The Marvelous American Autodidact: A Review of ‘Alexander Hamilton’ by Ron Chernow

Music has conveyed messages throughout history, sometimes in novel and ingenious ways. In 2015, the critically acclaimed musical ‘Hamilton‘ debuted on Broadway and took the entertainment world by storm. For approximately two-and-a-half hours, the life of one of the United States’ most prolific writer, statesman, politician, and public servant was thrust into the spotlight and viewed like never before. Critics from the artistic and academic communities exhausted their energies reviewing the powerful impact of the music, lyrics, and imagery that chronicled the rise, reign, and legacy of Alexander Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda commented that while on vacation, he obtained a copy of the Hamilton biography by the historian Ron Chernow and within a short time, Miranda contemplated on how Hamilton’s life could be conveyed through song. The end result? A musical that set a new golden standard for Broadway.

Alexander Hamilton didn’t deserve to languish in historical obscurity following his meteoric rise and infamous end according to Chernow. In the meticulous biography ‘Alexander Hamilton’, the reader plunges into the chaotic colonial life of the Caribbean, the American Revolution, and the formative years of the early United States republic. As any historian of the period can tell you, these were tumultuous times for the country as people wrestled to capitalize on their newfound freedoms and political leaders dueled in the most vicious partisan rhetoric. All the while, leaders are trying to make their democratic experiment flourish with Europe standing as witness. ‘Alexander Hamilton’ blends the biographical with the historical and interspersed with facts are eloquent asides showing Hamilton’s humanity and enigmatic personality. Chernow’s crusade into debunking the myths sheds light on the man who arguably saved the country’s financial institutions and defended the Constitution to his dying breath.

John Trumbull portrait of Alexander Hamilton, circa 1805

Hamilton’s celebrity life was a far cry from his origins. Chernow’s labor intensive research on Caribbean primary sources explores Hamilton’s ancestry between his mother, Rachel Faucette, and father James A. Hamilton. His mother’s life was hellish and inflated charges of infidelity and bigamy branded her children as bastards; a mark that Hamilton would zealously conceal throughout life. At first he tried to build some form of paternal relationship with James, but contact between the two men degraded until nothing was left to be said between them. His illegitimate origins extends to his birthday; it’s unsure whether he was born in 1755 or 1757. Chernow and other historians speculate that he changed his age to be accepted into college and the armed forces. What we do know is that from the moment he could walk and talk, he possessed a fiery drive to learn, apply, and improve his station and the world around him. The idyllic tropical life in the Caribbean was a glossy facade on the brutal world of slave labor and class stratification that defined Hamilton’s views on slavery, individual rights, and the importance of commerce. He criticized merchant ship captains for not providing adequate protection against pirates during his job as a shipping clerk (talk about confrontational). When reading about his childhood, it’s hard not to weep at the harsh predicaments of his mother or tricksters that conned their way through Hamilton’s family. This is one origin story that gets overlooked in the traditional historiography of America’s Founding Fathers, but one we should take to heart as it defined the man who shot right to the top. With a little help from his friends, Hamilton received the funds to travel to Boston and made his way to New York to become a new man.

New York became the center of Hamilton’s new world and quickly took advantage of his newfound surroundings. Enrolled at King’s College, he acquainted himself with members of the Sons of Liberty and other supporters of the American Revolution. The spirit of revolution presented a dual-blade personal controversy for Hamilton: he believed in the honorable causes of representative government, denounced unfair taxation, and liberty for all, but unfettered mob mentality and anarchistic violence would destroy the very same causes he championed. Hamilton internalized this belief and defined his course of action with the future establishment of the U.S. Constitution and the Treasury Department. There had to be order, not mayhem, for democracy to function.

Alexander Hamilton in uniform with the New York Artillery. Military duty was a glorious endeavor for Hamilton, who began his service with local militia units and eventually secured an aide-de-camp position with General George Washington.

What many people forget in traditional historiography was that Hamilton served as the right hand man of George Washington during the Revolution. Chernow covers Hamilton’s military service in exacting detail by elevating the importance of Hamilton’s writing and eloquence in addressing the Continental Congress. Washington’s army suffered from chronic shortages of food, ammunition, clothing, and Hamilton drafted letter after letter urging for the desperately needed supplies. Chernow spends a majority of the Revolution chapters focusing on this special kinship between Washington and Hamilton, but the conflict produced other valuable friendships with figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, John Jay, and Aaron Burr. For the duration of his position in Washington’s general staff, Hamilton begged for a field command; leading his own troops into honorable, battlefield glory. He was finally given command over a handful of battalions during the final Siege of Yorktown in 1781 and witnessed the collapse of the British army and General Cornwallis’ surrender. In the famous John Trumbull painting of Cornwallis’ surrender, on the right, standing to the far left in the line of officers is Hamilton clutching his sword, and looking on as the British file out past the combined French and U.S. officers. Now that the nation fought victoriously for independence, now began the task of building a government. A task that Alexander Hamilton eagerly confronted.

The Surrender of Cornwallis by John Trumbull, circa 1820. Key figures of the American Revolution are in this painting (George Washington, mounted on the horse to the immediate left of the U.S. flag. The Marquis de Lafayette, on the right side, second from the left in the line of officers next to the U.S. flag. Alexander Hamilton, also on the right side, standing on foot furthest to the left, and his friend John Laurens standing to Hamilton’s immediate left.)

Before reviewing the mammoth chapters encompassing Hamilton’s role in the Constitutional Convention, tenure in the Treasury Department, and illustrious private law practice, it’s important to mention the personal relationships that Hamilton developed, including his wife, Eliza, and sister-in-law, Angelica. When one watches the Hamilton musical, initial thoughts analyzing the connection between Angelica and Alexander lead to the conviction they pursued an affair; they would never be satisfied. Chernow argues repeatedly that while they had an intimate connection, it never ventured into the physical realm. Contemporary gossip spread a plethora of rumors that they were lovers, but Chernow makes a compelling argument that only maintained ‘a friendship of unusual ardor.’ Hamilton’s unquestionable love was Elizabeth Schuyler. Their relationship began during his service on Washington’s staff and he was so taken with her that its said that he forgot the password back to the officers quarters. Their courtship lasted roughly a year and they married on December 14, 1780. For the nomadic Hamilton, Chernow marks this celebration as a major turning point in his life. With the loss of paternal and maternal figures, home abandonment, and the constant reminder of his illegitimate heritage, there was always uncertainty over where he belonged. From that day forward, Hamilton felt grounded with a family, with security, and finally starting his own dynasty. Eliza shared much of Hamilton’s personality; a powerful drive for knowledge and love for helping others. Their marriage was a bedrock that buoyed them through sad times and Chernow makes it clear through vast correspondence and personal documents that Eliza and Hamilton’s affection never wavered throughout their 24 years together.

Elizabeth Hamilton, nee Schuyler circa 1787. Elizabeth came from the illustrious and wealthy Schuyler family, an old Dutch dynasty that lived in New York for over a hundred years prior to the Revolution. She and Alexander would eventually have eight children together: Philip, Angelica, Alexander Jr., James, John, William, Eliza, and Philip II

‘Alexander Hamilton’ certainly combs every facet of the subject’s life in a manner that if reviewed in every way here, this post would go on for another 20,000 words. In summation, it behooves to say that Hamilton never stayed put or calmed himself in any fashion. After returning to New York in 1783, he began a private law practice defending remaining Loyalist and Tories who had their properties violated during the war. A year later he founded the Bank of New York, then restored King’s College now renamed Columbia College and all the while, he orchestrated plans to convene the Constitutional Convention and push for restructuring the country’s finances and reinvigorate commerce and legal justice. The chapters analyzing Hamilton’s time at the Constitutional Convention are not only physically immense, but historically also. A majority of anti-Hamilton rhetoric that swirled around his life and well after his death accused him of being a closet monarchist; a person who wanted a powerful tyrant in control of the government and individual rights were trampled. After all, he argued cases before the New York Supreme Court on behalf of Tories and created quasi-aristocratic institutions (the Bank of New York and the fraternal military order, the Society of the Cincinnati). Plus his views on having a President-for-Life and Senators-for-Life only lent credence to this monarchist speculation. Rather than debunk these accusation, Chernow makes a slightly different approach; rather than vilify the haters, he deconstructs Hamilton’s statements and places them in the larger context of how divisions between supporters of central government emerged. There was no denying what Hamilton said, but his intentions were seen through in building a strong governing body where rights were guaranteed by the government. He wanted people to be held accountable for their actions in public office, but seemed to favor it more as a personal choice rather than face investigation and criticism from other departments and branches.

Despite some reservations with the proposed Constitution, Hamilton embarked on the massive writing campaign that modern historians claim was the key to ratifying the document; the Federalist Papers. Hamilton’s exemplary skills as a writer and orator are unchallenged according to Chernow and he cites it magnificently in this book. The power or argument and persuasion were the tools to achieve great respect, power, and achievement for Hamilton and many of his contemporaries would extol his writing prowess. When he produced fifty-one essays for the Federalist Papers, Chernow frames the works not only as a testament of Hamilton’s skills, but as a cunning approach to win over undecided supporters and subsequently dismantle the previous confederation that proved too weak to handle the demands of a central government. The impact of Hamilton’s literary skills resonate within the early years of the United States and much of his writing is still cited today for arguing cases with the federal government, including the Federalist Papers.

Official portrait of Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 to 1795 (Bureau of Printing and Engraving)

As the first Secretary of the Treasury Department appointed by George Washington, Hamilton inherited a country in financial shambles. Farms and businesses were lost during the Revolution, state debts ballooned, back pay for the military was halted, and each state suffered from inflation affecting their respective currencies. Here is where traditional historiography on Hamilton’s achievements with the federal government emerges; even Chernow admits this is where the history is recorded, but not all of it was spared from the continual vitriol that Hamilton’s opponents spewed at him. Here we see the machine-link energy characterized him as a relentless public servant using government to improve the lives of the people: establishing public credit, creating the National Bank, the U.S. Mint, and the Revenue Cutter Service (known today as the U.S. Coast Guard). His proclamations, Reports on Public Credit, Report on a National Bank, and Report of Manufactures, shaped economic policy by covering topics from public debt to designing gold coins. Not every proposal Hamilton put forth received ringing endorsements however. His revenue plan including a whiskey tax was poorly received, resulting in the Whiskey Rebellion. This crisis was significant not only for asserting government control on domestic economic issues, but for strengthening Hamilton’s friendship with President Washington. Since their army days, Washington and Hamilton were close friends, almost serving as a counterbalance to each other’s shortcomings as Chernow describes. This was critical for Hamilton as he positioned himself in close proximity to great political power and economic influence. That same closeness made him the target of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Democratic-Republican acolytes. Partisan politics between the two men festered into the national audience and their rivalry became one of the most well-documented contests in early U.S. political history. What Chernow provides in addition to the insights of the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry is how Hamilton was able to balance the weight of public scrutiny with his personal realm and commit to his children and Eliza. Despite always working and writing like he’s running out of time, he always made time for his family. ‘Alexander Hamilton’ describes not only his accolades and political victories, but the darker stains contrasting his impeccable public face.

The scandalous Reynolds Pamphlet written by Hamilton. Responding to allegations of wrongdoing in the Treasury Department, he provided evidence exonerating him from financial crimes, but openly admitted and apologized for having an affair with Maria Reynolds. The first political sex scandal in the first few years of the new republic.

In 1791, Hamilton and a woman named Maria Reynolds began an illicit affair that lasted for six years and when it became publicly known, it was the first sex scandal that the country faced from its new government. The biography’s chapters outlining the affair are a combination of searching for reasons behind why it started and how it affected Hamilton’s public and private life. For someone like Hamilton, Chernow recognized the contrary behavior that seems out of place for his character and personality. Hamilton prided himself on acting justly to both man’s and God’s laws, so why did this affair happen? What we know from the research is that Hamilton succumbed to his own frailty for women in dire situations and that Maria was engaged in a long-term extortion racket with her husband James (Yes, she was a married woman, making the scandal all the more, scandalous). Chernow speculates that once James realized potential blow-back if the story became public, receiving ‘loans’ from Hamilton was too good of an opportunity to connect with a high-profile figure. Years later when Hamilton faced charges of speculation and misuse of his federal office, he revealed the affair by showing his checkbook of payments to James Reynolds instead of financial speculators his enemies had hoped to find. To preempt any more rumors, enter the Reynolds Pamphlet; a hundred page booklet that detailed the entire affair. Eliza forgave Alexander, but it took years and the Democratic-Republicans used the affair as political fodder at every opportunity.

Washington’s departure from office did not end Hamilton’s influence in the Cabinet. President John Adams heavily resented the fact that his department heads were under Hamilton’s sway, shuttling his ideas through Adams’ administration policy. Timothy Pickering and James McHenry felt the full force of Adams’ wrath at discovering this ideological betrayal by sacking them both. Chernow examines the 1796-1800 time period by delivering analogous comparisons between British and French sentiments in the United States. Opposing views on fulfilling promises made during the American Revolution to the French; who were now engaged in their own albeit bloodier, more anarchistic revolution, intensified partisan divisions in the U.S. government. These splits are eloquently analyzed by Chernow to show how Hamilton began to slip from being the political prodigy and slump into a more reserved status of an elder politician and shadow adviser. His writing skills never wavered, but Chernow recognizes that Hamilton’s infinite enery reserves were running low (his eldest son Philip was killed in a duel in 1801, facilitating depression that Chernow claims Hamitlon never fully recovered from). The crisis in American government devolved into bitter political partisanship and Hamilton was no exception when it came to expressing his ire for both Democratic-Republicans and his own Federalist party. By the 1800 election, Hamilton endorsed Thomas Jefferson for President, disavowing Aaron Burr as the greater evil; someone who held no solid principles and exploited situations for personal and political gain.

Portrait of Aaron Burr. Burr served as Vice President from 1801-1805, but his failed bid for Governor of New York led him to challenge Hamilton to a duel

Burr reappears throughout the biography as this counterbalance to Chernow’s Hamilton. Whereas Hamilton was outwardly expressive and courted challenges in public, Burr shied away from confrontation in many respects, but always felt that others challenged and belittled him. Contemporary readers might classify him with an INFJ personality type. He and Hamilton both served in the Continental Army, practiced law, and partnered with him on numerous public works in New York. The antagonism however lay with their interpretation of federal government power. Burr’s machinations with New York politics made him a prominent figure, but Chernow revives many of the same suspicions that Hamilton and other Federalists harbored about him. There were accusations of subverting legal codes, using public works for personal gain, and in general just acting dishonorably (see the Manhattan Company water controversy). Popular historical legend tells that Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel following Burr’s loss to Thomas Jefferson, but in Chernow’s writing, the more likely tipping point occurred during the New York 1804 gubernatorial election. The two men already had their public disputes beginning in 1800 while Burr engaged in the first public election campaign and conversations in New York political society alleged that Hamilton consistently degraded him, resulting in his loss. This makes sense as Burr had been ousted from the White House by President Jefferson and all his remaining political capital in his home state was expended. Burr found himself without prospects for almost any political office now.

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund.

The fateful duel ignited an internal conflict within Hamilton unlike anything he ever experienced. He abhorred the dueling ritual since his son Philip was killed in one years earlier. His family’s welfare was put at risk because of the possibility of his death. However, Chernow recognized that Hamilton felt honor bound to address the infraction and he couldn’t argue the fact that he made negative remarks about Burr long before the 1804 election. One the fateful day of July 11, 1804, the two men left Manhattan for Weehawken New Jersey with their seconds (witnesses) and a physician. Differing accounts as to who shot first have survived through the generations (maybe the inspiration for Han Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina?) and historians, including Chernow, have argued this point over who had the most to gain from the duel. Did Burr know that Hamilton would throw away his shot, thus giving him time to aim precisely? Did Hamilton grossly miss and that’s when Burr took his shot? Witnesses agree that both men shot, but others disagree on the time lapse between each. Personal writings by the duelists illustrate their own desires for shooting; Burr was blatant in his desire to shoot to kill, but Hamilton was more complex in his stated beliefs and intentions. It’s really up to the interpretation of the reader; Chernow delivers a compelling argument that Hamilton agreed to the duel to address attacks on his honor, but he couldn’t overcome the sin of murder. Hamilton was carried back to New York where he died the on July 12, 1804.

The biography’s physical size is itself a testament to the precise, detailed, and all-encompassing research that Chernow delivers on the life of one of country’s most accomplished, self-made men. Whether you examine ‘Alexander Hamilton’ from a political, economic, or biographical lens, there was no doubt that this American autodidact shaped government theory, set legal and economic precedence, and saw the American Revolution within himself; a young, scrappy, and hungry force meant for a greatness.

Statue of Alexander Hamilton, erected by Carl Conrads in Central Park

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s