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Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton

by Ron Chernow

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4,7481031,507 (4.32)182
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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Showing 1-5 of 101 (next | show all)
This book is well written and well researched. I was never bored reading it, even though it took me six months to get through it. It's just way more words than I ever wanted to read about one person. It made me want to learn more about Eliza Hamilton, though. ( )
  AngelClaw | Sep 21, 2019 |
Woof, finally finished this very through biography about Alexander Hamilton. Like many people, I picked up this book because I saw Hamilton and wanted to know more. If you're interested in learning more about this Founding Father, this well written biography is a great way to learn more. ( )
  rkcraig88 | Jul 15, 2019 |
A completely average biography. Chernow seems to believe that a biographer's goal should be to laud his subject, and to elide or excuse any failings. He almost seems to have been on a dare as to how blatantly he could faun over Hamilton. A reader would not stay sober long if she had a drink every time Chernow contradicted himself within a page or two.

For example, right in the middle of describing corrupt schemes and insider trading by some of his immediate subordinates, Chernow writes, "In reality, as soon as he took office, Hamilton established high ethical standards and promulgated a policy that employees could not deal in government securities, setting a critical precedent for America’s civil service." Is Chernow joking? Or again: "Never a martinet, Hamilton did insist on discipline and condoned no lapses. Often, he roamed the camp after dark, surprising sentries at their posts."

I still learned a lot, and the biography is very readable and not overlong.

> At the outset, Hamilton slipped a technical provision into the convention rules that was a tactical bonanza for the federalists: the Constitution had to be debated clause by clause before a general vote could be taken. It was a masterly stroke. Nobody could vie with Hamilton in close textual analysis, and this step-by-step approach would stall the proceedings, increasing the likelihood that riders from Virginia or New Hampshire would rush in with news that their state had ratified and force New York to follow suit.

> Hamilton's opinions were so numerous and his influence so pervasive that most historians regard him as having been something akin to a prime minister. If Washington was head of state, then Hamilton was the head of government, the active force in the administration.

> the rift between Hamilton and Madison precipitated the start of the two-party system in America. The funding debate shattered the short-lived political consensus that had ushered in the new government. For the next five years, the political spectrum in America was defined by whether people endorsed or opposed Alexander Hamilton's programs.

> Hamilton’s three most savage critics of the 1790s: Jefferson, Madison, and Adams. These founders adhered to a static, archaic worldview that scorned banks, credit, and stock markets. From this perspective, Hamilton was the progressive figure of the era, his critics the conservatives. As members of the Virginia plantation world, Jefferson and Madison had a nearly visceral contempt for market values and tended to denigrate commerce as grubby, parasitic, and degrading

> The Whiskey Rebellion had been suppressed, the country's finances flourished, and the investigation into his affairs had ended with a ringing exoneration. He had prevailed in almost every major program he had sponsored—whether the bank, assumption, funding the public debt, the tax system, the Customs Service, or the Coast Guard … He had laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of the president from passive administrator to active policy maker, creating the institutional scaffolding for America's future emergence as a great power. He had demonstrated the creative uses of government and helped to weld the states irreversibly into one nation … If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.

> As president, Adams was the nominal head of the Federalists, yet he dreamed of being a nonpartisan president. Hence, he effectively abdicated the role of partisan leader, which Hamilton, with his taste for power, was only too glad to assume.

> Everywhere he went, Hamilton conjured up disturbing images of a French-style revolution in America, even telling one listener that it did not matter who became the next president because "he did not expect his head to remain four years longer upon his shoulders unless it was at the head of a victorious army." This sounded like scare talk, but Hamilton actually believed these overblown fantasies of impending Jacobin carnage in America.

> Since he had provoked the duel to rehabilitate his career, it did not make sense for him to kill Hamilton. Hamilton calculated (correctly, it turned out) that Burr could not kill him without committing political suicide at the same time. ( )
  breic | Jun 21, 2019 |
I started to read this book, because I feel like I'm a particular lull in my own life and I wanted to learn something from someone I consider a great statesman. I'm really happy that someone wrote a thick serious book about Hamilton. I was taught in high school about how much of a visionary he was, and over the years when I learned more about Hamilton, I always felt that he's a fascinating founding father that's been brushed aside because he doesn't have a monument named after him. In particular I am grateful to this book for birthing the wonderful musical Hamilton, which both introduced Hamilton to the wider public and probably saved his legacy on the ten dollar bill.

Onto the mixed feelings about this biography in particular, setting aside the positive effects I felt like the book brought on for Hamilton's legacy. I agree with some other reviews that Chernow has gone to an extreme in order to rescue poor Alexander from obscurity. Hamilton becomes a God-like figure in the biography, not only anticipating the manufacturing power of this country but also (!) the Laffer curve and modern monetary policy (the velocity of money)! Chernow is too willing to forgive and justify certain unsavory aspects of Hamilton's actions and character. When it comes to the Maria Reynolds affair for example, Chernow peppers the book with various apologies (Eliza was pregnant most of the time, Hamilton had a childhood weakness for women, Hamilton was overwhelmed etc.). When Hamilton makes a mistake or personal failing, Chernow spends a short time before moving on from it. On the contrary, Chernow devotes lengthy paragraphs to the failings of the other founding fathers. Madison is the shifty mind changing Brutus, Jefferson the master hypocrite and manipulator, Adams the unstable, vainglorious, insecure toothless president. The only founding father that gets off relatively scott-free is Washington, though Chernow attitudes almost all of Washington's good ideas to Hamilton. Perhaps the reason why this happened is that Chernow also wrote a biography of Washington. It seems to me a trend that when a biographer writes about a person, that they become a little too sympathetic to protagonist of their book.

My final complaint about the book is the lack of engagement with the serious scholarship surrounding the revolution. I consider myself merely a dabbler, but there three things that really stuck out to me. The first is Chernow's repetition of the anecdote about Martha Washington's cat. Supposedly, the story goes, Martha Washington nicknamed a stray tomcat, "Hamilton" an early reference to the rakish nature of Hamilton. Chernow recounts this story as fact, even though the scholarship has indicated that the only source of this story was a British writer that sought to discredit the founding fathers through various false anecdotes. Second, Chernow characterizes the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions as revisionist inventions by Jefferson and Madison, when compact theory was an established concept from the Articles. Lastly, Chernow says several times that the Alien and Sedition acts established the truth as defense against libel for the first time, when this was established in colonial times in the celebrated Zenger case. Though Chernow attempts to cite scholarly work, it seems out of place and even like poor historical writing. He typically phrases it like this "As X author said...". Perhaps I'm becoming too nitpicky for some. It was an excellent and fun read, and as far as popular historical biographies go, really detailed and enlightening. I only suggest some modesty after one reads the book. ( )
1 vote vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
In Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow argues, “The saga of [Hamilton’s] metamorphosis from an anguished clerk on St. Croix to the reigning presence in George Washington’s cabinet offers both a gripping personal story and a panoramic view of the formative years of the republic. Except for Washington, nobody stood closer to the center of American politics from 1776 to 1800 or cropped up at more turning points. More than anyone else, the omnipresent Hamilton galvanized, inspired, and scandalized the newborn nation, serving as the flash point for pent-up conflicts of class, geography, race, religion, and ideology” (pg. 4). Further, “If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government” (pg. 481).

Discussing Hamilton’s breadth of study and the role he played as Secretary of the Treasury, Chernow writes, “Hamilton’s opinions were so numerous and his influence so pervasive that most historians regard him as having been something akin to a prime minister. If Washington was head of state, then Hamilton was the head of government, the active force in the administration” (pg. 289). Those opinions and Hamilton’s eagerness to express them made political enemies, though. According to Chernow, “The rift between Hamilton and Madison precipitated the start of the two-party system in America. The funding debate shattered the short-lived political consensus that had ushered in the new government. For the next five years, the political spectrum in America was defined by whether people endorsed or opposed Alexander Hamilton’s programs” (pg. 306). Chernow argues that the emergence of the Federalists and Democratic Republicans had less to do with concrete political differences than with the extension of certain individuals’ – Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison – political power (pg. 392). Hamilton, however, was the most divisive of these since he openly, almost brazenly, proclaimed his opinions, even when they went against the national mood. Chernow writes, “The intellectual spoilsport among the founding fathers, Hamilton never believed in the perfectibility of human nature and regularly violated what became the first commandment of American politics: thou shalt always be optimistic when addressing the electorate” (pg. 627).

Chernow chronicles the debates and squabbling in Washington’s cabinet in exacting detail. He writes, “By early July 1797, it was clear that George Washington would not have the option of silence or inaction in stemming the feud between Hamilton and Jefferson. He had probably waited too long to assert control. His fine, nonpartisan stance may have only intensified the partisan mischief between his two appointees” (pg. 402). Further, “The founding fathers all appear to us in two guises: as both sublime and ordinary, selfless and selfish, heroic and humdrum. After the tenuous unity of 1776 and 1787, they had become wildly competitive and sometimes jealous of one another. It is no accident that our most scathing portraits of them come from their own pens” (pg. 405). In discussing Hamilton’s impact on the developing nation, Chernow argues, “Hamilton did not create America’s market economy so much as foster the cultural and legal setting in which it flourished” (pg. 345). He writes of the debate over the eventual location of the federal capital, “The question of the capital served as a proxy for the question of whether America should assume an urban or agrarian character” (pg. 326).

One of Chernow’s greatest contributions to Hamilton scholarship is to uncover more about Eliza Hamilton. He writes, “Because Eliza Hamilton was a modest, self-effacing woman who apparently destroyed her own letters and tried to expunge her presence from the history books, the force of her personality and the magnitude of her contribution have been overlooked” (pg. 582). Through Hamilton’s letters, her father’s letters, and mention of her in others’ correspondence, Chernow is able to tell more of Eliza’s story than most previous chroniclers. In focusing on others in Hamilton’s orbit, Chernow draws upon the work of David McCullough. Further, his discussion of the duels that punctuated eighteenth century life relies on the scholarship of Joanne B. Freeman, particularly her monograph, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. His focus on Aaron Burr engages with much of the popular conception of Burr, including Gore Vidal’s novel, to paint a three-dimensional portrait of this man often regarded as an historical villain. For the depth of Chernow’s research and the life he breathes into Hamilton and his world, it’s no wonder this biography inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to write his Broadway musical, Hamilton. ( )
  DarthDeverell | May 8, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 101 (next | show all)
In this favorable, hefty biography of Alexander Hamilton, Chernow (The Warburgs; The House of Morgan) makes the case for him as one of the most important Founding Fathers, arguing that America is heir to the Hamiltonian vision of the modern economic state. His sweeping narrative chronicles the complicated and often contradictory life of Hamilton, from his obscure birth on Nevis Island to his meteoric rise as confidant to Washington, coauthor of The Federalist Papers, and America's first Treasury secretary, to his bizarre death at the hands of Aaron Burr. A running theme is the contradictions exhibited during his life: a member of the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton nevertheless felt that the Constitution was seriously flawed and was fearful of rule by the people. A devoted father and husband, he had two known affairs. Lastly, he was philosophically and morally opposed to dueling, and yet that's how he met his end. Although quite sympathetic to Hamilton, Chernow attempts to present both sides of his many controversies, including Hamilton's momentous philosophical battles with Jefferson. Chernow relies heavily on primary sources and previously unused volumes of Hamilton's writings. A first-rate life and excellent addition to the ongoing debate about Hamilton's importance in the shaping of America.
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ron Chernowprimary authorall editionscalculated
Brick, ScottNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, GabrieleCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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