James T. Flexner’s name is well established as an author on a diverse range of American historical topics. His earlier writings delve impressively into the realm of American painters through such works as American Painting, Gilbert Stuart, and The World of Winslow Homer. In addition, Flexner developed a corresponding fascination with related vignettes of the American past and contributed fine perspectives on such varied matters as Doctors on Horseback and Steamboats Come True. Later, he was to emerge with a number of more political portraits, including essentially biographical looks at the Benedict Arnold controversies and, more notably, in-depth studies of the foremost founding father. These later writings, entitled George Washington and Washington: The Indispensable Man, remain among the better Washington offerings.
Flexner’s latest endeavor, The Young Hamilton, may be the best of his political biographies. Like Washington, the author’s previous subject, Alexander Hamilton clearly played a vital role during the formative years of the new United States of America and its federal government policies. Yet this biography, as the title suggests, chooses to focus upon Hamilton’s youthful career prior to his controversial stint as Secretary of the Treasury and his political confrontations with men such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
In order to provide the semblance of continuity, Flexner extends this biography to the point of Hamilton’s death as a result of the Weehauken, New Jersey, duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. However, the incident is dealt with in no more than a closing sentence in the basically superficial final chapter. While the historically profound period of 1784-1804 covering the notable last twenty years of Alexander Hamilton’s public life is presented here in one brief chapter, Flexner devotes a full eighteen chapters to Hamilton’s life from age twenty-three to twenty-six. And, although the reader would no doubt have preferred that the attention shown to the youthful Hamilton be maintained during his dynamic years of federal service, the author cannot be faulted for deviating from his stated intentions.
The thrust of this biography retains a certain inherent logic in its focus upon the youthful Hamilton. Flexner suggests that the most vital components of the Hamilton mind, personality, and style were largely a product of his upbringing. Although biographies of Alexander Hamilton are hardly rare, the amazing detail and thoroughness of this author’s research immediately call into question many of the long-accepted beliefs surrounding Hamilton’s nature.
For the uninitiated, familiarity with Hamilton may revolve primarily around his image as a Federalist. His years as Secretary of the Treasury produced a textbook image of the man as either a pioneering creator of a stable capitalistic nation or an unsympathetic promoter of vested economic interests against the aspirations of a more democratic public. Depending upon one’s view of the need and value of his policies, Hamilton has won the traditional image of a champion or villain whose stance can be conveniently summarized as the antithesis of the views of Thomas Jefferson. And, while the biographers of Hamilton have been generally praiseworthy in their presentation of him, the figure of Thomas Jefferson has haunted the acceptance of Hamilton and his style.
To seek out the reality of Hamilton behind the simplistic myths, Flexner literally lays siege to the most clouded episode: namely, Hamilton’s origins. Hamilton himself largely avoided undue reference to his parentage and childhood, particularly by the time in his career when revelations may have proved socially and politically damaging. Admiration for his policies by some earlier biographers may also have led them to dismiss arbitrarily aspects of Hamilton’s earliest years which were either uncomplimentary to the image or seemingly inconsistent with his...
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