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Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton

by Ron Chernow

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Thanks to LT for the opportunity to write about so many wonderful books (and a few not so wonderful) and to share my thoughts with others, hopefully pointing you to some winners you may not have otherwise discovered. "Alexander Hamilton" is a big winner !

Hamilton (AH) was born in Nevis, a British West Indian island near St. Kitts; his year of birth is somewhat debatable but it was most likely 1755. His mother died when he was 14, and his father had deserted the family years earlier; he and his older brother (by two years) were left without family, friends, and money. For the next few years he was raised by neighbors, and did bookkeeping for a shipping company. At the age of 18 or so, Hamilton sailed to America, stopping first in Boston but settling soon after in New York.

AH had little if any formal education during his Nevis years, but he likely was tutored by the elderly ladies in the community; he became bilingual learning French from his mother and he read and re-read the small collection of English classics his mother had accumulated. He gained admission to Kings College (later renamed Columbia University) but dropped out to fight in the Revolutionary War. Hamilton came to General George Washington's attention early on in New York and was chosen to join Washington's staff. Now in his early 20's, he was drafting the bulk of Washington's correspondence from reports for Congress to orders from Washington to his Generals. Washington quickly gave AH more and more responsibility. And the rest is history.....finally gaining a command and playing a key role in Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown effectively ending the Revolutionary War, penning the Federalist papers with Madison, contributing to the framing of the Constitution, serving as Washington's Treasury Secretary, becoming a successful New York lawyer, and together with wife Eliza raising eight children.

Hamilton had many successes in his brief life, and author Ron Chernow does not restrain himself in his accolades. "If Washington was the father of the country.....then Alexander Hamilton was the father of American government." Hamilton's many accomplishments included establishing the Federal Bank, funding public debt, creating the tax system, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard. Also AH "....laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped transform the role of the president from passive administrator to active policy maker......and helped to weld the states irreversibly into one nation."

Yet Chernow is not reticent to include AH's shortcomings. He shows that at times AH could be hypocritical and had a chronic tendency to magnify problems. He sometimes tried to do too much at the same time, launching too many initiatives at once. Toward the end, AH and Adams detested each other: "Both were hasty, erratic, impulsive men and capable of atrocious judgment." Chernow includes, with perhaps too much detail, AH's shameful, embarrassing and long-lasting affair with Mrs. Mariah Reynolds.

There is an additional story told in this marvelous book - the critical events in the founding of the United States, particularly the creation of our Constitution and the major issues facing our first president. To lay the groundwork for the ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton conceived the idea of "The Federalist Papers"(FP) , drawing together the contributors, writing most of the eighty-three essays and seeing to their publication; AH wrote twenty-one of them in a mere two months . "Hamilton's mind always worked with preternatural speed. His collected papers are so stupefying in length that it is hard to believe that one man created them in fewer than five decades." Chernow does an excellent job of summarizing the FP's groupings. It is amazing for the reader to see how many issues of those days still resonate today and illiustrate how passionately citizens of the 1790's felt about matters such as Federal v. State responsibilities. It is also very interesting to read the history and debate concerning so many precedent setting events. Fortunately, Chernow goes far beyond the typical biographer's practice of paying the most minimal attention to those events in which his subject played a minor role. And so we are treated to many pages devoted to all the major events of the times. These include how we elected our first President (no campaigning!), why many of our early presidents were from Virginia, how the Constitution was agreed to by a disparate group of 39, how its ratification process played out, how political parties came to be, the XYZ affair, passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, creating the USA's first currency and coinage. Even how the stock exchange was created. !

While AH had many incredible successes, great satisfaction, and happy moments, there are many moments of gloom and foreboding throughout the book. From the earliest of its 731 pages, "Alexander Hamilton" details how closely Aaron Burr's life was interwoven with Hamilton's. Burr pops up continuously, with details of his career advancement, family life, personal habits, and characteristics.

The subject of dueling also arises frequently. Dueling was an unfortunate part of many gentlemen's lives and Hamilton had several occasions where he was involved as a third party with the duels of others. Two of the last chapters, about 30 pages, deal with the Hamilton-Burr duel in Weehauken, NJ. Sadly, less than three years before his own death in that duel, Hamilton's oldest son Philip was killed at the very same site. He was only 20, defending his father's honor, attacked in a July 4th speech.

This is an excellent bio, one of the two or three best I have ever read. (I found it far superior to Chernow's book on Washington). I recommend it highly. ( )
  maneekuhi | May 25, 2016 |
Excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton. Although 700+ pages, it's interesting all the way through. Chernow presents an even-handed view of Hamilton, warts and all, but he also makes it clear how essential Hamilton was to the American story. Thomas Jefferson comes across very poorly, but it doesn't feel like it's Jefferson-bashing, it feels like truth. My only comment would be that there are too many "Could this be why he did that?" questions without any real basis. Either state what did have an effect, or don't even mention it. ( )
  tloeffler | Mar 27, 2016 |
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor - grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

This book ought to give you the answer. :) ( )
  librariankate7578 | Mar 3, 2016 |
Excellent book and exposition on one of the most profoundly influential, yet surprisingly little-known, of the founding fathers. Hamilton's story really is so incredible. The only reason I didn't give it five stars is that the book is just too long for my tastes. Made it thru 400+ of 700 pages before running out of gas. Maybe I'll pick it up again in a few months to polish off the latter part of H's life. ( )
  tgraettinger | Feb 16, 2016 |
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

An in-depth biography encompassing 750pp defining, perhaps the most significant individual amongst the US Founding Fathers. This book is a must read for those who wish for a detailed account of the early history of the battle for US Independence and the birth of the US as a self-sustaining nation state. A thorough and most readable account is to be found in this encyclopedia of Hamilton’s entire life from his West Indies birth. Moreover Hamilton was central to the birth and early history of the US Government. The politics of the first establishment and formation and acceptance of the US Constitution and of the difficulties in establishing the first and second terms of George Washington’s administration are covered in glorious detail. Legislative grid-lock is not a new phenomenon, and has existed ever since the US constitutional form of government was first established circa 1787. The politics of the George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson presidential terms were frequently deadlocked in the early tussles of the ensuing two party system. The politics between the Federalists seeking to establish the First Federal Administrations and the Republicans who held so dear what today are called State Rights were the basic elements of a tremendous political daily battle among the contestants at each stroke. Hamilton as the first ever secretary of the treasury and father of the first US bank shouldered the full development of the budding US economy and its subsequent successes. This book hit the streets in 2005. Chernow is clearly an economic historian par excellence. He started in 1985 with “The House of Morgan” and his successes have allowed him to spend a extensive period of detailed research to produce the facts needed for this work of force concerning the detailed character study and the enormous details of the prolific works of the industrious Alexander Hamilton.
The book contains 32 photos of early portraits of the central cast. plus details exploring the early relationship engendered when Hamilton was Washington’s Aide-de-Camp throughout the trials and tribulations during the War for Independence that solidified the close relationship between these two fathers of US Democracy. The untimely death of Hamilton in a duel with the US Vice-President, Aaron Burr on 11 July 1804 is covered in exquisite detail on pages 700 to 740. 80 pages of notes and bibliography conclude this academic tour de force.
In short this book is a must and rewarding read for those aspiring knowledge of the fight for US independence and the ensuing early history of the US Republic ( )
  MichaelHodges | Feb 13, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143034758, Paperback)

Building on biographies by Richard Brookhiser and Willard Sterne Randall, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton provides what may be the most comprehensive modern examination of the often overlooked Founding Father. From the start, Chernow argues that Hamilton’s premature death at age 49 left his record to be reinterpreted and even re-written by his more long-lived enemies, among them: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe. Hamilton’s achievements as first Secretary of the Treasury, co-author of The Federalist Papers, and member of the Constitutional Convention were clouded after his death by strident claims that he was an arrogant, self-serving monarchist. Chernow delves into the almost 22,000 pages of letters, manuscripts, and articles that make up Hamilton’s legacy to reveal a man with a sophisticated intellect, a romantic spirit, and a late-blooming religiosity.

One fault of the book, is that Chernow is so convinced of Hamilton’s excellence that his narrative sometimes becomes hagiographic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chernow’s account of the infamous duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. He describes Hamilton’s final hours as pious, while Burr, Jefferson, and Adams achieve an almost cartoonish villainy at the news of Hamilton’s passing.

A defender of the union against New England secession and an opponent of slavery, Hamilton has a special appeal to modern sensibilities. Chernow argues that in contrast to Jefferson and Washington’s now outmoded agrarian idealism, Hamilton was "the prophet of the capitalist revolution" and the true forebear of modern America. In his Prologue, he writes: "In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did." With Alexander Hamilton, this impact can now be more widely appreciated. --Patrick O'Kelley

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:16 -0400)

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Publisher's description: In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, National Book Award winner Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is "a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all." Few figures in American history. have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow's biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today's America is the result of Hamilton's countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time. "To repudiate his legacy," Chernow writes, "is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world." Chernow here recounts. Hamilton's turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington's aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States. Historians have long told the story of America's birth as the triumph of Jefferson's democratic. ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we've encountered before-from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with. Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton's famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804. Chernow's biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America's birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander. Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.… (more)

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