Alexander Hamilton: American
by Richard Brookhiser
Free Press. 240 pp. $25.00
To the extent that today’s Americans remember Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) at all, it is usually for the remarkable circumstances surrounding the beginning and end of his brief life. The future Founding Father was born, as his rival John Adams once bitterly remarked, “the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler,” and he died by pistol shot, mortally wounded in a famous duel with Aaron Burr.
Richard Brookhiser does not deny the importance of these events, but he finds the brilliant career that came in between far more interesting. For Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review and the author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (1996), Hamilton was both exemplar and prophet of a distinctively American creed. In this slim and elegantly written volume, Brookhiser sets out to show that, even at a distance of two centuries, the life of the most colorful and controversial member of the founding generation can still “guide and caution us.”
Hamilton’s story begins in the Caribbean, where his misfortune in being born out of wedlock was compounded by the desertion of his ne’er-do-well father—the black sheep of a distinguished family—and the early death of his mother. At eleven, he was in effect an orphan. Hamilton found a guardian, however, in Nicholas Cruger, a merchant on St. Croix to whom he was apprenticed, and the young lad so impressed Cruger and other local notables that they packed him off to New York at the age of fourteen to receive a proper education.
As a student in the mid-1770’s at King’s College (as Columbia University was then called), Hamilton shone as a speaker and pamphleteer in the resistance to British rule that culminated in the American Revolution. Having long dreamed of military glory—“I wish there was a war,” he once declared in bored exasperation to a friend on St. Croix—Hamilton soon got his chance. He rose quickly in the Continental Army, achieving the rank of lieutenant-colonel and becoming aide-de-camp to George Washington, who would remain his friend and patron.
Brookhiser emphasizes the nationalist stamp that these experiences left on Hamilton. As a recent immigrant at the center of a continent-wide struggle, Hamilton developed a broader political perspective than most of his contemporaries. Whereas other Americans had grown up thinking largely in terms of local attachments—invoking the rights and interests of, say, Virginia or Massachusetts—Hamilton always considered America a unit. This made him an especially acute critic of the Articles of Confederation, the toothless national charter under which Americans lived for much of the 1780’s, and inspired him to help lead the charge for reform. As the architect and principal co-author of The Federalist, Hamilton was a key player in getting the U.S. Constitution written and ratified.
When George Washington took the reins of the new government in 1789, he tapped his thirty-two-year-old confidant to be the first Secretary of the Treasury. As Brookhiser sees it, Hamilton’s early-adolescent apprenticeship in commerce on St. Croix served him well in office, giving him an understanding of money far better than that of his gentlemanly peers. Hamilton hoped to structure the new nation’s finances so as to unite the country more firmly and to stimulate manufacturing and commerce. To this end, he pushed successfully for a national bank and for federal bonds that would function as currency. Hamilton “proposed to turn the United States into a cash economy,” Brookhiser observes. “He would lift it into capitalism . . . by creating capital.”
The trouble with Hamilton’s financial program in general, and with the Bank of the United States in particular, was that many Americans did not understand it. When they looked at the money markets created by Hamilton, they saw nothing but greedy swindlers making money as if by magic. This view, which was given political expression by the Republican party founded by Jefferson and Madison, soon made Hamilton’s position uncomfortable. By 1795 he had quit his post at the Treasury.
Surveying the few remaining years of Hamilton’s life, Brookhiser focuses on the personal cost of the great man’s political passions. Though officially retired, Hamilton could not leave politics alone. He worked assiduously from the wings to guide the cabinet of President John Adams (unbeknownst to Adams) and continued to engage in political combat against his various foes. His law practice suffered, as did his family, which had already been put through the ordeal of his adulterous entanglement with Maria Reynolds (an affair that, for obvious reasons, has received much attention of late).
Eventually, as Brookhiser tells it, Hamilton’s concern for the welfare of the new nation led to his tragic end. Considering Vice President Aaron Burr a supremely capable but utterly unprincipled man, Hamilton had foiled Burr’s efforts to win the presidency in 1800 and the governorship of New York in 1804. Burr finally took umbrage, and challenged him to a duel. Opposed to dueling out of Christian scruple but also deeply attached to his public honor, Hamilton accepted, intentionally wasted his first shot, and was killed.
How does Brookhiser assess this complex man and his astonishing career? The key to Hamilton’s character, he suggests, was his “all-pervading ardor”—a desire to show not simply that he was the smartest man around but that he was supremely useful, even indispensable. From this came Hamilton’s energy, devotion to principle, and formidable powers of argument—but also, as Brookhiser shrewdly observes, his impatience and impolitic candor. As a member of Congress in 1783, at a time when sentiment for a strong national government had not yet formed, Hamilton boldly called for “national revenue collectors, pervading and uniting the States.” James Madison, a fellow reformer but a superior politician, privately lamented this recklessness: “Mr. Hamilton had let out the secret.”
Brookhiser traces these deficiencies in large part to Hamilton’s having been the most self-made of the founders. Hamilton, he writes, “seems always in a hurry, and when he is not moving, he champs at the bit.” In this, Hamilton was perhaps the first and most outstanding example of an enduring American type: ambitious, self-assured, and earnest to a fault, even to the point of self-destruction.
What sets Hamilton apart, Brookhiser argues, is that he drew principles from his own ascent. Although Hamilton appreciated the help he had received as an ill-starred youth, he also resented it. He believed that society should be arranged so that persons of talent could make their way on their own. As Brookhiser nicely puts it, “Most men who make it provide for their families, thank fortune, and maybe give to charity. Some raise the drawbridge behind them. Hamilton . . . wanted to generalize his experience.”
The political program that flowed from this desire was a powerful alternative to that of Jefferson, whose class and background were very different. For Hamilton, merchants, cities, and money markets were symbols not of corruption but of opportunity and dynamism. They opened the door to aspiring Hamiltons everywhere, satisfying human needs that found little room in the landed society that Jefferson eulogized. Hamilton believed, as Brookhiser writes, in “economics as soul craft.”
For this and other insights, Brookhiser’s book is an informative and edifying introduction to an often misunderstood figure. Though there are more comprehensive accounts of Hamilton’s life and times, none so forcefully reminds us of the abidingly American quality of his legacy.