Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow
This is a tome of a book and not one for the faint-hearted. At times it is heavy going – for a non-American the detailed analysis of Hamilton’s Federalist papers which played a major part in defining the constitutional arrangements that define the workings of the government in the States to this day almost persuaded me to give the book up. But perseverance is well rewarded and the reader comes away with a profound understanding of what made one of the most colourful characters of the post-revolutionary United States tick.
For those who like to see such things, there are some astonishing modern parallels. Hamilton was born in the West Indies and he could never free himself from the jibes of his critics that he was a foreigner and had no right to hold high office in the States. He possessed incredible amounts of energy and as soon as he was appointed to the position of Treasury Secretary by George Washington he unleashed a flurry of orders and initiatives that would have made the Donald blanche. He was a prolific writer of pamphlets and articles. He would have been inexhaustible on Twitter.
Hamilton’s greatest achievements were in establishing the American economy on a firmer footing, nationalising debt, binding the rather fractious individual states together and establishing banks, stock markets and credit, the familiar instruments that fuel a modern economy. In many ways Hamilton’s legacy is the thriving and influential country that the States is today.
But Hamilton was clearly a Marmite character – you either loved him or loathed him – and he had the unerring knack of rubbing powerful enemies up the wrong way and rarely knew when to back down. He hitched his horse close to that of Washington – he was effectively Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War and was rewarded for his efforts with high office – but he had an uneasy relationship which became toxic with Washington’s successor, Adams. Worse still, Jefferson, the third President, represented much of what he abhorred – land owning, slave-owning and enamoured with the French Revolution – and their feud ultimately wrecked Hamilton’s political ambitions. Even worse, both Adams and Jefferson outlived Hamilton by decades and had plenty of time to tarnish their opponent’s reputation and burnish their side of the story.
Mind you, Hamilton made his own significant contributions to his own downfall. Bizarrely, he had a dalliance with a married woman which exposed him to blackmail. Equally astonishingly, he decided to make a clean breast of it by publishing a detailed account of the affair, to the mortification of his long-suffering wife, Eliza, to whom Chernow takes quite a shine and to the gratification of his enemies. And then there was the simmering rivalry and feud with Aaron Burr who by the time of the fateful duel was Vice President, albeit effectively sidelined by Jefferson.
The fateful duel occurred on July 11th 1804 at Weehawken. Chernow makes a convincing case that Hamilton intended to waste his shot, hoping that Burr would return the compliment. It is not clear, though, who fired first. Hamilton’s shot was way off target which might have meant that he fired first and was true to his word or it may have been an involuntary shot after he had been winged. The awful tragedy was that he never signalled his intentions to Burr and paid for it with his life. The reintroduction of duelling would certainly brighten up our politics.
For all its length and wearisome passages and at times Chernow is too close and defensive of his subject, I came away with a better understanding of a remarkable man. I can’t believe they have made a musical out of it, though.