27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Alexander Hamilton was a man whom people either loved or hated while he lived. After he died, he received great accolades from almost everyone. As time passed, however, his political enemies circulated their false rumors about him with little opposition. As a result, he is the least well understood of the founding fathers of the American republic. If you read this book, you will find much to admire and much condemn about Hamilton . . . and will gain an enormous improvement in your understanding of the United States during the period from 1776 through 1804.
Alexander Hamilton was one of the first and most famous examples of living the American dream. He was born into poverty as an illegitimate child in the British West Indies. His intellect, drive and talent led others to encourage him to develop himself. Those factors led him to continue his studies in New York City at the predecessor to Columbia as the American Revolution began to break out. Hamilton quickly chose the side of the revolution and volunteered for military service. His talent soon brought him to the attention of George Washington who eventually elevated Hamilton to be his chief of staff. Throughout their mutual lives, Washington and Hamilton made an exceptional team. Washington knew how to lead and gain approval, and Hamilton knew how to get the dirty details done. Their collaboration continued throughout almost the whole Revolutionary War until Hamilton finally received permission to head up his own troops.
After the Revolution, Hamilton became one of the leading attorneys in New York. His ability to argue and write was remarkable, and he used that talent well in working with James Madison to author the Federalist Papers which were critical to the passage of the U.S. Constitution. He also threw himself into efforts to help passage of that critical document.
When Washington became the first president under the Constitution, Hamilton became his Treasury secretary. In that role, Hamilton set up the basic administrative structure for the government, including how it would be funded and secure a stable currency. Most of his innovations were continued by successor presidents . . . even those who attacked Hamilton's innovations (such as Jefferson and Madison).
Hamilton's brilliant position in influencing the direction of the new country began to come under a dark cloud first by his admitted adultery with a married woman and later by his political indiscretions after Washington retired from politics. President Adams and he were at each other's throats, and Jefferson despised Hamilton. From his enemies came repeated rumors that Hamilton was a thief, a crook and a traitor.
By the time Jefferson was elected president, Hamilton had little influence except to annoy Aaron Burr who tied with Jefferson in electoral votes.
Within four years, Vice President Burr and Hamilton would meet in a duel that led to Hamilton's death at 49. His wife would live on for many more decades to raise their large family and deal with weak financial circumstances.
Like Adams, Hamilton was a prodigious writer. Drawing on those writings, Mr. Ron Chernow does a thorough job of piecing together the details of Hamilton's life and examining the truth or falseness of the many accusations against him. Mr. Chernow also makes a considerable effort to put Hamilton into context among Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Burr. If you loved the recent biography of John Adams, you will be thrilled by this book because it will add to your perspective on Adams as well.
Mr. Chernow also does a fine job of pointing out what Hamilton and the others got right, what they made a mess of, and where they could have made improvements. It's a more candid view of the American Revolution than you have probably read before. I have never seen Jefferson portrayed in quite such a negative light before. Although Mr. Chernow sticks up for Hamilton, as most biographers do, I thought he was much more objective than I was accustomed to reading.
Although the book is about Hamilton, you cannot tell his story without telling the story of the American Revolution and the development of the Constitution. The book is excellent in both regards.
If you only read one biography about a founding father of the United States this year, I suggest that you make it Alexander Hamilton by Mr. Ron Chernow.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 5 April 2005
It has accurately been said that Hamilton, more than any other founding father, accurately saw the potential superpower that America would become. While Jefferson favoured an agrarian economy (supported in the southern states by the abomination of slavery) and weak central government, Hamilton believed in a strong federal government, a competent military and saw that the United States would eventually overtake Britain as the world's greatest power. Hamilton's essential work in constructing the financial systems of America's new government turned the ailing country from an international bankrupt that no one would lend money to, into a viable nation with a strong economy. As Daniel Webster famously said of Hamilton, "He touched the dead corpse of the public credit and it leapt upon its feet."
Ron Chernow's book brings Hamilton to life with all his brilliance, and all his numerous faults, particularly his argumentative nature which contributed to the duel with Aaron Burr. The skill of Chernow is that he has written an impeccably researched book but is honest about areas which are uncertain, and he refrains from the leaps to judgement which so many modern biographers engage in. The narrative leaps off the page like a swashbuckling novel, and if this wasn't history, you would think that the events and adventures that he writes about were ridiculously improbable. To his credit, Hamilton was the only member of the founding generation who did not own slaves and was instrumental in founding the Maunmission society, which had as its task the abolition of slavery.
Ultimately one has an incredible portrait of the man whom Teddy Roosevelt described as "the man of most brilliant mind - Hamilton - whom we have ever developed in this country."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I have long hoped to find a bio of this founding father that went into the details of what he accomplished in context, without the obscuring myth or ridiculous wisdom in hindsight. This book succeeds at that brilliantly, in what I believe will stand as a classic interpretation for a very long time. Chernow is definitely a partisan in favor of Hamilton, but he is by no means a hagiographer, a distinction that I believe is missed by many reviewers critical of his positive treatment.
Hamilton is one of those extraordinary achievers you find every few decades in politics. He had the energy and drive of Lyndon Johnson and the scholarly credentials and writing ability of Thomas Jefferson. To be sure, it was luck that placed him in the thick of a revolution that created a new form of government, but he got himself there without privileged connections or money. He was also a war hero and trusted aide to GW, and friends with virtually all of the great personages in the US at the time, all of whom are wonderfully described.
What is most important is the influence he had on the interpretation of the constitution, which he helped to craft from his writing and political activity. Once in power - as Secretary of the Treasury, i.e. a bureaucrat with his hold on Washington's ear - he created a number of precedents that decisively shaped the American political system. Chernow approves of them all, which he argues form the foundation of the industrial economy as well.
First, he decided not to discriminate against speculators who bought up the back pay of Revolutionary War veterans, which while highly controversial established the principle of a free market for federal securities. Second, he got the federal government to "assume" the war debt of the separate states, which established it as the highest arbiter of taxes and public debt and improved America's credit worthiness. This was accomplished in exchange for a political accommodation with the Virginians, to make DC the nation's capital. Third, he created the first federal reserve bank for the entire US, a massively useful economic actor (making easier credit available to entrepreneurs); even more significant, however, he established "implied powers" (beyond what was directly authorized as written in the constitution) for the federal government with the incorporation of the bank, which enabled it to adapt its activities in accordance with developments in the society and economy. In sum, he was the great enabler of federal action, i.e. a key architect of the entire political system.
Equally fascinating are the portraits of Hamilton's political opposition. First and foremost were Jefferson and Madison, both political geniuses in their own right and shrewd infighters. Essentially, they feared that Hamilton was expanding the government's power to levels that would lead to monarchy or dictatorship at the expense of both individuals and states of the union. They argued that the federal government should not be allowed to do anything that was not directly and explicitly mandated by the constitution, i.e. they were the first "strict constructionists." As the reader can see, these fault lines exist even today. They also accused Hamilton of designs to become an American Napoleon, with a corrupt political base that would render him invulnerable.
Chernow's take on the players is multifaceted and extremely valuable. Hamilton is viewed as a political genius and economic visionary of the highest order, which I believe he was. However, he was also thin skinned and lacked the political sense of when to keep his mouth shut or wait for the fight timing - hence he expounded on the details of the extramarital affair that severely damaged his career and railed against political adversaries. He just got it all out and was easily insulted and sidetracked by personal slights to his honor (a feudal remnant). There can be no doubt that he had a self destructive streak, which led directly to his fatal duel with Burr. He also needed the anchor of Washington, who held many of his impulses in check, channeling his energy as great managers can do. Jefferson receives the heaviest criticism, coming off as a kind of demagogue prototype that would rival, say, Sarah Palin today (he stood for similar libertarian impulses, manipulated things behind the scenes while letting others do the dirty work, and created a political persona that brought him to power with blatant hypocrisy). While I am undecided about Jefferson, Chernow does quite a job on him and has forever changed my perception of him. I will have to investigate him further, which is the greatest sign of a successful reading experience in my view. But it is clear that Jefferson's economic vision - for an agrarian republic without speculators and financial fat cats - was ludicrously unrealistic and deficient. Hamilton's vision of an activist government and urban-based economy of trade and manufacturing won out hands down.
Warmly recommended. This is absolutely first rate biography and a history of an incredibly tumultuous time, an intellectual adventure that is not to be missed. The writing is stunningly beautiful in its eloquence and exposition of the mechanics of the economy and politics of that time.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2011
A truly outstanding, elegantly written, warts and all, biography of a facinating individual. It throws light not only on Hamilton's life and death at the hands of Aaron Burr, the US Vice President, but also on the Revolutionary war, the drafting of the US constitution, the establishment of US government and finance, and the beginnings of the fault lines that divide US politics to this day: On the one hand the Federalists with their strongly nationalist view of the US and the importance of federal government; on the other hand the Republicans with their promotion of "states rights" and nonsensical fantasies about small government and citizen farmers. Along the way we learn of the first sex scandal in US political history and the strange mores and tragic consequences of the late 18th century duelling culture.
The divisions at this period in US history were described in short-hand by the attitudes to the French Revolution. However it is interesting that while Hamilton and the Federalists were generally Anglophile and deeply distressed by the bloodshed and chaos of the French Revolution, they seem to have been little troubled by the exercise of British power, which between 1796 and 1798 massacred more people in Ireland than died in the entire three years of the French Terror - there is not a single mention of this sanguinary episode of European history in the book.
Towards the end of the book Chernow notes how many of the Republican "slave holding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villanized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth".
Countering this tendency in histography Chernow casts Jefferson as villian of the piece, even more so than the murderous Burr, for professing himself an abolitionist but, unlike Washington, never freeing his own slaves and advocating both an economy that was only sustainable through the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and a polity that facilitated and rewarded slavery.
In contrast it is clear from Chernow's work that, in addition to establishing US credit and effective government, a central part of Hamilton's political project was building in the US an economic system that could not only be sustained without slavery but could also contribute its eradication. While the elimination of slavery ultimately took a civil war Hamilton's work did provide the North the economic capacity to destroy the slave holding south 60 years after his death. For this, I would argue, that if Lincoln was the "father" of emancipation Hamilton could perhaps be regarded as its "grandfather".
Chernow makes the argument that, with Washington, Hamilton, for all his faults, was the greatest of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Chernow describes him as the "father of US government". On the basis of the evidence he presents it is a difficult argument to refute, and, in this time of Tea Party lunacy, his life and achievements are worth celebrating again.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 March 2011
I shall not waste space with a biography of Hamilton (see other reviews)--let's leave that to the author. Hamilton is in my view quite the most interesting of the late 18C American statesmen. His ideological feud with Jefferson, his energetic work at the Treasury etc, his rightwing but modern vision of a future USA, still fascinate. Behind the ideas and policies, the man himself was rather a phenomenon and the author does him justice. The text is rich and detailed, and gives us the rounded picture of Hamilton, who was, I suspect not as charming in the flesh as he might now seem at a distance.
As a non-American I find Hamilton a more interesting and significant figure than Washington, Adams, even Jefferson. I find myself in a dilemma about him: was he more in the right than Jefferson? who would I warm to more if I met them both today? how should we remember them? This book provides plenty of food for thinking through this dilemma.
Recommended, of course.
on 11 April 2015
History has not been kind to Alexander Hamilton. To the extent that he's remembered at all, he's the face of the ten dollar bill, or the aristocratic foil to Jefferson's democratic republic. That latter image is a travesty of the truth and yet it endures for one simple reason: history is usually written by the winners. Not only did Hamilton lose but those with whom he feuded were of the eminence of John Adams, the aforementioned Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; men who not only governed America through the first quarter of the 19th century but wrote its history too.
In fact, as Chernow demonstrates in this outstanding biography, Hamilton more than justifies his place right alongside those other founding fathers. Unlike them - who were genuine Southern aristocrats and Northern old money - he lived the American dream. An immigrant, born and raised in harsh conditions in the West Indies (the experiences of which left him an abolitionist on the question of slavery), he journeyed to America as a young man and never looked back. Prodigiously talented and a workaholic, he arrived at just the right moment, both for himself and his adopted country: the Revolution, when the old hierarchy was falling and the new one not yet in place. Over the next twenty years, usually as Washington's chief lieutenant, he would do as much as anyone to build that new country and give it the tools to become the global power of the twentieth century; a vision Hamilton clearly understood when Jefferson was still dreaming of essentially a farmers' republic. However, the skills and characteristics that made him a great polemicist, political theorist, administrator and lawyer also made him a poor practical politician. Too dismissive of those with whom he disagreed, too quick to take offence and too often seeing events in black and white, he lacked judgement in human affairs. It's notable how quickly his political career spiralled downwards once away from the steadying influence of Washington.
Chernow paces his telling of Hamilton's story extremely well. It's a long book - the narrative runs for well over 700 pages - but it never drags. That's partly because Hamilton packed so much into his short life but also because of how well it's written. The depth and quality of research is evident throughout (particularly that surrounding Hamilton's early years), as is how it's masterfully deployed to support the story rather than for its own sake. Similarly, although Chernow is not averse to including the occasional obscure word, the book is very accessible and readable.
He strikes exactly the right balance between providing the authoritative single-volume history of Hamilton's life and writing an exciting and engaging read. That's particularly impressive given that Hamilton spent so much time in the abstract: creating political, military, economic, financial and administrative systems and concepts (although he invariably made a reality of those concepts later), yet also led a very human life.
Any criticisms? Precious few. Chernow perhaps forgives some of Hamilton's failings more readily than he does similar failings of other men of the day but considering the press his subject has had for two centuries, that's maybe understandable. In any case, a reader has the evidence to assess such judgements for him- or herself. Chernow also references Hamilton's relationship with Aaron Burr throughout with a sense of looming foreboding more than is necessarily justified. But still, these are minor points beside what is an outstanding work.
This book caused me to reassess my views of many of America's greatest founding fathers, as well as giving me a far greater appreciation of Hamilton himself, great but flawed man that he was. I would strongly recommend simply as a great tale of an extraordinary life. For anyone with an interest in the early history of the United States, it's essential reading.
Before reading this book I knew little more of Alexander Hamilton than the passing references I had come across in biographies of other members of the Founding Generation. I ended it in tears, utterly distressed at his untimely death at the hands of Aaron Burr over two hundred years ago, and indignant on his behalf at his relative lack of historical renown, compared to other figures such as Jefferson, Washington and Adams.
Alexander Hamilton perhaps more than any other man created the America we know today. If George Washington won the war for America, then Hamilton won the peace and ushered in a modern progressive nation-state. Chief aide to Washington during the War, secretary of the Treasury, author of the The Federalist Papers, architect of the Constitution, creator of the national bank, proponent of abolition, it was Hamilton's vision more than any other that shaped America's future.
To quote Chernow, "He was the clear-eyed apostle of America's economic future, setting forth a vision that many found enthralling, others unsettling, but that would ultimately prevail. He stood squarely on the modern side of a historical divide that seemed to separate him from other founders. Small wonder he aroused such fear and confusion."
Perhaps this is why his historical reputation has suffered so much in comparison to the other Founding Fathers - history may have proved him right, but to his contemporaries the future he advocated with a far remove from the rural, agrarian, laissez-faire society they had known until then. Then too, Hamilton had the misfortune to be slandered by some of the greatest men of the age, who outlived him by some decades - plenty of time to compose calumnies and dwell on slights.
This biography goes a long way to rectifying that historical injustice, highlighting him for the remarkable man he was, in all his genius and complexity. I came away from this book an absolute partisan of Alexander Hamilton.
on 5 June 2012
I agree with all the reviews written so far. They've analysed the book well and pointed both to its strengths and weaknesses. There is not much more on that front I can add. That said, when I look for a new book to read I tend to choose books that have a number of reviews, the more the better. In this regard, I would say for anyone looking for a good biography to read, Alexander Hamilton is great choice. It's dense, but the story never drags as Ron Chernow is a great writer. You'll learn about one of America's least known founding fathers and gain a good background in American history, although I'll admit I had to reference some of the events he spoke about. I came away enriched, and I feel better educated, about the birth of the American nation. I have a new-found respect for Hamilton, who probably more than any other founding father, envisioned what America would eventually come to be, both politically and economically. It's a great book and well worth the time to read it. Highly recommended.
on 28 June 2011
This lucid and illuminating biography by one of america's foremost contemporary biographers provides admirers of one of the least celebrated founding fathers with a comprehensive study of the meteoric rise of Alexander Hamilton from an small caribbean island to become the aid to General Washington in the continental army by the age of 22. Furthermore the book details the Hamilton's mercantile policy which transformed the economic landscape of this newly independent nation and earning Hamilton the title as the "greatest ever secretary of the treasury". Finally the book chronicles the infamous duel between Hamilton and former vice president Burr which resulted Hamilton's untimely and tragic death.
A must read for all American history buffs!
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Ron Chernow has long been a favorite author of mine. A former journalist with considerable knowledge of the workings of finance, he combines these two strengths to write superb books that illuminate the history of the American economy. His biography of Alexander Hamilton demonstrates his abilities to the fullest, as it offers one of the clearest descriptions of the foundations of American fiscal policy available. Yet this is secondary to the main theme of Chernow's biography, which is Hamilton's restless ambition, which fueled both his impressive accomplishments and his self-destructive conduct in public life.
Lucid as it is, though, Chernow's book also possesses some glaring flaws. While his command of financial detail is sure, his knowledge of the early republic is less so, which leads to occasional mistakes about the historical context. Moreover, while better balanced than previous studies of Hamilton, Chernow often dismisses or spins material that reflect poorly on his subject; even his affair with Maria Reynolds is explained in part as a consequence of his sense of chivalry. Negative interpretations are saved for Hamilton's opponents, who are viewed in the worst possible light - Thomas Jefferson is hypocritical, John Adams is vain and insecure, Aaron Burr is a duplicitous foe whose dual with Hamilton is constantly foreshadowed in the text. Such depictions sow doubt about the validity of the author's conclusions and mar what is other respects an excellent account of one of America's most important 'founding fathers.'