Title: Alexander Hamilton
Author: Ron Chernow
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.
Title: Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth
Author: Stephen F. Knott
Publisher: University Press of Kansas
Publisher’s Blurb: … explores the shifting reputation of our most controversial founding father. Since the day Aaron Burr fired his fatal shot, Americans have tried to come to grips with Alexander Hamilton’s legacy. Stephen Knott surveys the Hamilton image in the minds of American statesmen, scholars, literary figures, and the media, explaining why Americans are content to live in a Hamiltonian nation but reluctant to embrace the man himself.
“The image of Hamilton fashioned by Jefferson and his allies has endured and flourished, and the Hamilton of American memory is a Hamilton who championed privilege and who was a foe of liberty.” (Knott, p. 26)
Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Stephen F. Knott’s Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth offer a unique insight to both the man, and the legend of the man.
And while I have pondered long and hard about how to write about Hamilton without turning into a Thomas Jefferson bashing machine, it is difficult to talk about one without the other. Thanks to Jefferson and his network of devoted mouthpieces, Hamilton’s reputation remains in tatters centuries after the founding of the US.
That it took a musical based on Chernow’s book to address, and repair, Hamilton’s reputation is a statement on how deeply entrenched lies and rumors become. It’s also a statement on how easy it is to believe the worst in people instead of looking for the best.
Not that Hamilton was a complete paragon of virtue, and could, “at moments of supreme stress, … screw himself up to an emotional pitch that was nearly feverish in intensity.” (Chernow, p. 115) It is hard to imagine how a man with such an towering intellect could have so many blind spots, and be so stupid.
Soaring blind spots seem to go hand in hand with towering intellect. Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and James Madison, all seemed to be intimidated by Hamilton’s intellect. “The byzantine, interrelated nature of his programs (e.g. central banking, professional standing military, international trade with Britain) made him all the more the bane and terror of his opponents.” (Chernow, p. 349)
Nuance, and the lack of understanding thereof, is the two-edged blade of smart people everywhere. It’s baffling how so many around us just don’t understand what we think is an easy idea. “… things were so blindingly self-evident to Hamilton that he was baffled when others didn’t grasp them quickly – an intellectual agility that could breed intolerance for less quick-witted mortals.” (Chernow, p. 119)
Knott picks up this thread, “At bottom, Jefferson could not countenance the fact that an immigrant upstart without the appropriate pedigree … dared challenge him.” (Knott, p. 11)
Jefferson presented the image of a down-home gentleman farmer who understood the agrarian slave-holding farmers of Virginia. He came from wealth, owned property and was a slaveholder. That the bastard child of poverty from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean should rise up and challenge him was more than Jefferson could tolerate.
As is also sometimes true of very smart people, Hamilton was not a crafty plotter and “often could not muzzles his opinions.” (Chernow, p. 176) The myth which has stuck to Hamilton most is that the people are a “great beast,” not to be trusted with direct democracy.
Hamilton was right, but there’s a nuance long missed by his detractors. Trusting a mob mentality to make sensible decisions, especially those involving running a government is a bad idea. As individuals, we are smart and sensible. Of course we know, individually, what we want and need from our government leaders. Put us in a big group and mob mentality takes over, and no one has a good idea, not even what’s for dinner.
This myth about Hamilton continues to live because of he understood the unruliness of a mob. On this point, he was accused of hating all people, especially the less-privileged and standing for something like a monarchy in America. Lesser minds were too busy making up lies and spreading gossip to try to understand the nuance in Hamilton’s statements.
He wasn’t against a democracy per se, he was against allowing the unruly mob have such power. Among other political factors, this is one of the reasons we’re stuck with the electoral college. How else to avoid the mistakes of mob rule?
In the late 18th century it was impossible to believe the republic would ever be big enough, educated enough, and sensible enough to have good decision making processes. Women read? Slaves freed and owning land? Hah, never happen.
Except Hamilton sort of expected it, even if he couldn’t get past the hypocrisy of being white, educated, (male), and marrying into money. His heart and ideals were in the right place, though. His background prepared him well to understand why paying and supplying the militias was important. He championed a standing professional army, precisely because farmers arriving on the field of battle with a pitchfork were woefully unprepared for the rigors of professional fighting.
Hamilton even understood the need for a centralized federal bank for economic stability. (And that’s all I’m qualified to recount because the only thing I know about banking is there are too many fees.) He was, according to both Chernow and Knotts, an economic genius. Well, they’re not the only ones, economists over the centuries have sung his praises too.
But these lofty ideas were held in contempt by those threatened by his enormous mind and his exceptional work ethic. I can understand his disinclination to pander or be less forceful when expressing ideas. We just want to get stuff done and don’t have the energy to play the political games at which others are so good.
And those blind spots? How about Hamilton as participant in the nation’s first sex scandal? For over a year, Maria Reynolds, and her husband, caught Hamilton in their thrall and blackmailed him. “Quite understandably, [there were those who] could not conceive that someone as smart and calculating as Hamilton could have stayed as long in thrall to an enslaving passion. Hamilton could not have been stupid enough to pay hush money for sex, [they] alleged, so the money paid … had to involve illicit speculation. In all fairness, … it is baffling that Hamilton submitted to blackmail for so long.” (Chernow, p. 530)
And Hamilton, rather than quietly admitting it and moving on, wrote volumes to be published in newspapers describing every sordid detail. Career was the motive for this, not worry over his marriage to Eliza and their family. After the affair, Hamilton never strayed far from his family, remaining close by until his death.
Which, of course, leads to the duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton, “born without honor, was exceedingly sensitive to any slights to his political honor.” (Chernow, p. 237) Born without honor, meaning born of suspect parental lineage. Believed to be a bastard, the quickest way to get him riled up was to mention this.
“[Burr] was a chameleon who evaded clear-cut positions on and was a genius at studied ambiguity.” (Chernow, p. 192) He was an opportunist, and could figure out endless ways to profit from any political wrangling surrounding him. Further, Chernow writes, “… Burr was a lone operator, a protean figure who formed alliances for short-term gain.” (p. 421)
He was bent on revenge for Hamilton’s part in Burr’s ostracism from the Jefferson administration and losing the governorship of New York because Hamilton was freely quoted as saying Burr wasn’t fit for office. Hamilton can hardly be blamed for Jefferson dropping Burr from the ticket as VP. The quote about not being fit for office, that part was true.
Weehawken, NJ on July 11, 1804 lives in infamy as the place Burr shot Hamilton, thus ending the career and loving marriage of Alexander Hamilton who only ever wanted to see the US become a strong nation. Burr’s life ended that day too. “…Hamilton committed his last patriotic act, for he ensured that Aaron Burr would never again be a viable player in the politics of the early republic.” (Knott, p. 1)
But, Hamilton’s legend lives on. Depending on the era, he’s been seen as selfish and elitist, interested only in money and power. Depression-era scholars and politicians blamed the Depression on Hamilton, despite being dead for 125 years.
Even his scandalous affair made an appearance during the Clinton impeachment hearings in 1998 when his team presented “a thirty page brief to the House Judiciary Committee citing Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds and the reluctance of Congress to pursue the issue after concluding it was a private matter.” (Knotts, p. 225)
The profound effect Hamilton had on government is immeasurable. Chernow’s nearly 800 page biography follows Hamilton from Nevis to his rise in US politics and his death at the gun of Aaron Burr. Chernow admires Hamilton but doesn’t let that get in the way of the facts as presented.
Stephen F. Knott also admires Hamilton and defends Hamilton against the scurrilous myths which continue to be taken as truth. Between the two, Chernow and Knott present an interesting and entertaining read of a man too intellectual and uncompromising for the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr to respect.
Chernow has the best last word, “Any biographer foolhardy enough to attempt an authoritative life of Alexander Hamilton must tread a daunting maze of detail.” (Chernow, p. 733)