Thursday, November 12, 2020

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Hamilton as saint, Jefferson as villain
Based on the fine writing and exhaustive research that went into his book Washington: A Life, I would consider anything Ron Chernow writes on the Revolutionary War and the early American republic to be worth reading. Like his Washington book, Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton is a very detailed, comprehensive, thoroughly researched cradle-to-grave life history of one of America’s heroic Founders. The Washington book, however, takes a very balanced look at the first president, showing both his exceptional qualities and his faults. Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, clearly has an agenda to push. History has unfairly bestowed a bad reputation on Hamilton, and Chernow goes to great lengths to debunk negative and distorted myths. He takes it too far, however, resulting in a book that reads like an argument nominating Hamilton for sainthood.

What Chernow does very well is enumerate Hamilton’s numerous positive contributions to America’s government and economic system. There’s no denying that Hamilton was instrumental to the formation of our nation, and Chernow justly restores his valuable accomplishments to the public memory. Every time Hamilton pulls something shady, however, Chernow writes it off as a momentary “hypocritical lapse” in Hamilton’s otherwise impeccable judgment. By today’s standards, Hamilton was a far-right conservative. He really wanted a monarchy, even if he phrased it as an “elective monarchy,” and frequently showed inclinations toward militaristic and authoritarian rule. He supported John Adams’s Sedition Acts, under which anyone criticizing the government could be prosecuted for treason. Although Hamilton himself was an immigrant, he was against immigration. He may have been the architect of American industrial capitalism, but his policies favored the rich, alienated the South, and he even advocated for child labor. Today’s income equality and Wall Street bailouts would have been right at home in Hamilton’s utopia. Chernow, however, continually presents his subject as the personification of virtue.

The villain in this story is Thomas Jefferson, of whom Chernow has nothing good to say. What Chernow fails to admit is that America needed both Hamilton and Jefferson to become a great nation. If Hamilton had his way, presidents would rule for life, the executive branch would have been far too powerful to be curtailed by checks and balances, there would be no separation between church and state, and any dissent on the part of the citizenry would be punished with military might. Of course, despite Jefferson’s contributions to American government, he did own slaves, and Hamilton did not, so Chernow can always use that to negate Jefferson’s accomplishments entirely. Even Jefferson’s atheism and interest in science are treated as insults. John Adams may come off even worse than Jefferson. Chernow’s depiction of him as power hungry, emotionally volatile, and administratively inept bears a surprising resemblance to Donald Trump.

Chernow gives extensive coverage to the deadly duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and really provides the reader with a thorough understanding of its causes and effects. Like Jefferson, Burr is a villain in this story, but more deservedly so. Chernow, however, considers Burr’s triumph in the duel to be cold-blooded murder, which feels like a stretch, given the circumstances.

I have to admit I learned a lot about American history from this book. Chernow does provide a wealth of information, even though I didn’t always care for the way he spins it. This is certainly worth a read for anyone interested in the founding of the American republic, but it will appeal more to conservatives than to liberals.
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