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Alexander Hamilton

by Ron Chernow
832 pages, Biography/History
Reviewed by Jeanne

An excellent biography, although with some necessary-but-unpleasant content.

Plot

An expansive biography of one of the most controversial men in the early history of the United States. Although Alexander Hamilton's legacy includes the very foundation of the U.S. economy and the inner workings of her government, he is perhaps the least appreciated of the Founding Fathers. In this superb work, Chernow evenhandedly reconstructs this embattled figure.

Morality

Matters are presented as they happened, and the author makes few moral judgments. He does, however, point out inconsistencies and hypocrisy among statesmen - even in Hamilton himself - and the fact that these great men were hardly flawless. Hamilton was a strong abolitionist and his wife, by all accounts a strong believer, tirelessly supported widows and orphans. There were significant occasions of immorality among many of the primary figures, Hamilton included (see other boxes).

Spiritual Content

The eminent men of this day were primarily Deists, although they have been reinvented in recent literature as Christians. In Hamilton's early and late writings there are some indications that he may have been a believer, as when he talks of trusting in the mercy of Christ. Eliza Hamilton, his wife, appears as a firm believer whose faith overflowed into all walks of her life. The atheistic tendencies of the French Revolution are vigorously lambasted, not least from Hamilton's own pen.

Violence

Hamilton served as Washington's aide during the Revolution, and also commanded several divisions; as a brash and perhaps overly courageous man, he made several decisions in this time that could very well have gotten himself and his men killed.

A British spy who worked in conjunction with Benedict Arnold is hanged; other deaths in the Revolutionary War are mentioned. The frequent yellow fever epidemics in the large cities, and the doctors' methods of "healing" their patients, are brought up once or twice. The bloodiness of the French Revolution is also dealt with heavily, as it proved a catalyst in the formation of political parties in the United States.

The most violent part of the book is near the end, during the duel fought by Hamilton's son, and during Hamilton's own duel with Aaron Burr. Wounds are well described.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Copious amounts of wine were consumed in this time period, and a few of the less prominent players (Secretary of War Knox, for example) are described as "Bacchanalian."

Sexual Content

The circumstances of Hamilton's childhood and the history of his rather seedy parents are painted in the first few chapters. His parentage is not known for certain, and Chernow mentions several possibilities. Hamilton seems to have been something of a womanizer during the Revolution, although it may have gone no further than talk. It is also brought up that historians have thought he may have had homosexual leanings at this time, but this is rather vague and certainly not confirmed.

Hamilton's marriage to Eliza Schuyler was, on the whole, a happy one. Even after his infamous Maria Reynolds affair, which Hamilton seems to have at least regretted if not repented of, Eliza stayed by him and supported him - an incredible testimony to her strength and to her love. As this affair heavily impacted Hamilton's public and private life, it is featured prominently in this biography.

All through his marriage to Eliza, Hamilton was very close to her married sister, Angelica, who in turn had a rather obsessive interest in Hamilton. Contemporaries suggested that they had an affair and Chernow investigates the possibility, concluding that it seems unlikely. Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings is brought up several times. All of these affairs, etc., are brought up and embellished in newspapers.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Political debates frequently degenerated into wholesale attacks on a man's private character. As Hamilton was illegitimate (and extremely sensitive about it), many of these remarks were directed at him. John Adams used such words as "b******" and "w****" in reference to Hamilton, as did others. Hamilton could also strike low blows, especially later in life in reference to Thomas Jefferson, but for the most part restrained his remarks to his opponents' political life. Two or three crude references to anatomy.

Conclusion

"Alexander Hamilton" is not only an excellently written biography of that Founding Father, but a history of the early United States as well. Although a foreigner himself, Hamilton played a - perhaps the - major role in formulating our government (for good or for ill). As mentioned above, Chernow is evenhanded, and though obviously partisan to Hamilton, he portrays the man's faults as well as his strengths. Like author David McCullough, he expertly draws from contemporary sources to paint a living picture of his subject and the people who surrounded him.

Fun Score: 4
Values Score: 4
Written for Age: adult

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