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Alan Abrams

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Chernow's Hamilton
By Alan Abrams   
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Last edited: Monday, April 02, 2012
Posted: Monday, April 02, 2012

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Architect of the Federal Government

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

Chernow is no passive chronicler, but by the same token, he is out neither to vilify not sanctify the subject of his biography. If he describes Hamilton's accomplishments with awe, it is because they were awesome. Likewise, when his displays his repugnance at Jefferson's duplicity, or Madison's or Burr's inconstancies and betrayals, it is because their acts were repugnant. Finally, that Hamilton's often appalling judgment appalls the author is no secret to the reader. Chernow is deeply invested in his subject and his time, and makes no effort to conceal it. In fact, it is this passion that enlivens the work.

And what a subject. Hamilton is a staggering genius, who benefited from some basic bootstrap assistance in his youth, but otherwise made himself one of the best informed figures of his time. This knowledge base was coupled to a prodigious capacity for concentration and productivity. His genius was the ability to synthesize and organize, and his gifts were the ambition and energy to implement the systems and policies he envisioned. His weaknesses--which proved fatal--were his colossal ego--coupled with a thin skin: the ingredients of tragically flawed judgment.

His accomplishments were manifest. During the Revolutionary War, Lt. Col. Hamilton provided invaluable assistance to his immediate superior, Gen. George Washington, advising him not only on strategy but on military and international policy. Soon after, he was a major contributor to the framework of the Constitution, and his subsequent contribution to the Federalist Papers was the most influential drivingforce its ratification.

In short order, he again served immediately under Washington, as the first President's Secretary of Treasury. With Washington's support, Hamilton created from scratch--and against substantial opposition--a national banking and financial system, a customs and revenue service, and resolved a complex crisis of Revolutionary War debt incurred by the individual States. During Washington's second term, he rode at the head of an army that suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion--western Pennsylvanian farmers protesting a tax on spirits--that Hamilton himself had instituted.

His last official service was during the Adams administration. Once more he served as Washington's senior lieutenant, this time in the creation of a national army, in response to the perceived threat from revolutionary France. The subject of a standing army was controversial enough in itself--hotly debated during the framing and ratification of the Constitution--and Hamilton's leadership made it even moreso.

The crisis with France averted, the money and motivation for this army dissipated. Washington passed away, and Hamilton resigned his commission and resumed his law practice. He tried in vain to influence national affairs from the sidelines, but controversies of his own making--notably the revelation of a sordid affair with an attractive but scheming married woman--and the hush money he paid to her husband--diverted public attention, drained Hamilton's energy while revitalizing his enemies.

After his oldest son--who Hamilton had prepared to receive his own mantel--was slain in a duel (ostensibly fought to preserve his father's honor--but as much the result of his own boorish behavior), Hamilton completely lost his political judgment. When challenged to a duel by Burr--an encounter he might easily have averted--he met his nemesis and his fate with arguably suicidal intent.

Thus Chernow plots the arc of Hamilton's life--a steady rise of the self made man, the brave and canny officer, and brilliant and creative administrator--and his precipitous descent as an embittered , humiliated--and above all--under-appreciated public servant.

The value of this biography greatly exceeds the story of Hamilton's life and career. Because he towers over his period, and left his finger prints on all of the primary mechanisms of American government and public finance--the book is a window that opens to this formative era. It illuminates Hamilton's contemporaries, including Madison, Jefferson, and Burr, as well as many lesser figures. It details Hamilton's symbiotic partnership with Washington, revealing it as the most powerful force of its time. One concludes from this work, that Hamilton--as much as Washington--was the "essential man" in the creation of the United States.

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