The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton

This biography of Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) is written by one of “Hamilton’s own,” a man whose career and interests parallel those of his subject. Robert A. Hendrickson (like Hamilton) was not born in New York City but came to make his mark there; he is a recognized war veteran (World War II), a lawyer, and an expert on fiscal and monetary affairs. The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton is drawn from the same author’s two-volume work entitled Hamilton (1976). Hendrickson is a lively writer, a bit melodramatic but at his best engaging, bold, and graceful.

For all these reasons, one is all the more disappointed in the author’s seeming inability to “get inside” Alexander Hamilton, to give readers the benefit of his unique vantage point on this man who must be considered one of the most interesting of the Founding Fathers. Hendrickson’s portrait is a strange mixture of admiration and puckish disapproval, the former for Hamilton’s courage, powerful mind, and bold actions, the latter for the personal weaknesses of a man whose gargantuan appetites would have shocked all but the most sympathetic and understanding.

Like other biographers of Hamilton, Hendrickson makes much of Hamilton’s illegitimate birth and difficult childhood in the West Indies. From this environment came a clever boy, one who knew how to manipulate his “betters” to his own end, one eager to grasp his “main chance.” Coming to the atttention of wealthy patrons, he was offered the opportunity to go to New York City to attend King’s College (now Columbia University) to study medicine. Hamilton jumped at the chance to escape his situation in the West Indies and to leave his past behind him. He arrived in New York in 1773 and was drawn immediately into the maelstrom which became the American Revolution. Throwing himself on the side of rebellion, Hamilton (barely out of his teens) came to the attention of General George Washington, soon becoming one of his aides-de-camp (his “beardless boys”).

The American Revolution was one of the anvils on which Hamilton was forged. In spite of Washington’s mistakes and the jealousy, opposition, and treason of others (the treason of Benedict Arnold as well as the disaffection among Washington’s officers are particularly well-told), Hamilton remained loyal to the General. Hence the “bastard...

(The entire section is 976 words.)


Library Journal. CVI, October 15, 1981, p. 2020.