as to eclipse the thoughts, ideals, motivations, and actions of the other 99 percent of the population. The question is one of balance. The founding elite was made up of powerful men, and their ideologies and actions had a profound influence on the public sphere that belied their small numbers. But they did not operate in a vacuum, and paying attention to this reality is the factor that defines the better, and more worthwhile, treatments of the founding elite.

The two volumes under review here fall into that category. For a number of reasons, Alexander Hamilton has become a figure of fascination for scholars and the wider public. His advocacy of an active and powerful government in the face of locally oriented opposition speaks directly to the tensions between liberty and order central to the American polity, then and now. His significant (some would argue dominant) role in shaping foreign policy and defining U.S. international interests resonates loudly with current concerns. His Caribbean background and cosmopolitan worldview seem to render him in, but sometimes not entirely of, the Founding elite. These two volumes—one a "partial biography," the other a collection of essays stemming from a conference on Hamilton—address the "many faces" of Alexander Hamilton and the many facets of his impact upon a diverse array of the fundamental issues involved in the shaping of the early republic.

Diplomatic historian John Lamberton Harper says that there is still room for valuable work on Hamilton; indeed, he asserts, "the new literature, like the old, is mostly hostile or partisan" (2). (It should be noted that Harper's work slightly antedates Ron Chernow's biography, which is neither of those.)1 While Chernow's work is meant as a comprehensive life-and-times treatment of its subject, Harper's primary (though not exclusive) focus is on Hamilton's role in shaping and implementing foreign policy for the infant American republic. Where Harper's study is truly original is in its explicit paralleling of Hamilton and the sixteenth-century Florentine politico Niccoló Machiavelli. According to Harper, [End Page 169] "Hamilton and Machiavelli, the father of continental realism, inhabited the same moral and intellectual world, one where emerging states had to adapt themselves to the law of the jungle and look to successful models to survive" (5). The two shared remarkably similar views on "human nature, politics, and statecraft," as well as a personal "set of visceral likes and dislikes; in particular, they deplored the 'middle path'" (5). The comparison is suggestive not only because of the similarities Harper identifies—though they are quite striking—but also due to each man's particular context. Sixteenth-century Florence, like the eighteenth...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 168-172
Launched on MUSE
2007-02-23
Open Access
No
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