5) Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
Thanks to spending yesterday in bed I have finished this massive biography, which would have taken me otherwise another couple of weeks. As it happens the last book I read I also finished in bed feeling ill, and it was also a biography of a late 18th-century political figure, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. In fact she and Hamilton were almost exact contemporaries, he born in 1755 and she in 1757; and both died aged 49, Georgiana of natural causes in 1806, Hamilton killed by the Vice-President of the United States in 1804. They never met – neither ever crossed the Atlantic – though they would certainly have had acquaintances in common – Hamilton’s brother-in-law was an English MP who was in with the Prince of Wales/Charles James Fox set of which Georgiana was the leading light.
Hamilton is unquestionably the more important figure historically. Georgiana was an important cultural reference point and a back-room political player in a not especially important phase of English history, whereas Hamilton was deeply involved in setting up the administrative infrastructure for today’s only superpower. Chernow suggests that “Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency” and indeed it is pretty difficult to think of anyone else who could come close to matching that – Henry Clay? Martin Luther King? Chief Justice Roger Taney (and not in a good way)? Although I wish the book had been a bit shorter, it is every bit as good as Georgiana, and far better than McCullough’s Adams – indeed, I felt I got a better idea of Adams from the few dozen pages Chernow spends on him than in McCullough’s 650.
The start of Hamilton’s life is pretty dramatic: he was born into a white trash background in the West Indies; his parents were not married and he spent his early life wandering around the Leeward Islands, between Nevis, the Dutch possession of St Eustatius, and the then Danish possession of St Croix – now one of the US Virgin Islands; I have to say that between this and The Jennifer Morgue I have come to realise just how little idea I have of the geography of the Caribbean. He lost almost all his family through death (or in the case of his father desertion) by the time he was 14; but fortunately fell on his feet, found himself a wealthy patron (possibly his real father) who recognised his ability, and got sent to New York to complete his education. He never went back.
Hamilton’s achievements are significant, as aide to Washington during the war, joint (indeed main) author of the Federalist Papers, New York political activist, and most particularly as the first ever Secretary of the Treasury. 200 pages of the book are devoted to his term of slightly more than five years in that office, and Chernow makes a very good case for Hamilton’s crucial importance in producing a government of the United States that actually worked by creating a financial administration that was clearly superior to that of the states and (more importantly) that worked; when Jefferson and his supporters took over in 1801, having sworn to dismantle the system, they found it was simply impossible. Had there been no Hamilton, the United States of America could have gone the way of the Leeward Islands federation or the United Arab States.
Indeed, without Hamilton and the Federalist Papers, it might not have even got off the ground. One part of the story that was wholly new to me was the difficulty of getting New York to buy into the project in the first place. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton was the only one of three New York delegates at all keen on the idea of revising the Articles of Confederation, and his only significant contribution to the debate is described by the normally sympathetic Chernow as “daft”. But once it was over he put all his efforts into getting New York to ratify. Even that might not have worked, if the critical number of nine states had not been reached elsewhere so that the debate in New York shifted from whether or not the Constitution was a good idea in the first place, to whether or not New York could afford to be left out.
New York itself, incidentally, comes across as a major character in the book – Hamilton’s true home, despite having to leave it during the war (when it was under British occupation) and for the remaining time of his service in the federal government after it moved to Philadelphia. It is interesting that Hamilton’s track record in New York electoral politics was pretty poor. He was obviously a man who was great at intellectual argument and wearing down opponents who would engage with him on his own terms. But in New York he was consistently outmanœuvred by the likes of Aaron Burr, who eventually killed him, and even more so by Burr’s successor as Vice-President, George Clinton. Hamilton distrusted the mob and was no good at street politics. But he was fascinated by the city where he was educated, married and died. He had almost no knowledge of the South. (Oddly enough one of Burr’s first refuges after the duel was on the Carolina plantation of his friend Pierce Butler, whose grandson was to marry Fanny Kemble.)
Flawed characters are always much more interesting than saints. Hamilton was at the centre of the first sex scandal in American politics, and paid for it dearly with his political reputation. He had a knack of alienating people at just the wrong moment – Madison, Adams, and then Burr. Chernow concludes that he could never have become President. I don’t know; certainly his political fortunes were at a nadir in 1804. But had he managed to make and keep an alliance with some more stabilising figure, things could have been different. When he died he was still younger than anyone who has come to the presidency except Polk, Garfield, Pierce, Cleveland, Grant, Clinton, Kennedy or Teddy Roosevelt. Richard Nixon was 49 in 1962; Ronald Reagan was still an actor in 1960.
Anyway, this is a great book. It’s just a shame it is so loooong.