Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

Five stars

In an ongoing project to better educate myself about important political figures in history, I sought to return to another member of the American Founding Fathers. However, to call Alexander Hamilton a ‘father’ when surrounded by Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson seems slightly odd, as he was much younger than the others around the table. While that may be true, Ron Chernow effectively argues that Hamilton was a substantial, even quintessential, player in the founding and early establishment of America. Depicting the man as one who was mature beyond his years, a brilliant constitutionalist, and a stalwart statesman, Chernow illustrates how Hamilton utilised his presence around these other political giants to lay the cornerstone for the American political and economic systems in place today. A masterful piece of work that any reader with a passion for political biography ought not to miss, Chernow educates and entertains in equal measure.

Hamilton’s maturity can be traced as far back as his formative years in the West Indies. Born illegitimately, Hamilton’s life was further shaped when his mother died at a young age and he was shuffled off to many relatives, all of whom met the same fate in a short span. Hamilton’s social and emotional maturity led his quest for knowledge and the ability to set himself apart from those around him. Chernow illustrates that Hamilton was given much responsibility while working as a young man, holding things together for his proprietor who was off in New York tending to business interests. The curiosity towards learning spurned Hamilton to arrive on the shores of the Empire State at a time when unrest was brewing, but before it reached its zenith in British-colonial clashes. While studying at what would soon be called Columbia College, Hamilton devoured all that was put before him and became a lawyer, before he found a spot within the continental army. Hamilton climbed the ranks, becoming a colonel and was handpicked by George Washington to serve as one of his aides de camp. That Hamilton was not on the front lines of the battles irked him, but this connection to Washington would curry favour between the two men and eventually lead to greater things. As shall be seen below, Hamilton’s maturity seeped into his work at the Continental Congress and during the drafting of the US Constitution, as well as work in the early years at Treasury. It is not lost on the reader that Hamilton was able to effectively serve alongside other political juggernauts, as Chernow weaves many intricate stories surrounding Hamilton’s abilities and effective progress in forming the America with which many are familiar today.

Hamilton was not only a key figure in the creation of the US Constitution, but a brilliant author whose absence would surely have made for a much weaker document. As Chernow argues, using historical documents and well-known publications to substantiate, Hamilton understood the nuances of constitutional creation, as well as the need to cherrypick from that which had worked before. Labelled at times as a monarchist, whose interest in keeping some aspects of Britain’s system in the American sphere, Hamilton did not deny that utilising that which works effectively is better than trying to reinvent the wheel. Not only did Hamilton help forge a document that would encompass key elements necessary for running the new republic, but he wrote a large collection of papers, alongside John Jay and James Madison, to sell the state delegates whose job it was to ratify the constitution within their respective legislatures. These writings became known as The Federalist Papers and are still quoted to best understand the core elements of the Founding Fathers’ mindset and general constitutional framework at the documents inception. Chernow refers to these essays throughout this section of the biography and highlights the ease with which Hamilton utilised his power of the written work to persuade and support the clauses enshrined in the constitutional document. The reader is left to wonder how a man so young could have such a strong worldly sense about him, especially since he did not travel to Europe or return to his birthplace. Chernow presents Hamilton as an effective and detailed scholar in these most important months of the new republic, crafting a document alongside Jefferson, Franklin and a handful of others, whose content has been amended 27 times as of the writing of this review. Hamilton’s constitutional capabilities cannot be lost on the reader, as Chernow details the battle to create an effective set of rules by which America would run. In the latter section of the biography, Chernow exemplifies Hamilton’s legal mind and constitutional prowess to argue cases before the courts, effectively presenting sound arguments to support or nullify state and federal laws on numerous occasions. A constitutional Goliath, a moniker Chernow resurrects from historical documents, properly depicts Hamilton and his vast knowledge of this key aspect of early America’s founding.

Hamilton moved from being a Founding Father to an effective statesman in the first Cabinet under Washington, formulating essential laws and laying the groundwork for many plans taken for granted in the 21st century. In choosing Hamilton to serve in his first Cabinet of three(!) members, Washington invested a great deal of pressure on, and power in, him. Hamilton coveted the chance to serve as Secretary to the Treasury and was given the chance to impress with his significant understanding of financial issues. The position allowed Hamilton to formulate some of the early financial, economic, and monetary policy for America, which could serve it well in its infancy. With a mind well-tuned to the nuances of financial matters (was there anything this man could not do?), Hamilton saw the importance not only of running an effective government that could be self-sufficient, but also the necessity to deal with its war debts and move forward. The greatest issue that Hamilton faced was creating policy and legislation for Congress that set in place certain taxes, levies, and money garnering endeavours that did not sour the populace. As Chernow reminds the reader, the Revolutionary War was fuelled by a push not to allow many of the same taxes that Hamilton now proposed. However, with the need to sustain the coffers of America, now that the British were gone, these plans had to return, alongside a means of communicating the essential nature of their presence to a populace still stinging. Hamilton also created what is now the Coast Guard to inspect ships looking to bring goods into America, as well as a Mint to strike coins and print paper money for use within the states, as well as unifying the monies used and permitting inter-state travel. These were major struggles, but Hamilton effectively navigated the waters and brought about key fiscal elements to unite rather than divide the country. Even after leaving Washington’s Cabinet, Hamilton used his statesman abilities and knowledge of the constitution to pen essays on various topics, swinging sentiment in one way or the other. Hamilton always sought to use well-grounded arguments to support his views, which would sway public and congressional opinions as major pieces of legislation came up for debate or vote. Chernow exemplifies this statesman persona quite seamlessly and does offer a thorough examination of the decisions Hamilton undertook while a member of America’s political elite.

Chernow’s book also examines some other highly interesting aspects in the American political development. Hamilton was at the heart of the first political schism that saw the creation of the Republican Party, as well as the Federalist and anti-Federalist labels affixed to certain segments of the political population. The birth of this non-constitutionally recognised political animal proves highly intriguing to the curious reader and Chernow does a wonderful job in narrating its methodical emergence. As well, no political biography is complete without a little scandal and Chernow attributes the first American political sex scandal to Hamilton, who was fond of women in all their glory. Again, Chernow delves into this story, but, as might be a sign of the times, things remain above board and the gaudy details remain hidden, which may depress any reader seeking salacious crumbs within these pages. Any attentive reader who reaches the point of the biography when Hamilton leaves Treasury is sure to ask, ‘why no presidential run in ’96?’, to which Chernow has numerous speculative responses, all grounded in fact and and personal comments shared by Hamilton. This book is full of many anecdotes and keeps history’s ever-changing narrative as a key driving force to propel the story forward.

Chernow does a wonderful job examining the life and times of Alexander Hamilton, from the mysteries of his birth in the West Indies through to his death at the hands of Aaron Burr in a duel, itself a dramatic and detailed story in the waning chapters of the biography. The narrative is full of wonderful tidbits of information and stories to better exemplify some of the larger events in early American political history, as well as some key sub-plots showing that Hamilton had his detractors, including: Thomas Jefferson, George Clinton, James Madison, and Aaron Burr. The book is very well laid out and its detail shows considerable effort on Chernow’s part to offer as full a picture as possible for the reader to better understand how Hamilton shaped the world around him and was influenced by its happenings.

Kudos Mr. Chernow for this wonderful political biography that touches on many aspects of Hamilton’s life and that of the early America. Full of poignant vignettes that include other political heavyweights, Chernow shows the breadth of Hamilton’s influence during his life, cut short by a draconian means of settling disputes.