Alexander Hamilton a Life Paperback – 1 Mar 2004
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About the Author
Willard Sterne Randall is the prize-winning author of thirteen books, including Ethan Allen: His Life and Times; A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin at War with His Son; Thomas Jefferson: A Life; George Washington: A Life; and Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. A finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, he is a professor of history at Champlain College and lives in Burlington, Vermont.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Randall�s portrait of the foremost Federalist is at times stunning, leaping with the athletic energy and enthusiasm of Hamilton�s early life until the end of the Revolutionary War �then inexplicably fades over 100 or so hurried pages that cover some of the most interesting years of Hamilton�s life, and America�s.
Nonetheless, this book is absolutely worth the read, if for no other reason than Randall�s superb portrait of Hamilton from his birth, and apprenticeship in a West Indies counting house, to the seldom seen or examined man-of-action throughout the Revolutionary War. Moreover, it is a compassionate look at an American who, by most accounts, was as vain, self-serving and egotistic as he was brilliant, dynamic and circumspect. In any case, if a reader was ever unsure about how important a part Alexander Hamilton played in the birthing of America, or doubted his loyalty and determination, this biography shows how absolutely indispensable he was in giving form to the new republic, and that while the means used by Hamilton and others may have been the cause of many petty problems, the goal was the same: A fierce love and concern for the infant United States. Hamilton simply proved to be more visionary in some respects than most of his contemporaries. Of course, there were times when he was mistaken, too, and Hamilton seldom made small mistakes; he failed on a large, grand stage and in dramatic ways, whether it was his poor judgment of the character of others, his extramarital affairs, or simply his inability to compromise and get along with his peers.
Being a bastard child, Hamilton actually had no �peers� by Colonial standards, and that was only one demon preying on the mind of the �Little Lion,� as he was dubbed. Hamilton fought many demons, real and imagined, and Randall gives the reader insight into the early psychological development of Hamilton as a boy, abandoned by his father (throughout his life Hamilton would instinctively seek out surrogate father figures, including George Washington), then left an orphan by his mother�s untimely death. Faced with poverty, then his apprenticeship in St. Croix where he honed his early financial acumen, Hamilton was at once deeply insecure but also willing to take risks; extremely sensitive to criticism, he channeled his energies into molding himself into the kind of person he wanted to be, or how he wanted to be perceived.
The reader of this biography may indeed find his or her view of Hamilton as a pretentious, preening coxcomb, changed. There is no doubt that his shortcomings were real, but so were his accomplishments, not only as a financial genius who helped stabilize and make solvent young America, but his contributions in shaping the Constitution cannot be overstated.
It is disappointing that Randall breezes through the last 10-15 years of Hamilton�s life, mentioning almost in passing the development and impact of his contribution to The Federalist, and scarcely diving into his complex relationships with James Madison, Jefferson; his role in helping to stymie the presidency of John Adams, and, of course, the turbulent dynamics between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, festering for a decade, that led to the fateful �interview� between the two men in 1804. There is much more to Hamilton�s story, and to help flesh out what Randall omits, one would benefit from reading McCullough�s recent biography of John Adams, and Ellis� �Founding Brothers.�
To Randall�s credit, he has rendered Hamilton�s economic philosophy and development of the Treasury Department in a manner easy to understand and interesting to read. It�s a pity the author did not �for unknown reasons�pursue other aspects and episodes of Hamilton�s life with the same apparent enthusiasm and attention.
The greatest service rendered Hamilton �and the reader�in this biography, is an acute insight into a controversial, mercurial figure in American history who, in spite of his many human flaws, stands firmly cemented in a new light of understanding as one of the foremost Americans of the Revolutionary Generation. A worthwhile read, Randall may disappoint at turns, but Hamilton stands perhaps a little taller.
It gives you the basic rags-to-riches story and I was happy enough upon completion of the book... possibly even willing to give it as many as 5 stars.
However, about 4 months after I finished this one the attractive volume by Ron Chernow came out, and I couldn't resist purchasing IT as well. Let me tell you, Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton" is superior to Randall's in every way imaginable.
It is much more entertaining, and portrays Hamilton as the dashing young risk-taker that he was. Impetuous, ambitious, etc.
But enough... I'm supposed to be reviewing Randall's efforts here, not Chernow's.
The book is solid but not spectacular. You have to work hard to get 4 stars from me and unfortunately this volume falls just short. Worth the effort, but you can get more bang for your $10 Hamilton-faced buck in the alternative volume.
Hamilton's rise from the illegitimate son of a West Indies merchant to the very heights of power at a time when such avenues were normally reserved for nobility make him America's first great self-made man. Most of the other founding fathers were from either the aristocrat or merchantile classes. Hamilton, whose family's entire modest estate was confiscated at the time of his mother's death when he was a boy, was possessed of the unique ambition of an insecure man who spent his life trying to overcome his humble origins. As Randall demonstrates, Hamilton's close relationship with George Washington, who recognized his junior's incredible organizational and intellectual gifts, was of key importance to the latter's success.
The text of the book is quite sympathetic its subject, perhaps overly so at times. Though Randall does not ignore the less noble aspects of Hamilton's character, he strives whenever possible to show him in the best possible light. Thus Aaron Burr, who actually made his own important contributions to the nation, comes off mostly as a despicable villian. Burr will always be infamous for firing the bullet that ended Hamilton's life, but Hamilton was equally at fault for the feud that ended so tragically.
Oveall, Randall's book is an enjoyable and enlightening work that will most appeal to history buffs.
Fascinating glimces into St Croix childhood and developing anthipathy for slavery. Women's rights, too. Interesting but exhausting detal about the Revolution: walked the reader through each season from 1776 to 1781. Likely duplicating work Randall did for his Washington biography. Cop out. Hamilton was also first secretary of the Navy; a tidbit but no meat.
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