Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931
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 constitution. Hamilton is usually not considered one of the primary architects of the U.S. Constitution. While he was one of New York’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia from May 25, 1787, to September 17, 1787, he played a relatively modest role in deliberations and was absent for extended periods of time. (New York’s other delegates went home in disgust soon after the proceedings began.) Some of the ideas Hamilton did express were quickly marginalized by the convention for being at least vaguely monarchal. On the other hand, Hamilton played a crucial role in exposing the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and bringing about the convention. In addition, the final product of the convention did reflect his thinking on at least two crucial points: National sovereignty won over state sovereignty (and the oxymoronic concept of dual sovereignty), and separation of powers with a potentially strong executive defeated the idea of a pure legislative government. Finally, Hamilton played a key role in the ratification process, writing the bulk of the Federalist papers and overcoming major opposition to build a consensus for ratification in New York.
When Washington was elected the nation’s first president, one of his first and most momentous moves was to name Hamilton secretary of the Treasury. Because economics and finance were not Washington’s strong points, Hamilton was given considerable leeway in forming policy, and Washington usually heeded his advice. Crucial issues with which Hamilton dealt included “discrimination” (whether the Continental Congress’s debts to veterans should be paid only to legitimate veterans and not to speculators who had bought up many of the notes at bargain-basement prices), “assumption” (whether the federal government should assume and pay off the debts of states, possibly including reimbursement for those states that had already paid their own debts), and the question of a National Bank. On the subject of discrimination, Hamilton promoted a policy of paying off all the notes for the sake of the new nation’s future credit rating and financial reputation. On assumption, Hamilton worked out a compromise that provided payment for the states’ outstanding debts paid without overextending the federal budget by completely reimbursing those states not in arrears. On the third issue, Hamilton got his National Bank, which he viewed both as constitutional and as a source of national financial stability.
In addition to preparing lengthy reports on each of these issues to Congress, Hamilton produced a massive Report on Manufactures, which envisioned the United States as an industrial power. Each of these issues was highly controversial, but Hamilton managed to sway Congress and keep the confidence of President Washington. Times became more rancorous in Washington’s second term, with foreign affairs, resistance to taxation (especially the whiskey tax), and accusations of scandal consuming much of Hamilton’s time.
In 1795, Hamilton left his Treasury post and returned to New York to be closer to his family (he had married into a prominent New York family during the Revolutionary War) and practice law. However, he did not retire from political life altogether. Hamilton continued to write political commentary, established the long-lived newspaper the New York Post, and commented on the major issues of the day. He continued to support Washington strongly but was much less enthusiastic about Washington’s successors. He was deeply critical of John Adams yet endorsed him in 1796 because of the greater evil posed by his opponent, Thomas Jefferson. In 1800, after Jefferson had already defeated Adams but remained in a technical tie with his vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr, Hamilton supported Jefferson because of the greater potential for evil he associated with Burr. Ultimately, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, though the book sadly lacks detail as to how things reached this state of affairs. Apparently, Hamilton accepted the offer for the sake of his honor, though he had pledged, for the sake of his Christianity and the law, never to kill a man in a duel. According to friends, Hamilton fully intended to keep this pledge, which drastically reduced the odds that he would survive the duel. This is an especially poignant point in the light of the fact that Hamilton’s eldest son had already been killed in a duel, possibly armed with the same somewhat contradictory values as his father. In any case, the duel occurred, and Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, who lingered long enough to take proper leave of his friends and family. He was mourned by the nation, including some of his most strident political enemies.
The image of Hamilton that emerges from this short but highly eventful life is complex and in many ways appealing. Hamilton was a hard worker who fought for his beliefs. He was a prolific, articulate, and forthright (some would say blunt) communicator both as a writer and as a speaker. Hamilton was by far the most forward- looking of the Founders in foreseeing the evolution of the United States as a powerful, unified nation. In his public life, Hamilton was incorruptible and nonpartisan. On a personal level, Hamilton was a trusted friend and ally. He also maintained a stable and apparently loving family life.
On the other hand, he had an extramarital affair, which became notorious thanks to his own questionable judgment. Hamilton’s affair was tied to possible corruption during his time as Treasury secretary. When this accusation was made public, Hamilton not only denied the corruption charge but also went into unjustifiable detail in confessing the affair. Hamilton’s Report on Manufacturing also contains some disquieting language on the usefulness of employing women and children in the industrial workforce and hauntingly foreshadowed the late nineteenth century sweatshops that would lead to child labor laws and related legislation. What Hamilton actually had in mind might not have been nearly this dire, but his language leaves room for lingering suspicions.
Finally, though Hamilton may not have actually been a monarchist, his ideas are often elitist. While open elitism has become unfashionable, there is still plenty of room for national self-criticism, including criticism of American democracy and even of the very notion of democracy itself. As Brookhiser indicates at the close of his book, many of Hamilton’s doubts about the future of the American experiment have yet to be answered. In this sense, it is probably more accurate to see Hamilton not as an elitist but rather as a believer in responsible government and the rule of law, one who thought democracy should be given no special leeway in meeting his high political standards.
Brookhiser’s book is well balanced and avoids any simplistic ideological bias. As Brookhiser points out, Hamilton cannot be easily categorized as a “conservative” or “liberal.” Brookhiser clearly appreciates Hamilton but is not worshipful and does not idealize—or demonize—his subject. Finally, Alexander Hamilton, American manages to stay stylistically accessible without trivializing Hamilton’s life or the thicket of issues with which he dealt. As such, it provides an informative, provocative introduction to one of American history’s most important figures.
Sources for Further Study
American Spectator 32 (August, 1999): 68.
Booklist 95 (January 1, 1999): 822.
Choice 36 (July/August, 1999): 2000.
Commentary 107 (June, 1999): 67.
Library Journal 124 (February 1, 1999): 102.
National Review 51 (April 19, 1999): 62.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (April 25, 1999): 10.
The Times Literary Supplement, June 18, 1999, p. 38.
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