Chernow, Ron, Alexander Hamilton, The Penguin Press, 2004

This a great biography of one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. Alexander Hamilton’s accomplishments are astonishing: serving brilliantly as General Washington’s Chief aide-de-camp and later bravely in combat near Yorktown; standing up to mobs after the revolutionary war out to lynch and fleece Tories; writing the charter of the Bank of New York; working tirelessly for a stronger central government after the war; writing (with Madison and Jay) the brilliant Federalist papers which became the basis for much of the intellectual and practical content of the Constitution; serving brilliantly under Washington again as Treasury secretary where he almost single handedly forged the modern financial and economic systems that are the basis for American system up to this day. A consistent abolitionist all his life, he alone among all the founding stuck his neck out during his active political career to end slavery.

What is even more impressive is that Hamilton accomplished all of these things after what can only be described as a tragic childhood. Born and raised in St Croix, he, his mother and brother were abandoned by his father when Alexander was only 10 years old. Two years later his mother died of a painful and delirious fever. He and his brother were then passed around from relative to relative until being adopted by a cousin, who promptly committed suicide. A court set to decide the fate of the orphans and the estate in St. Croix seized all of his possessions, sold off his personal effects and gave the rest to his mother's first husband—a vindictive man who had persecuted the family relentlessly up to the mother’s death. Thus he and his brother were left penniless, homeless and orphaned.

A kindly relative stepped in and retrieved whatever personal effects from the estate he could for the boys. Alexander wanted his small collection of books and among that collection was his precious Plutarch’s Lives. Chernow’s biography makes it clear that Plutarch’s Lives was treasured by Hamilton all his life. His wartime notebooks contain large extracts from the Lives including from the Lives of the founders of states. He would use this information later when he wrote many of the Federalist papers and when he positioned himself as a founder of America’s political and economic system. Like all of the active politicians of the revolutionary era Hamilton engaged in a lot of pamphleteering and whenever he did he would often choose a nom de plume from Plutarch’s Lives. When defending Tories from attacks by patriots after the war he published a series of essays urging clemency for these former supporters of the enemy. In these essays he took the name of Phocion presumably because like Hamilton Phocion was an orphan who later became an aid to a great general and then who lead the Athenians bravely and wisely and then counseled clemency to vanquished enemies after the wars. In 1795 he took up his pen to defend the Jay Treaty with Britain using the name of Camillus-once again a general from Plutarch’s Lives who told the Roman citizenry what they did not want to hear and was banished for his pains…only later to be recalled when Rome was once again threatened by the armies of the Gauls.

Because Hamilton aimed high he aroused some very powerful enemies in Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams. While Hamilton championed the Federalist cause of a strong central government with an economy based on manufactures and a central banking system the Anti-federalists led by Jefferson and Madison wanted a farm based economy and a weak central government believing that centralized power was dangerous to liberty. Hamilton on the other hand argued that only a strong central government could safely secure the rights and liberties of individuals. Of course, the issue of slavery influenced these debates as well with the Federalists generally advocating some reasonable scheme of abolition and the anti-federalists silent on the issue and opposing measures to address the issue. Privately the leaders of the anti-federalist condemmed slavery but they never publicly exerted themselves against the evil.

Personally Hamilton was an appealing man: friendly, compassionate, brilliant, apparently handsome, and devoted to his heroic wife, but with a weaknesses for beautiful women in distress. He was easily manipulated by his beautiful mistress , Maria Reynolds who approached him for loan and then never let go thereafter.

Cernow does a masterful job of detailing the histories over decades of some of Hamilton’s most important relationships: with Hugh Knox a minister on St Croix who (along with Hamilton’s cousin Ann Lytton Venton) recognized the boys’ talents, raised a subscription and got him a scholarship to study in the colonies; General Washington who quickly recognized the young man’s immense literary, political and administrative abilities and made full use of them during the war; his wife Eliza and sister in law (the vivacious and brilliant) Angelica; his friend and fellow abolitionist Laurens; his childhood friend Edward Stevens; and a galaxy of political allies and enemies.

One of the most interesting of the enemies was Aaron Burr. Chernow sustains a fascinating comparison of these two men throughout the book as each of them progress up the political ladder after service during the revolutionary war. The two men’s fates seemed to be inextricably intertwined. Both men were young, attractive, and extraordinarily brilliant, both had tragic childhoods, both were immensely talented lawyers sometimes serving on the same cases; both were talented and ambitious politicians rising to the peak of the power pyramid in the early republic. Both married ‘well’ and apparently loved their wives but both took mistresses. But the differences were profound, Burr was paranoid and secretive while Hamilton was almost childishly open about his positions. Burr trusted no-one and nursed a very cynical view of human nature while Hamilton steeped himself in the natural law tradition exemplified in Plutarch and Cicero and in the common sense philosophy of the Scottish enlightenment. Perhaps most interesting is that Hamilton what Chernow calls the greatest number of words a single human being can do in a short lifetime…in other words he wrote volumes and most of what he wrote was brilliant and in places beautiful. Hamilton was one of these applied public intellectuals whose thought was steeped in the classics and forged in the heat of political battle. He did not write books of long philosophical argument and the like. Instead he wrote polemical journalism. He needed the spur of combat to get the ink flowing.

Burr, on the other hand, wrote very little-only two volumes of material, mostly letters according to Chernow. Burr, as Vice President was to side with the anti-federalists and later kill Hamilton in a senseless duel of honor.