By Randy Petersen
Overlooked No More
Alexander Hamilton was always a second-string founding father, in my view. He got his face on the ten-dollar bill, but he never had the stature of a Washington, Jefferson, or Franklin. Little did I know.
Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography reveals Hamilton as a key player in the first quarter-century of U.S. history. He was Washington’s right-hand man, Jefferson’s bitter rival, and the main writer of the Federalist Papers. He signed the Declaration, helped frame the Constitution, and set up the nation’s economic structure. Not bad for an orphaned immigrant from the Indies.
First published in 2004 by Penguin Press, Alexander Hamilton got a more recent publicity boost from Hamilton, the award-winning Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was inspired by Chernow’s tome. While Miranda reshaped some of the chronology for his dramatic arc, he grabbed a number of important themes from the book.
Throughout his life, Hamilton was generally the smartest person in the room, and he knew it. Those rooms often included Franklin and Jefferson, who had their own brilliance, but Hamilton was undaunted. He spoke a lot and wrote even more, making friends and enemies along the way. Deeply committed to the unity of the nation, Hamilton emerged as the main voice of federalism, in opposition to the state-centered policies of Jefferson and James Madison. This was the beginning of a two-party system, and Chernow vividly describes the wild accusations thrown back and forth. Modern politicos would feel right at home.
This biography offers a portrait of a man driven to succeed, meticulous in planning, courageous in conflict, and often self-destructive. All of these factors played into the fateful decision that probably kept him out of the presidency. He had an affair, then paid hush money to the woman’s husband. Political opponents learned of the payments and assumed he was misusing government funds. Alexander used his well-kept records to prove them wrong—and went public by writing a pamphlet that confessed his adultery but assured people the nation’s treasury was secure. “Hamilton’s strategy was simple,” Chernow writes. “He was prepared to sacrifice his private reputation to preserve his public honor.”
Even if you know little else about Hamilton, you might know that he died in a duel with Aaron Burr. This book instructs the reader on the nature of dueling and provides background on Hamilton’s experience with this archaic custom. Chernow is at his best in the last few chapters, carefully tracing the paths of Hamilton and Burr in the weeks leading up to their fateful encounter—meetings with friends and family, and even a banquet where both were present. Then the duel is presented in rich detail, with Hamilton firing his pistol toward the sky while Burr delivered the fatal shot.
Was Alexander depressed during this time? Suicidal? This biography examines the evidence—including the idea that Hamilton believed Burr was trying to mobilize New England Federalists to secede from the young nation. Passionately committed to the unity of the Union, Alexander might have gone through with the duel in order to discredit Burr and thwart that secession attempt.
A book of this size will have its dry spots. It’s hard to convey Hamilton’s brilliance in financial statecraft without teaching the reader some basic economics. And Chernow seems to cover all the bases, digging deep into the historical record for reactions from various figures, and into his subject’s own voluminous writings for intention and emotion. He immerses us in Hamilton’s world, and that sometimes requires perseverance on the part of the reader.
Yet the rewards of this book are great. Quite simply, Hamilton was connected to virtually every major American event from the Revolutionary War to his death in 1804. Those of us who have previously overlooked the contributions of this founding father are now indebted to Ron Chernow for this thorough presentation.
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Randy Petersen is the author of The Printer and the Preacher (Nelson, 2015) and has written scores of other books and plays. He’s active in theater in the Philadelphia area and in his Methodist church.