Alexander Hamilton: Ron Chernow

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory / You have no control: / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

These lines are from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, which was inspired by this biography.

The quote seems appropriate. Although Alexander Hamilton was one of the founding fathers of the United States, he was demonized by his contemporaries as someone who was a wannabe monarch and hungry for power. Ron Chernow’s biography sets the record straight.

And what a story he tells.

Hamilton was born in Charlestown on the island of Nevis (Leeward Islands) in 1755. “While other founding fathers were reared in their virtuous New England villages or cosseted on baronial Virginia estates, Hamilton grew up in a tropical hellhole of dissipated whites and fractious slaves, all framed by a backdrop of luxuriant natural beauty.” His family was part of the “middle rung” of society, “squeezed between the plantation aristocrats above and street rabble and unruly slaves below”. His mother Rachel married Johann Michael Lavien, but Hamilton’s real father was a feckless Scotsman named James Hamilton with whom Rachel had had an affair. One of the slurs flung at him later by his enemies was that he was the son of a whore because he was born out of wedlock, which was scandalous at the time. His illegitimate birth and humble origins made Hamilton very sensitive about his honour.

Rachel died of a fever when Hamilton was around 12. He was placed under the guardianship of his cousin, who committed suicide a few years later, leaving him alone again.

But Hamilton was ambitious and bright. He began working for a local mercantile firm at age 13—which in those days was not out of the ordinary—and soon rose through the ranks.

Hamilton was a voracious reader and self-taught, and, as his peers in the US discovered, also a prolific writer. When a hurricane ripped through the island of St. Croix in 1772, the 17-year-old wrote a letter to his father describing the storm. The letter was published in the local paper where it became a sensation and eventually prompted the island’s businessmen to set up a fund to send Hamilton to school in the US.

America was then still a colony of Britain, and Hamilton thrived there. He studied law and discovered he was not only gifted but also a talented orator. When the American War of Independence began, he joined the fight and was noticed by General George Washington, who appointed him his aide-de-camp. Hamilton used his considerable skills to write Washington’s correspondence, and became one of Washington’s most trusted men.

Hamilton married Eliza Schuyler, who came from a politically influential family in New York. She and her sister Angelica were central to his life. Angelica was his intellectual equal, and the two wrote to each other regularly while she was living in London. 

Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, a senator with whom he had much in common: both went to the same school, both lost parents when young (although Hamilton’s father was more absent than dead), both fought in the War of Independence and both became politicians. But they differed in one important aspect: unlike Hamilton, Burr was extremely cautious, keeping his opinions to himself. Although Burr blamed Hamilton for his setbacks, it was more this quality of cautiousness that undermined Burr’s chances.

Eliza survived her husband by 50 years, and spent her time putting together Hamilton’s papers, launching the first private orphanage in New York, and speaking out against slavery.

What I found fascinating about this book was to see a new country take shape, watch the beginnings of its institutions that are now taken for granted, such as its legislature (Congress), financial system, the army and system of taxation. It is startling to realize how much Hamilton had to do with the setting up of these institutions. He saw them as being on a larger national scale than as a mere a patchwork of smaller local ones: a standing army as opposed to local militias, a national coast guard, and a central legislature with powers. As head of the US treasury, Hamilton devised the country’s current financial system, which included the federal government’s funding of the debts of its states. This was opposed by the South (including by Thomas Jefferson), because the debts had been run up primarily by the northern states during the war. However, Hamilton won the argument, and the current US financial system was established.

One of the things that struck me when reading this biography was the level of hate in the country. Today, there is social media where people can vent their anger. But in the 1700s, there were newspapers, which served more as vehicles for opinion than news, with politicians and their henchmen using them to hurl invective and accusations at each other.

The author devotes a lot of space to these writings: both to the anti-Hamilton pieces and to Hamilton’s responses. Hamilton was accused of being a pro-British lackey with dreams of becoming king of the US and of not being a real American because he wasn’t born there (which sounds familiar). But he gave as good as he got, and matters of state and personal jibes were all aired in these periodicals under assumed pen names.

There is so much in this 700-plus-page biography that I cannot do it enough justice in this review. I wasn’t expecting to be so absorbed by the lengthy biography of a politician. However, Ron Chernow brings this brilliant and thin-skinned man to life.

Hamilton was not the power-hungry and scheming individual his enemies make him out to be: on the contrary, he was “outspoken to a fault”. I am delighted that he will be better-known as a result of this book, and the musical based on it.

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