Tuesday, March 12, 2013


In the hands of a skilled writer, historical biography can be a most enjoyable and enlightening experience to read. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and with the right approach, a biographer can bring a long-dead historical figure to life and make the events and achievements in his or her career read like an exciting novel. It can also bring some of the more difficult and frustrating events in our modern world into greater focus, and bring the reader to the unfortunate and inevitable conclusion that most, if not all of the great figures in history were completely off their nut.

One of the eras in history that particularly appeals to me is the time period in the United States from roughly 1755 to 1820: this represents the end of the colonial period in the US, the Revolution, and the difficult and turbulent early years of the republic. So much mythology has arisen about the period and, in particular, the people ( often known as the Founding Fathers ) who shaped the events. Modern biographers have, thankfully, made fascinating attempts to strip away the glorified stories, and present them to us as real people, with remarkable achievements and glaring weaknesses. I have just finished reading a biography of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, written by the brilliant historian Ron Chernow. It was a long, but absolutely enjoyable read.

According to Chernow, Hamilton is the least well-known, and perhaps the least understood of the Founding Fathers. Unlike Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Monroe, Hamilton never became President. Unlike Franklin, he was not held in almost universal veneration for his scientific discoveries or inventions. And he has the rather dubious distinction of being the only Founding Father to be killed in a duel ... by another Founding Father, and the sitting Vice President, Aaron Burr.

Hamilton was one of those people who was both greatly admired and even worshipped by many, and also held in complete and utter disrespect and fear by others. Needless to say, Burr was not a big fan. But Hamilton had aggressive detractors in Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and especially Adams, all of whom were political rivals and believed that he was becoming too influential over Washington and was gathering too much political power for himself. Because of their particular animus towards him, Hamilton was constantly attacked for being pro-British and a secret monarchist, despite his heroism in the Revolution ( he played a pivotal role in storming a British redoubt in the war-ending Battle of Yorktown ), a cut-throat capitalist ( despite his personal generosity towards friends and strangers, particularly orphans, and political generosity towards parts of the new republic that needed federal help ), an elitist ( despite his humble beginnings as an orphan born in the West Indies ), and much worse.

Chernow painstakingly shows Hamilton's greatness. In addition to his courageous and impressive war record under his mentor and good friend, George Washington, he  helped pave the way for the creation of the US Constitution by initiating the enormous political science project known as the "Federalist Papers", most of which he wrote himself. (Ironically, his most important collaborator was James Madison, later to become a political enemy.) When the Constitution was finally ratified, he became President  Washington's first Secretary of the Treasury and single-handedly created not only the first Bank of the United States ( later to become the Federal Reserve ), but managed to wipe out almost all of the debt incurred during the Revolution, and begin the massive and impressive build up of the new American economy, dragging it kicking and screaming from its rural and agrarian roots into a modern industrial entity that eventually dominated the world, and still does so today. He helped Washington face some early and dangerous challenges in situations such as Shays's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, both of which threatened to end the infant republic before it really had the chance to get going. And he became one of New York's most famous trial lawyers, handling several famous cases, and contributing legal arguments which came to serve as important precedents in the republic's early judicial history.

But, as any good biographer must do, Chernow also shows the dark side of Hamilton, and these episodes are the more revealing and interesting. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the combative side of Hamilton's personality. He lived his life with a constant chip on his shoulder, perhaps stemming from his humble origins, which were often mocked and ridiculed by his adversaries. Hamilton claimed to be against duelling, but challenged several rivals to duels. He ultimately lost his eldest son, Philip Hamilton, to a duel a mere 3 years before his own "interview" with Burr. And, Hamilton claimed to be a devoted family man, married to his wife Eliza and father to eight children: yet, Hamilton clumsily and foolishly maintained an affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds in a strange and public way that scandalized society. Despite being a heroic soldier in the Revolution, he carried a publicly acknowledged admiration for Britain and a deep and abiding suspicion for France, despite France being America's staunch ally against Britain in the Revolution.
And, worst of all, for a man who wished more than anything else to unite the states together in a lasting and harmonious republic which was to be the model for the entire world, he engaged in some of the most vicious, ugly, and petty partisan attacks against some of the leading figures of the age, especially President John Adams, who was the subject of a long, whining and childish pamphlet written by Hamilton. All of this was conduct most unbecoming for a man of his stature and reputation.

The lessons are jarring and revealing. Hamilton was a man who suffered from several character flaws, and was unstable, erratic and dangerous to know or be around. He may well have been bi-polar, certainly not a crime, but enough to give pause to any claim to greatness. Yet, he is considered a great historical figure. And, in our own hyper-partisan and hyperbolic age, where verbal attacks on a person's reputation and even a person's ethnic background passes as enlightened discourse, we realize that, despite the more than 200 years since Hamilton's passing, not much has changed. Hamilton was a train wreck of a human being, yet he rose to be one of the great leaders of his age. We must try to learn the lessons of history: we have Hamiltons among us now. For better or worse, these people shape our current and future destinies. Chernow's excellent biography tells us that we had better pay close attention to those we elect or appoint to lead and guide us. God help us all.

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