Originally created 07/18/04

Sweeping biography shows Alexander Hamilton's gifts to America



Chances are he didn't start with this in mind, but author Ron Chernow may have helped keep Alexander Hamilton's face on the $10 bill.

In "Alexander Hamilton," his mammoth and comprehensive study of the nation's first Treasury secretary, Chernow has captured the essence of the man who, he writes, "is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet ... probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did."

Two hundred years after his death, Hamilton is known by most Americans for how he died: shot to death in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. While that death is remarkable in itself, it's equally fascinating to trace Hamilton's lifelong journey to that small cliff in Weehawken, N.J.

Attacked by his rivals as a pawn of elitist, monarchist and British interests, Hamilton came from utter squalor and deprivation in the British West Indies. His mother had a series of failed relationships, including a bitter divorce that left her and her children penniless. The question of Hamilton's father, which led to lifelong accusations that he was a bastard, remains in doubt.

While Chernow, an accomplished biographer of financial figures including John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, comes close to determining Hamilton's exact parentage, he doesn't quite nail it. That's about the only thing left in doubt in this exhaustive examination of Hamilton's life.

Chernow is especially skillful at evoking a sense of time and place, an achievement that dominates "Alexander Hamilton." He goes beyond the stick-figure characters that often emerge from most stories about the founders to present three-dimensional portrayals of Hamilton's enemies, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Burr. The Jefferson shown here is less than the renaissance wizard of Monticello and more of an unrealistic dreamer whose infatuation with revolutionary France threatened to sink the young United States.

While clearly an admirer of Hamilton's accomplishments, Chernow never veers toward hagiography. He provides plenty of evidence to show why, as he writes, "few figures in American history have aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton."

A whirlwind of a thinker and writer, Hamilton deluged opponents with thousands of words written in a matter of hours. Too often, however, when given the choice between showing and telling, Hamilton preferred to tell, and his pen often drew blood.

Hamilton also had an uncanny capacity for self-inflicted wounds, such as his ill-advised affair with Maria Reynolds, the wife of a financial speculator. His moralism chafed those he criticized, including Burr, who considered him a hypocrite.

Finally, Hamilton's duel with Burr was his ultimate case of bad judgment. Hamilton seemed to have entered the duel with the mistaken notion that Burr wouldn't take it seriously. Hamilton fired first and intentionally wide. Given a free shot, Burr aimed to kill, and did.

The enmity of his rivals and his relatively early death left Hamilton without the admirers and biographers necessary to build up his historical reputation. For two centuries, he suffered in comparison to Jefferson, Madison and even the dyspeptic John Adams. Now, with this carefully crafted revision of the record, Hamilton's accomplishments should be seen in a different light, one bright enough to show what he has meant for America.