Alexander Hamilton will always have his place in history as one of the USA's Founding Fathers, as Washington's aide-de-camp during the War of Independence and as the co-author with James Madison and John Jay of The Federalist Papers, immensely influential essays in defence of the new Constitution, of which Hamilton was an important interpreter. Apart from that, he was a General in the Continental Army, Leader of the Federalist Party, co-founder of the Bank of New York and first Treasury Secretary of the USA.
- Ron Chernow
Yet Hamilton is still a controversial figure, who is sometimes cast as a villain by American historians. This is at least partly because he was abrasive, hot-tempered and did not suffer fools gladly. He had spectacular quarrels with respected political figures such as Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, James Monroe and – worst of all – with Aaron Burr.
Burr comes across as an unpleasant piece of work; a devious, intriguing and embittered politician. After fighting in the War of Independence, Burr took up law and politics in New York. He stood for the Presidency in 1800 but lost to Jefferson. He protested about the election result and appealed to the House of Representatives. They decided in Jefferson's favour. Under the then existing constitutional arrangements, the runner-up in a Presidential election received the consolation prize of becoming Vice President, so he had to serve under Jefferson; an arrangement that pleased neither man. Burr repeatedly fell into debt, was a notorious womaniser (Hamilton also incurred criticism on that ground) and was accused of bribery and corruption.
Burr's other claim to fame is that in 1804 he killed Alexander Hamilton, who was then aged 49, in the most famous duel in American history. He regarded himself as Hamilton's rival for office and influence, although he was in reality a much less important, and less respectable, political figure. It seemed likely that Hamilton might one day soon be elected President, a prospect that was insupportable to Burr. Their duel was illegal; Burr should have been tried for murder. However as Vice President he had enough influence to ensure that the charges against him were eventually dropped. Nevertheless Hamilton's death ended Burr's political career. In 1807 came the final straw; Burr was indicted for treason (he had tried to found a rival republic) but managed to get acquitted. He died in 1836.
The political reasons why Hamilton remains controversial are these: pro-Jefferson Americans historians have depicted him as a conservative, whose “aristocratic” attitudes contrast with Jefferson's more advanced “democratic” ideas. He has also been called unpatriotic. Yet these charges can easily be discredited.
It was held against Hamilton that he was a cousin of the Duke of Hamilton, which must explain his supposedly reactionary ideas. In real life Hamilton claimed only to have been the illegitimate son of a younger son of a minor Scots bonnet-laird, Alexander Hamilton of Grange, and a woman of French Huguenot descent. However an alternative ancestry has been plausibly found for him, from another West Indies planter called Thomas Stevens. Thomas's son, Edward Stevens, reportedly bore a startling physical resemblance to Alexander Hamilton and the two men were close friends, so this story may well be true. Whatever his real ancestry, Alexander Hamilton was definitely illegitimate, born in the West Indies, brought up to trade and largely self-educated. An orphan immigrant to North America, he overcame these disadvantages and local prejudice to achieve high military and political office.
The War of Independence was in reality the first American Civil War. Many Americans remained loyal to, and fought for, King George III. They paid for their loyalty with the loss of their land and other assets. When, at the end of the war, the British fleet, carrying the defeated and disarmed British Army, departed from Boston it was followed by a much larger melancholy armada containing the American Loyalists. Many others had already trekked off to Canada with their possessions piled into covered wagons. Seen as traitors by the victorious “patriots”, there was no place for them in the newly-independent USA. By contrast, landowners who had supported Independence, including Washington and Jefferson, continued to enjoy their country estates, their aviaries of exotic birds, their numerous African-American slaves and their aristocratic lifestyle. Like Washington and Jefferson, Hamilton had formerly had friends on both sides; it was that simple. Unlike Washington and Jefferson, this is remembered against him. Worse still, he had once saved the openly Royalist Dr Myles Cooper, the President of King's College, New York (today's Columbia University) and a distinguished scholar, from a revolutionary lynch-mob.
A self-made man, Hamilton had no time for cloudily romantic political ideas, which included Jefferson's disorganised utopia of small farmers. As a businessman, Hamilton was a realist: he had a clear vision of how to construct the foundations of future American prosperity and power; they were to be based on a strong, mercantile economy. If creating that should involve developing new relationships with the former colonial power, Great Britain, so be it. As a result, some of his critics dismissed him as a closet monarchist and aspirant dictator. Yet in the event it was Hamilton's, not Jefferson's, vision of America that was realised.
This biography of Hamilton has become the basis of a successful musical. The book's author, Ron Chernow, has written biographies of several other historical figures from the worlds of American politics, finance and business, including John D Rockefeller. My main criticism of this interesting and stimulating book is that it is terribly long; a Waterloo of a biography! The author might have benefited from the services of a good copy-editor. That is why I have awarded only four mushroom-heads.