by I.K. Mullins
Copyright©2016 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.
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Today, when capitalism rules the world and Jefferson’s name is diminished by historians’ attention to his relationship to slavery, it seems like the right time to revive the story of Hamilton’s life and accomplishments. Ron Chernow takes on this task in his book Alexander Hamilton, portraying this most controversial Founding Father.
Chernow’s book certainly presents the most complete study of Hamilton’s life, his achievements and his relationship to prominent political figures of that time. It is not merely biography of Hamilton, but the story of the birth of the United States. Chernow’s book depicts George Washington as the father of the United States. It presents Jefferson as the advocate of liberty, whose idealism continues to inspire Americans. Hamilton’s portrayal in the book inspires respect for his financial insights and his determination to rise above the poverty of his younger years.
Whereas many historians treat the story of birth of the United Stated as the victory of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over Hamilton’s aristocratic convictions, Chernow tells a very different story, in which Hamilton’s ambitions were driven not solely by self-interest but by Hamilton’s patriotism and determination to shape the fundamentals of American prosperity and power.
Chernow emphasizes in his book that when it comes to creating the political culture and national institutions of the United States, Hamilton was as influential as any of the Founding Fathers. Indeed, while in Washington’s cabinet, Hamilton worked hard to set the U.S. economy on a sound financial footing. Chernow also asserts that Hamilton was self-made man who could feel outraged by slavery. Hamilton, for example, was a founding member of the New-York-based antislavery society. In his book, Chernow traces Hamilton’s lifelong hatred of slavery back to the dreadful scenes of the West Indian slave trade that Hamilton witnessed when he was a boy.
Chernow recognizes Hamilton’s weaknesses as well. He discusses Hamilton’s arrogance, episodes of self-pity, and errors in judgment that hurt his career. Chernow observes that Hamilton’s misjudgments and irrational dislikes, as well as his tendency to assume the worst, prevented him from succeeding George Washington as president.
Chernow’s book has its own faults. Chernow often admires the United States as a democracy. Yet, he clearly states that Hamilton viewed democracy as an anti-rights system set up for mob rule. Chernow pays too much attention to certain topics at the expense of the others. For example, there are dozens of pages in Chernow’s book devoted to discussion of Aaron Burr. Yet, the Federalist Papers get much less attention.
Chernow’s book incorporates his research of more than twenty-two thousand pages of material, offering a panoramic view of early America. However, when depicting the thoughts and actions of Jefferson, Adams and Madison, Chernow relies more on their biographies written by other authors than on primary sources. To a certain degree, Chernow presents distorted images of Hamilton’s adversaries. He portrays Jefferson and Madison not just as hypocritical slave owners, but also as thinkers whose ideas and viewpoints were essentially outdated. Such a portrayal is based on Chernow’s opinion that they denied the possibility of America’s rise based on immigration, stock markets and banks, manufacturing and strong managers.
Whereas Chernow describes Hamilton as “the prophet of the capitalist revolution in America” and the “messenger from a future that we now inhabit,” he exaggerates the magnitude of Jefferson’s support for agrarianism. Furthermore, Chernow almost completely disregards Jefferson’s work as an educator, scientist and reformer; and he understates Jefferson’s ideas on the economy, particularly Jefferson’s enthusiasm for trade and commerce.
Chernow overstresses Hamilton’s associations with the political system of the modern Unites States, but he ignores the fact that in his speech at the Federal Convention, Hamilton presented his ideas for the Constitution and recommended that the President and members of the Senate would serve for life, as long as they were on good behavior.