Friday, June 17, 2016

Friday BookReview: Alexander Hamilton, "the most progressive and most neglected of the Founding Fathers"

(first published May 22, 2015)

1755 - 1804

Here are excerpts from David Brooks' take on the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton:
When Alexander Hamilton was 10, his father abandoned him. When he was around 12, his mother died of a fever in the bed next to his. He was adopted by a cousin, who promptly committed suicide. During those same years, his aunt, uncle and grandmother also died. A court in St. Croix seized all of his possessions, sold off his personal effects and gave the rest to his mother's first husband. By the time he was a young teenager, he and his brother were orphaned, alone and destitute. 
Within three years he was a successful businessman. Within a decade he was effectively George Washington's chief of staff, organizing the American revolutionary army and serving bravely in combat. Within two decades he was one of New York's most successful lawyers and had written major portions of The Federalist Papers. Within three decades he had served as Treasury secretary and forged the modern financial and economic systems that are the basis for American might today. Within five decades he was dead at the hands of Aaron Burr. 
Alexander Hamilton was the most progressive, and is the most neglected, of the founding fathers. He was the most progressive because he saw that America could be a capitalist superpower, and he figured out which institutions it would need to realize that destiny. 
He is the most neglected, first because he was a relentless climber (and nobody has unalloyed views about ambition), second because he was a great champion of commerce (and nobody has uncomplicated views about that either) and third because his most bitter rivals, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, outlived him by decades and did everything they could to bury his reputation. So there is no Hamilton monument in Washington, but at least we now have Ron Chernow's moving and masterly Alexander Hamilton, which is by far the best biography ever written about the man... 
Hamilton, we now see, was a dark thicket: aspiring and optimistic, but also pessimistic about human nature and often depressed. He was a modern striver, but also an archaic man with a deeply self-destructive lust for aristocratic honor. He was devoted to his heroic wife, but he was uncontrollable at times... 
Hamilton, whose life, as Chernow notes, was ''a case study in the profitable use of time,'' absorbed Plutarch, Bacon and the Bible and emerged onto the public stage as a pamphleteer for the American Revolution. ''The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records,'' he wrote in 1775 at 20. ''They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of the divinity itself and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.'' 
During the war, his administrative talents were quickly recognized, and he was plucked to serve on Washington's personal staff, beginning the most important relationship of his career. Washington was steady, elevated and active. Hamilton was frenetic, combative and intellectual. Though they were not affectionate toward each other until later in life -- Hamilton actually repelled Washington's friendly overtures during the Revolution -- neither man's greatness would have been possible without the other.
At Valley Forge, Hamilton saw how fundamentally weak the nation was, how lacking in the sort of productive capacity one needs to wage a war or survive as an independent nation. This was the formative insight that shaped his career. 
His conclusions put him outside the mainstream at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He favored more centralized power than most of the delegates and was more suspicious of the masses. But he threw himself into the cause of ratification. He wrote his part of The Federalist Papers, America's most significant contribution to political philosophy, during the spare moments of the day between meetings with law clients. 
''He always had to fight the residual sadness of the driven man, the unspoken melancholy of the prodigy,'' Chernow observes. While others resented him with a furious passion or gaped at him with amazement -- Talleyrand considered him one of the three greatest men of the epoch -- Hamilton himself was lacerated with a feeling of ''personal inadequacy that the world seldom saw.'' 
His greatest achievements came as Treasury secretary. He was confronted by an economically weak and fractious nation. He nationalized the debt, binding the states together and creating the fluid capital markets that are today the engine of world capitalism. He was working at a time when many around him had an entirely static view of economics. They scorned credit, banks and stock markets, and considered manufacturing the least productive form of economic activity. 
But Hamilton dreamed of a vibrant economy that would allow aspiring meritocrats like himself to rise and realize their full capacities. He sought to smash the aristocratic fiefs enjoyed by Southern landowners like Jefferson and to replace them with a diversified marketplace that would be open to immigrants and the lowborn. Their vigor, he felt, would drive the nation to greatness... 
Hamilton's relationship with his wife and family is one of the revelations of this book. At home he was a loving father, who could compose a treatise on how to bathe a sick child as expert and specific as anything he wrote on tax policy. He was utterly dependent on his wife, who emerges in this account as a woman of almost superhuman fortitude. 
And yet Chernow never lets us forget that he was a man inflamed by his desire for honor. The final duel with Burr started over nothing. But the feud between the two men escalated and escalated. Chernow rebuts those historians who have argued that Hamilton was really seeking to commit suicide. Among other things, his attachment to his family was too deep, and his awareness of the suffering that his death would cause them too profound. But Hamilton still went to Weehawken [July 1804, on a remote bluff of the Palisades of New Jersey] determined to throw away his own shot, fully aware this choice might cost him his life. 
His widow outlived him by 50 years, trying vainly to repair his reputation against the assaults from the Jeffersonians. As Chernow is aware, this book finally accomplishes her task.

Check out Peter Robinson's interview with Mr. Chernow. One of the discussion points is the ferociously bitter fighting between Jefferson's philosophical camp ("Farmers are the salt of the earth, and national power is anathema!") and the Hamiltonians ("Cities with manufacturing, along with a strong federal government, are our future.") The political climate back then makes ours today look benign.

Hamilton with King George III

UPDATE: Currently, the biggest Broadway hit is a musical rapping version of Chernow's book. (It received the most Tony Award nominations in Broadway history.) Here is a good overview by the 'CBS Sunday Morning' show.

Peggy Noonan called the show a masterpiece:
There is nothing like it on the New York stage, and never has been. I got choked up so often I started counting how many times I tried not to weep... Why was everyone so moved? 
Because it hits your heart hard when you witness human excellence. Because the true tale of how an illegitimate, lowborn orphan from the West Indies went on to become an inventor of America is a heck of a story. And because it is surprising yet perfect that that story is told in a hip-hop/rap/rhythm-and-blues/jazz/ballad musical whose sound is pure 2015 yet utterly appropriate to the tale... 
Young Hamilton was alone in the world, an orphan with no connections, a self-tutored genius... He is ambitious, full of hunger for life, but he needs a stage. He gets himself to New York, then as now the city of ambition, and hears in the taverns of the rising American revolutionary spirit. This is his moment, his chance... Barely arrived and Alexander Hamilton was already an American.
In a telephone interview Mr. Miranda [the star and creator of the show] says: "There are so many highs and lows in Hamilton’s life—tragic circumstances. Then he pulls himself up to incredible early American heights. Then he pulls himself down!" Mr. Miranda recalls that by the end of the second chapter of Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, on which the show is based, "I fell in love. I know this guy. I know about improbability. He’s like Pip in ‘Great Expectations’—the genius, the frustrated genius, I know who this guy is."
The show is not politically correct, but not in a way that feels forced. It seems effortless and natural, as if Mr. Miranda never heard of political correctness. 
And there’s some kind of new racial alchemy in the show. Mr. Miranda is Puerto Rican, his cast is black, white and brown, and the actors get to play the parts that suit their talents, not their racial circumstance. "Hamilton" marks multicolored America seizing U.S. history and making it its own, and producing in the process a work not of all colors but of a universal American color. By respecting the American Dream and presenting it in this way, "Hamilton" says the dream is alive, everyone owns it, and if you look close you can see it playing out every day, all around you... 
"If there’s a political takeaway," says Mr. Miranda, "it is that it’s always been like this. The Eden in which we had no political parties lasted about six months or a year. Divisions were inevitable. We fight, we’re people, it’s messy."

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