Originally created 05/02/04

New biography seeks to raise reputation of Alexander Hamilton



NEW YORK -- Dressed in shawls and widow's black, Eliza Hamilton would guide visitors through her house in Washington, D.C., serving the memory of her husband, Alexander Hamilton, who had died decades earlier in his duel with Aaron Burr.

She would point out the silver wine cooler given by George Washington, Hamilton's greatest champion, and stare in awe at a marble bust portraying Hamilton with a toga draped across his shoulder.

For some, Eliza Hamilton would assemble old papers and urge, in vain, that they write the book that would reward her ongoing vow: "Justice shall be done to the memory of my Hamilton."

If "justice" means equal status with his revolutionary era peers, then the spirit of Eliza Hamilton, who died in 1854, must still be unfulfilled. Alexander Hamilton was on the losing side of one of history's most famous duels and has often been on the losing side of history altogether.

Although acknowledged as the most influential treasury secretary, he is also the most questioned of the founding fathers, as if an asterisk were engraved next to his name on the pantheon. Labeled by Noah Webster as the country's "evil genius," Hamilton has been defined as a schemer and would-be despot, an upstart unworthy of company with Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

"There was a lot of unfair criticism about Hamilton," says Edmund S. Morgan, a leading Revolutionary War historian and author of a recent best seller on Benjamin Franklin. "I think he was so bright, and did not conceal his brilliance, that it meant being offensive to people at times."

But Hamilton now appears ready for the kind of rehabilitation John Adams received three years ago from David McCullough. He is the subject of an admiring 700-page biography by Ron Chernow, an award-winning historian known for books on John D. Rockefeller and the Morgan dynasty.

Praised as "monumental" by The New York Times, "Alexander Hamilton" has a first printing of 300,000 and a well-timed release. Not only does this year mark the 200th anniversary of Hamilton's death, but the book arrives after a wave of best sellers about the founders, including McCullough's "John Adams" and Walter Isaacson's "Benjamin Franklin."

"We anticipate tremendous sales, similar to what we saw with ... 'John Adams' and 'Benjamin Franklin,"' Edward Ash-Milby, the biography buyer for Barnes & Noble, Inc., says.

"Chernow writes historical biography in a way that makes the whole time period come alive. Besides being factual and telling us the story, his writing has a human element that allows the reader to relate to the characters, enjoy the story and be entertained."

It wasn't only Hamilton's image that made Chernow write the book; the author was concerned about his own image as well. Having received wide acclaim for his books on Rockefeller ("Titan") and the Morgans ("The House of Morgan"), Chernow feared he was becoming stereotyped as the chronicler of Gilded Age barons.

"I found I would go and give a lecture and people would start calling out, 'Do Vanderbilt,' and 'Do Carnegie next,"' he says.

"I made the decision to go back in time, because Hamilton was the originator of the industrial monopolies of the Gilded Age. This is what I had been writing about all along - Wall Street and the rise of Wall Street power."

In researching his book, Chernow tracked down documents in Scotland and the Caribbean, examined the guns believed used during the Hamilton-Burr duel and consulted with geneticists over allegations (still unproven) that Hamilton was of mixed race. He also read all of Hamilton's known writings, including 27 volumes of his personal and political papers and five volumes of legal papers.

"It was a very humbling experience to write about Hamilton because no matter how smart or fast you think you are, after spending five years with Alexander Hamilton you realize you're a tongue-tied dunce in comparison," Chernow says, seated in the sunny living room of his 19th-century Brooklyn town house.

Chernow became most fond of his subject, but acknowledges that some of the charges against Hamilton were more than just charges. Of all the nation's founders, Hamilton seemed most at ease with men of money and most distrustful of the general public.

But Chernow also points out that in some ways Hamilton was far more egalitarian than Jefferson, his eternal rival. While Jefferson, the great populist, was a longtime owner of slaves, Hamilton was an abolitionist who believed that blacks had comparable abilities to whites, a radical opinion at the time.

"I could not find one instance of racial prejudice in his papers," Chernow says.

Chernow and Morgan agree that Hamilton still suffers from a 200-year-old hatchet job perpetuated by Jefferson and his supporters. In his lifetime, Hamilton was relentlessly (and falsely) accused of embezzlement, of having plans to overturn the Constitution, of colluding with the British. James Monroe, the future president, accused Hamilton of being "attached to monarchy."

The 1790s, Chernow writes, were a "golden age of literary assassination." The founders were united against the British in the fight for American independence but at war over the quest for the meaning of independence.

Hamilton admired the British political system and wanted a modified version for America, even once suggesting that the president rule for life. Disillusioned by the inept performance of state militia during the Revolutionary War, and fearful that a weak central government would lead to anarchy, he also advocated a standing army and a strong federal system, with the power to tax.

Jefferson, meanwhile, idealized the French Revolution, even as it collapsed into the kind of violence Hamilton and others had predicted. Jefferson and his supporters were alarmed by even the hint of colonial rule, advocating a weak federal government, a limited army and an agricultural economy.

"If Jefferson came back and looked at the country now he would recoil with horror. But Hamilton would probably smile with amusement and pleasure," Chernow says.

"In terms of a lot of the economic world, in terms of a country of large scale industries - banks, stock exchanges, trade and commerce - it's Hamilton's world. In terms of government, with a strong executive branch and a strong independent federal judiciary, it's also Hamilton's world."

Hamilton, the lone immigrant among the founders, was the most quintessentially American, Chernow writes, a self-made man who survived a lonely, tragic childhood to rise to the elite of American society. He also carried a Shakespearean obsession with legitimacy, fitting for a man born out of wedlock living in a world where reputation was all.

Questions about his background begin with his date of birth. Chernow believes it's Jan. 11, 1755, but acknowledges that Hamilton might have been born in 1757. The location is not in doubt: the island of Nevis on the Caribbean, a center for the slave trade that likely inspired Hamilton's passion for abolition.

Dismissed by John Adams as "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar," Hamilton was the child of James Hamilton, a struggling businessman from Scotland, and Rachel Fawcet Lavien, who was then married to another man.

James Hamilton deserted the family and, while Alexander was still in his early teens, his mother fell ill and died. Hamilton, a frail boy with a gift for both words and numbers, ended up in the home a local merchant, Thomas Stevens.

Fitting for someone so famously impatient, Hamilton eventually hitched his star to a hurricane. In 1772, ferocious winds caused widespread damage in the region. The then teenage Hamilton soon wrote an indicting letter, published in a local paper, that urged the public to "See thy wretched helpless state and learn to know thyself."

Hamilton caused such a sensation that community leaders deemed him a youth of exceptional promise and raised money to send him North. Nothing could stop him, not even a fire on the ship that brought him to the colonies. "Drama shadowed his footsteps," Chernow writes.

Settling in New York, he enrolled in King's College, now Columbia University, and joined the growing movement for independence from the British. By his early 20s, he had established himself as Washington's indispensable wartime aide.The two formed a partnership that rivaled the alliance of Jefferson and Madison.

Not only did Hamilton and Washington agree politically, but their personalities differed ideally. The aloof Washington tempered the impulsive Hamilton, who in turn energetically carried out his mentor's orders. "He consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely," Hamilton wrote of Washington.

After the defeat of the British, in 1783, Hamilton established a successful law practice in New York. (Burr, a fellow war veteran, was doing the same.) Meanwhile, his social standing was raised immeasurably by his marriage to Eliza Schuyler, daughter of Philip Schuyler, one of New York's wealthiest men.

Soon, he would enter the most influential period of his life. He was the principal author of the Federalist Papers, newspaper essays published in 1787 that successfully advocated a stronger national government and remain defining texts for constitutional democracy.

Two years later, with Washington the unchallenged choice for president, Hamilton was appointed treasury secretary and established the foundations of modern finance: a central bank, public credit, a mixed economy and the exchange of securities and commodities.

"I called up the New York Stock Exchange and asked them what some of the earliest trading was on Wall Street and they said at one point every stock had come from one of Hamilton's initiatives," Chernow says.

Chernow notes that while Hamilton was defined by Jefferson and others as a calculating Machiavellian, his real downfall was a lack of calculation. He was so promiscuous that Martha Washington nicknamed her tomcat "Hamilton," so reckless that he took on Burr even after his own son, Phillip, had been killed in a duel.

His duel with Burr was a confrontation between two saddened, middle-aged men - Hamilton the marginalized Federalist and Burr the marginalized vice president under Jefferson, who did not want him for a second term.

In 1804, an anonymous newspaper report referred to a "despicable opinion" Hamilton had expressed about Burr. Burr demanded an apology, Hamilton refused, and a duel was arranged for July 11 at dawn, with Hamilton mortally wounded on a rocky ledge in Weehawken, N.J.

"The consolations of religion, my beloved, can alone support you," Hamilton wrote in a farewell letter to his ever-forgiving wife, composed a week before his duel.

"Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea, I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world."