This post was originally published on coreyscottnaas.wordpress.com on 4 September 2018.
If you listened to Hamilton: An American Musical and thought “Dang, this dude did a lot,” I highly suggest reading Ron Chernows’s Alexander Hamilton, the biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the musical in the first place. Alexander Hamilton did so much more than Miranda could ever have fit into a two-hour production, and it’s all worth reading about.
Never has a book so enveloped me into the life of someone who’s been dead for 200 years as Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. I’ve spent the last two weeks reading it at every lunch break and for a few hours every evening (I consider myself a quick reader, but holy cow, this book was dense), and reading through Chernow’s account of the fatal duel at the end evoked the same emotions and emptiness in my soul as I get finishing a good TV show.
A few things that stood out to me and I remembered to write down:
- Chernow presents a very critical view of Thomas Jefferson, which is not surprisingly as the book is from the perspective of Hamilton, who was as opposite as one could get from Jefferson, but I’m now motivated to read more about this seemingly untouchable founding father. It’s an odd feeling realizing that I might disagree with a founding father on political matters, and so I’m curious to read a more focused account of him.
- I never realized how much of an influence one man had on the authorship of the Constitution as well as the early actions and development of the executive branch. The usage of The Federalist Papers in so many Supreme Court decisions I read in my law class makes a lot of sense now.
- Overall, Chernow presents Hamilton as a over-archingly good man with sound dedication to his ideals and beliefs, many of which turned out to be right and beneficial to the country.
- Jefferson and Burr are treated extremely critically, the former as hypocritical and the latter as without any opinion unless having one helped boost his status politically.
Reading this book was an amazing journey from beginning to end, and I can only hope that I make my life interesting enough to fill half as many pages as Hamilton’s does. I’ve unfortunately done a poor job in explicit journaling in my life, which disappoints me; not an uncommon feeling. However, I feel there is plenty of indirect information so far to make for an interesting account of my life (notes, google docs, playlists, etc.). Not many letters so far, but I guess that what blogs are for.
I have so many clippings (I used my kindle to read this inconveniently-large book), but here are some of my favourites that don’t require a ton of context.
Eliza Hamilton gave correspondents a list of his qualities that she wanted to illustrate, and it sums up her view of his multiple talents: “Elasticity of his mind. Variety of his knowledge. Playfulness of his wit. Excellence of his heart. His immense forbearance [and] virtues.”
No other moment in American history could have allowed such scope for Hamilton’s abundant talents. The new government was a tabula rasa on which he could sketch plans with a young man’s energy. Washington’s administration had to create everything from scratch. Hamilton was that rare revolutionary: a master administrator and as competent a public servant as American politics would ever produce. One historian has written, “Hamilton was an administrative genius” who “assumed an influence in Washington’s cabinet which is unmatched in the annals of the American cabinet system.” The position demanded both a thinker and a doer, a skilled executive and a political theorist, a system builder who could devise interrelated policies. It also demanded someone who could build an institutional framework consistent with constitutional principles. Virtually every program that Hamilton put together raised fundamental constitutional issues, so that his legal training and work on The Federalist enabled him to craft the efficient machinery of government while expounding its theoretical underpinnings.
Hamilton was a man of such deep, unalterable principles that Burr was bound to strike him as devoid of any moral compass. In writing to one correspondent, Hamilton even found sudden virtues in George Clinton, describing him as a “man of property” and “probity” in his private life. He couldn’t say as much for Burr: I fear the other gentleman [i.e., Burr] is unprincipled both as a public and private man. When the constitution was in deliberation . . . his conduct was equivocal. . . . In fact, I take it he is for or against nothing but as it suits his interest or ambition. He is determined, as I conceive, to make his way to be the head of the popular party and to climb . . . to the highest honors of the state and as much higher as circumstances may permit. . . . I am mistaken if it be not his object to play the game of confusion and I feel it a religious duty to oppose his career. Hamilton denounced Burr in language similar to that he employed against Jefferson, warning that “if we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States ’tis Burr.” But if Jefferson was a man of fanatical principles, he had principles all the same—which Hamilton could forgive. Burr’s abiding sin was a total lack of principles, which Hamilton could not forgive.
Whatever his disappointments, Hamilton, forty, must have left Philadelphia with an immense feeling of accomplishment. The Whiskey Rebellion had been suppressed, the country’s finances flourished, and the investigation into his affairs had ended with a ringing exoneration. He had prevailed in almost every major program he had sponsored—whether the bank, assumption, funding the public debt, the tax system, the Customs Service, or the Coast Guard—despite years of complaints and bitter smears. John Quincy Adams later stated that his financial system “operated like enchantment for the restoration of public credit.” Bankrupt when Hamilton took office, the United States now enjoyed a credit rating equal to that of any European nation. He had laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of the president from passive administrator to active policy maker, creating the institutional scaffolding for America’s future emergence as a great power. He had demonstrated the creative uses of government and helped to weld the states irreversibly into one nation. He had also defended Washington’s administration more brilliantly than anyone else, articulating its constitutional underpinnings and enunciating key tenets of foreign policy. “We look in vain for a man who, in an equal space of time, has produced such direct and lasting effects upon our institutions and history,” Henry Cabot Lodge was to contend. Hamilton’s achievements were never matched because he was present at the government’s inception, when he could draw freely on a blank slate. If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.
The Federalists issued appeals to the electorate but did not try to mobilize a broad-based popular movement. Hamilton wanted to lead the electorate and provide expert opinion instead of consulting popular opinion. He took tough, uncompromising stands and gloried in abstruse ideas in a political culture that pined for greater simplicity. Alexander Hamilton triumphed as a doer and thinker, not as a leader of the average voter. He was simply too unashamedly brainy to appeal to the masses. Fisher Ames observed of Hamilton that the common people don’t want leaders “whom they see elevated by nature and education so far above their heads.”
Having said that, one must add that the celebration of the 1800 election as the simple triumph of “progressive” Jeffersonians over “reactionary” Hamiltonians greatly overstates the case. The three terms of Federalist rule had been full of dazzling accomplishments that Republicans, with their extreme apprehension of federal power, could never have achieved. Under the tutelage of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, the Federalists had bequeathed to American history a sound federal government with a central bank, a funded debt, a high credit rating, a tax system, a customs service, a coast guard, a navy, and many other institutions that would guarantee the strength to preserve liberty. They activated critical constitutional doctrines that gave the American charter flexibility, forged the bonds of nationhood, and lent an energetic tone to the executive branch in foreign and domestic policy. Hamilton, in particular, bound the nation through his fiscal programs in a way that no Republican could have matched. He helped to establish the rule of law and the culture of capitalism at a time when a revolutionary utopianism and a flirtation with the French Revolution still prevailed among too many Jeffersonians. With their reverence for states’ rights, abhorrence of central authority, and cramped interpretation of the Constitution, Republicans would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve these historic feats.
Having tangled with Hamilton over the years, Gallatin undertook the task “with a very good appetite,” he admitted, but he failed to excavate the findings Jefferson wanted. Years later, he related the president’s crestfallen reaction: “‘Well Gallatin, what have you found?’ [Jefferson asked]. I answered: ‘I have found the most perfect system ever formed. Any change that should be made in it would injure it. Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds. He did nothing wrong.’ I think Mr. Jefferson was disappointed.” Gallatin complimented Hamilton by saying that he had done such an outstanding job as the first treasury secretary that he had turned the post into a sinecure for all future occupants. As for the First Bank of the United States, once denounced by Jeffersonians as a diabolical lair, Gallatin proclaimed that it had “been wisely and skillfully managed.”