A Quintessential New Yorker, And a Consummate Realist

Alexander Hamilton , by Ron Chernow. The Penguin Press, 818 pages, $35.

“I have thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are, not as they ought to be.” This sentiment, which Ron Chernow borrows as an epigraph for his engrossing biography of the most brilliant and charismatic of the Founders, reveals Alexander Hamilton as the highly articulate philosopher of American realism. He never wallowed in the seductive waters of American exceptionalism, which too often saw the new republic as another Eden, free from the corruptions of Europe and chosen by God to lead the world. In The Federalist Papers , he asked: “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?” At a time when the Bush administration has embarked on an imperial mission-with the President declaiming, “We are changing the world”-Hamilton’s cautionary words are just what we need.

The roots of Hamilton’s realism lie in his childhood. It’s hard to imagine anyone with his unpromising start rising to such great heights in so short a time. He was born on the West Indian island of Nevis in 1755. His father, James Hamilton, the impoverished fourth son of a Scottish laird, sought his fortune in the West Indies but failed to prosper. There he met Rachel Faucette, whose father was a French Huguenot, and they produced two children, James and Alexander. Rachel had been previously married, and though she’d divorced her husband, she never married Hamilton’s father. The social stigma of illegitimate birth forever shadowed Alexander’s life. The family settled on the island of St. Croix, but when James Jr. was 12 and Alexander 10, their father deserted them. It’s likely that Alexander never saw his father again, though they corresponded from time to time.

His mother supported the family by running a shop, and Alexander probably went to school nearby. When Hamilton was 12, however, she died of an unspecified disease. Even the meager living she’d secured from the shop was taken away when her first husband reappeared and was awarded what was left of her estate. At 14, Alexander found himself a penniless orphan.

Aware of the travails that the Hamiltons had undergone, local merchants decided to apprentice the older boy to a carpenter, while Alexander, already known for his quick intelligence, was sent to work as a clerk in an export-import house. He was also taken in by a benevolent merchant, who may well have been his real father. The most persuasive evidence of this is the startling resemblance of Alexander to Edward Stevens, the merchant’s son, who became Hamilton’s best friend.

It soon became evident that Hamilton was a remarkably gifted boy who complemented his studies with omnivorous reading; he was a true autodidact. He was also showing signs of becoming a gifted writer, sending poems to the local newspaper and later a highly colored description of a hurricane in a letter to his father, a copy of which fell into the hands of a Presbyterian minister. The preacher decided that Hamilton should be sent to America to further his education. A subscription fund was organized by the leading citizens of St. Croix to send Hamilton to New York, and at 17 he boarded a ship for America, never to return.

What he could not leave behind were vivid memories of the brutal treatment accorded the slaves who were imported from Africa to cut sugar cane. As a result of what he saw growing up, Hamilton became an avowed abolitionist, eventually joining the New York Manumission Society.

Four years after he’d arrived in New York, after a little more than two years studying at King’s College (now Columbia University), Hamilton dropped out to become a captain of an artillery company, distinguishing himself in the battle of New York and later, when he supported Washington in crossing the Delaware River to engage the Hessians at Trenton.

Washington admired the exploits of the young soldier, and was aware, also, of his gifts as a writer. He invited the 22-year-old to join his staff as an aide-de-camp, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In less than five years, Hamilton had risen from a lowly clerk in St. Croix to become the equivalent of Washington’s chief of staff. Yet the impetuous young man later became unhappy serving on Washington’s staff and yearned to command his own troops in battle, which he knew would further his career. It took him four more years to regain a field command to participate in the decisive battle of Yorktown.

With a marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of a Hudson River patroon, General Philip Schuyler, Hamilton rose to the top ranks of the American aristocracy. His career took off: Returning to King’s College to race through law school, Hamilton soon attended the Confederation Congress in Philadelphia and witnessed the weaknesses of a less unified nation. Soon he was working with James Madison to persuade Americans to endorse a new Constitution, based on the proposition that America would be a representative democracy, not one at the mercy of recalls, referendums and plebiscites. The collection of articles that Hamilton, Madison and John Jay wrote in support of the Constitution, later published as The Federalist Papers , remains one of the great works of political thinking.

Hamilton was indefatigable: At 34, he became Secretary of the Treasury in Washington’s administration. As Mr. Chernow points out, “Hamilton planned … to transform America into a powerful, modern nation-state-a central bank, a funded debt, a mint, a customs service, manufacturing subsidies.” His vision of America as a great financial and industrial state became the young republic’s future.

What Hamilton wanted, above all, was to create a stable nation that would balance the need for order with that of freedom. Mr. Chernow concludes that his central flaw lay “in thinking that the rich would always have a broader sense of public duty and would somehow be devoid of self-interest, instead of being captives to an even larger set of interests.”

Hamilton’s effectiveness owed everything to his President. Washington never lost his faith in the correctness of Hamilton’s polices. Hamilton, in turn, needed Washington’s wise counsel to curb his excesses. The President was a steady helmsman and kept his combative Treasury Secretary in line. Once Hamilton was no longer in government, any slur upon his honor was met with a violent verbal or written response, and these outbursts damaged his reputation. His attack on John Adams as President was so vituperative that it eliminated him from running for the Presidency.

The other major error that Hamilton committed was to write a lengthy essay on his liaison with Maria Reynolds, a married woman who enticed Hamilton into an affair and then conspired with her spouse to blackmail her lover. James Monroe, no friend of Hamilton’s, made the scandal public. In response, Hamilton felt compelled to describe the affair and the blackmail in detail, lest anyone think he had provided Maria’s husband with money to secretly enrich himself through improper speculation in government securities. Hamilton could admit to being an adulterer, but never was he a crook. The scandal, however, forever sullied his name.

Although Hamilton worked to make Jefferson President over Aaron Burr, he had little use for either Jefferson or Burr, a lawyer and intriguer whom Hamilton had known since he first arrived in America. Burr, serving as Vice President under Jefferson, never forgave Hamilton. When Burr accused Hamilton of personally insulting him by calling him “despicable,” Hamilton, who maintained that he only criticized Burr for his political views, refused to apologize-which led to their fateful duel.

On July 11, 1804, on a ledge overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken, N.J., Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, who had deliberately fired in the air in order to avoid killing his antagonist. Never has there been an outpouring of grief to equal the mourning for this quintessential New Yorker: For 30 days, the city’s residents wore black armbands. “This scene was enough to melt a monument of marble,” said the New-York Evening Post (a newspaper Hamilton had founded).

The extraordinary and improbable career of Alexander Hamilton had come to an end, and here we have another fitting tribute to it: Ron Chernow’s massively researched and beautifully written biography.

James Chace is a professor of government at Bard College. His new book, 1912: The Election That Changed the Country (Simon and Schuster), has just been published.