In Alexander Hamilton, American, Richard Brookhiser presents a thought-provoking portrait of one of the United States’ less celebrated Founding Fathers. While Hamilton’s importance is no secret to historians, political scientists, and constitutional scholars, his place in the popular mind stands well behind figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and even James Madison. Brookhiser’s book does not present a comprehensive or groundbreaking biography of Hamilton, but it does present readers with a compelling introduction to the man, his ideas, and his role in American history.
Brookhiser, a senior editor at the conservative National Review, has also contributed to other periodicals and appeared on television as a political and social commentator. Previous books by the author include The Way of the WASP: How It Made America, and How It Can Save It, So to Speak (1991) and Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (1996). Like the Washington book, Alexander Hamilton, American may be seen as a Plutarchan attempt to preserve the great lives for future generations in need of enhanced role models and abiding values.
Brookhiser tells most of the story chronologically, beginning with Hamilton’s humble beginnings on the West Indies islands of Nevis and St. Croix. Hamilton was born out of wedlock in 1757 to parents of limited economic means. Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucett, had left her unhappy marriage to John Lavien and actually served time in prison for refusing to live with him. Subsequently, she met James Hamilton, with whom she had two sons, though she was not legally divorced from Lavien. The second of these sons was Alexander Hamilton. When James Hamilton deserted Rachel and the children in 1766, rather amiably it seems, Rachel opened a store to provide for her family. Alexander worked as a clerk for a local merchant, cultivating lifelong industrious work habits.
In 1768, Hamilton’s mother died of fever, leaving Alexander and his brother only her modest book collection. The rest of her estate was expropriated by Lavien, who appeared in probate court and claimed everything for his own legitimate son by Rachel.
According to Brookhiser, Hamilton’s origins are key to understanding him in a number of ways. He believes that Hamilton’s indulgence toward women reflects sympathy for his mother, who was outcast by decent society for deserting her husband and was, in turn, deserted by Alexander’s father. Brookhiser also believes that Hamilton’s enthusiastic embrace of family life reflects his desire to avoid his father’s irresponsible ways. While these psychoanalytic points are questionable, Brookhiser argues that Hamilton’s offshore origins enhanced his role as a nation builder. Hamilton was among the first Founders to see himself primarily as an American and a nationalist rather than a political identifier with one of the prerevolutionary colonies.
Hamilton’s big break came with his emigration from the West Indies to New York in 1772. This occurred under the sponsorship of several important acquaintances with ties to the mainland. Once in New York, Hamilton attended King’s College (now Columbia University), arranging to pursue the curriculum at his own accelerated pace. A keen interest in the nascent revolutionary upheaval of the times augmented Hamilton’s studies. Although still in his teens, Hamilton became an avid and forceful pamphleteer for the cause of independence. He also backed his words with deeds by joining the revolutionary cause as soon as the battle of ideas evolved into armed struggle.
Hamilton’s performance during the American Revolution was notable on a number of counts. He served bravely for the American cause, but he also distinguished himself in his dealings with Tories, saving at least one from lynching and generally opposing the mob dynamics attendant to popular revolution. Finally, Hamilton spent much of the war as a close aide to Commander in Chief George Washington, establishing himself as one of the most efficient administrators in the Continental army. From his perspective as Washington’s aide, Hamilton gained respect for military professionalism as opposed to the militia worship prevalent among some of his contemporaries. He also came away shocked at the ineptitude and irresponsibility of the Continental Congress. Finally, Hamilton won the lifelong admiration of Washington, who would become the nation’s first president and bestow upon Hamilton a prominent cabinet post after his election.
However, the United States might never have had a president or existed as we know it without Hamilton’s contribution to the establishment of a strong federal...
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