Alexander Hamilton: Prophet of American Capitalist Democracy

1015 words | 4 page(s)

Posterity has shown that most of the men we today think of as “founding fathers” of the American Republic were not sainted paragons of virtue as they have been portrayed in history books and patriotic propaganda. These were men with clear visions of their own as to what the new nation should be. Alexander Hamilton was such a man, an ambitious and energetic intellectual who saw America as an egalitarian land of opportunity for all, regardless of class or socioeconomic background. This outlook, and a natural combativeness, brought him into bitter conflict with men like Thomas Jefferson, whose concept of a democratic republic was far different. Their political battles were vicious, and did no credit to either camp. Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton portrays an insecure and self-destructive man and a giant of history whose notion of a capitalist democracy driven by commerce has prevailed over time. This biography resolves these contradictions and helps restore the legacy of a true architect of the American state.

Chernow’s argument for writing this biography is that Hamilton’s legacy has been obscured over time and his tremendous contribution to the nation’s founding largely forgotten. Chernow’s means of restoring that legacy is to provide a larger, more nuanced picture of Hamilton the man than has previously been offered. He argues that Hamilton was largely responsible for establishing a strong executive branch and an independent judiciary, as well as a sophisticated banking and financial system. Thus, “Today we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow is an accomplished author, journalist and historian with a distinguished list of books to his credit, including Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller, and The House of Morgan, a history of J.P. Morgan’s banking empire. He was the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for biography, and won an American History Book Prize for his biography of George Washington.

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The purpose of Alexander Hamilton is to present the formative period of American history on multiple levels, taking into account both the historical setting/background of the times and incorporating an in-depth psychological examination of Hamilton, his motives and his shortcomings. In this sense, the purpose of Chernow’s excellent book is to provide a true history of the period, as well as of Hamilton the man. The layout and approach of the book is chronological, beginning with Hamilton’s origins on St. Croix, his unhappy early life and the remarkable drive that brought him to academic and political success in the American colonies. Chernow follows his relationship with Washington during the Revolutionary period, his struggles with colleagues and co-revolutionaries during the Constitutional period, and his gradual psychological/emotional decline is also chronicled. Chernow cites Hamilton’s personal correspondence as a primary source at length, allowing the reader to develop a well-rounded picture of the man through his own words, and through the words of those who knew him and worked with, and against, him.

The book is quite effective because it attempts nothing less than to uncover the truth about Hamilton’s character and how it affected his accomplishments. A snippet of a letter Hamilton wrote about his relationship with Washington is surprising and quite revealing in its debunking of a popular myth surrounding the two men’s relationship: “For three years past, I have felt no friendship for him and have professed none,” Hamilton confesses. “The truth is our own dispositions are the opposites of each other the pride of my temper would not suffer me to profess what I did not feel.” It is through such firsthand revelations that Chernow’s biography succeeds at looking past half-truths and myths about the relationship of America’s founding fathers: Alexander Hamilton is effective because it shows its subject to be human after all. It is the integrity of this approach that led Stephen Presser to write that the book is “one of the best introductions to the American formative era available.”

The sheer quality of this work’s research, scholarship, structure and writing makes it a valuable addition to this class, as it would be to any class dealing with this period of American history. It is an excellent fit because it seeks to fulfill the objective of good historical works, which is to present a comprehensive, multi-layered examination of history so that we might come to a better understanding of the world in which we live. Reading about Hamilton’s struggles to help create the American commercial/financial system, with all of the unpleasantness and disappointment that went along with it, provides an excellent example of the role that history must play. In terms of world history, it is perhaps unclear as to how Chernow has helped enhance our knowledge other than to offer a fascinating look at how history is made when gifted, ambitious and powerful men work together, and against each other. It is, after all, an American story, told within the framework of the American revolutionary epoch. Ultimately, the most powerful thing about Alexander Hamilton is its objective, to restore, or reinvigorate, Hamilton’s legacy by offering an unalloyed view of the man.

Hamilton was a true visionary, a man with an idea that has prevailed over, for instance, the more bucolic and pastoral view of America so cherished by Jefferson. It was Hamilton

who foresaw how commerce and finance would prove to be the true engines of change. This notion often put him at odds with the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Adams and others. Perhaps the most striking statement in Chernow’s book comes near the end of the prologue, an assessment that points to Hamilton’s remarkable prescience and foresight. On page six, Chernow notes that “If Jefferson enunciated the more ample view of political democracy, Hamilton possessed the finer sense of economic opportunity. He was the messenger from a future that we now inhabit.”

  • Chernow, R. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Group, 2004.
  • Presser, Stephen. “Review of Ron Chernow’s ‘Alexander Hamilton.’” Journal of American
    History, June 2006.

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