Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Book Review - Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Spent the past several months absorbing this book, 818 pages worth, via the miracle of Books on Tape. I recently changed work assignments, and am back to almost 2 hours in the car everyday, I try to take advantage of that time by listening to books. One of these days I'll move into the 21st century and do podcasts, but that's for another blog posting.

On to the book - while Hamilton himself is a fascinating character, what I found most interesting about the book was the description of the times, from the American Revolution, thru the "Republican revolution" (hmm, that sounds familar) of Jefferson's election in 1800 (don't get excited, my leftward leaning friends, Jefferson's Republicans were the Democrats of today), to Hamilton's fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.

If you think politics only recently evolved into a morass of slander, spin, back room deals, and downright deceit, think again. The only difference is the media used, back then they only had newspapers, handbills, and pamphlets, but they slung mud just as effectively as today's spinmeisters. These guys were actually worse than today's scumbags, especially when it comes to slander. Instead of insinuating that someone was a crook, they would call their opponent a villian, a rascal, a rake, the devil himself, you name it.

Chernow paints a very different picture of early American history than what you learned in grade school, while Washington gets the normal reverential treatment, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, John Adams, and Aaron Burr are all painted in a most unflattering light.

But I digress, let me paint the political picture for you. Hamilton was Washington's top aide during the Revolution (I never knew that until I read this), once Washington became President, he appointed Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams (first Vice-President, he said of the job "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.") were Federalists. The Federalists were akin to the Republicans of today, as they were strong supporters of banking, manufacturing, trade, etc. Where they were NOT like today's Republicans (with the exception of George "big government" W. Bush) was their belief in a strong (and large) central government. They placed the solidarity of the Union of the States above all else.

Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were "Republicans", who believed America should be an agrarian Utopia, with the farmer as the foundation of commerce. They were averse to the banking and manufacturing advocated by the Federalists. Jefferson was a spiritual father to Teddy Kennedy, foppish while in France during Washington's administration, he took to dressing as a commoner once becoming President, in spite of being very wealthy.

Chernow paints Jefferson as manipulative, according to Chernow, he was a master of CYA. He would never author any documents that disparaged his opponents, but usually enlisted Madison to do his "dirty work". Adams (who eventually split with Hamilton, their rift destroyed the Federalists as a political force) is [portrayed as borderline insane, when the nation was in crisis, he would retreat to his home in Quincy, Mass, once for 7 months straight, he would also go into fits of rage and berate his cabinet. Burr comes across as an amoral slimebag, but Chernow does give him credit for being the consumate ward politician, pressing the flesh, and even compiling a database of voters, noting each one's party affiliation and propensity to volunteer for the cause.

Back to Hamilton himself, the book jacket says "In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did." I agree, here is an incomplete listing of Hamilton's accomplishments:

First Secretary of the Treasury, pretty much built the American government, with many of his concepts surviving today.

Established New York City as the center of American business (although my hometown of Charlotte is creeping ever closer as the center of American banking, now a not-so-distant second to New York). Hamilton's funeral remains to this day as the largest, most elaborate in the history of NYC.

Created the Coast Guard.

Was instrumental in the founding of the Navy, the Army, and the military academies.

Was one of the preeminent lawyers of the day.

Created the first national bank.

Wrote the bulk of the Federalist Papers, the definitive interpretation of the Constitution to this day. Yes, Madison, who I listed as his political opponent above, was the other major contributor, they did not split politically until later.

Was an avowed abolitionist, most of the Founding Fathers were hypocrites, they knew slavery was wrong, but they also knew they could never pull the Union together without the Southern states, so they let slavery continue, most of them owned slaves as well, while publicly saying it was wrong. As best as can be told from the historical record, Hamilton never personally owned any slaves.

In fact, I would venture that Hamilton may have been the single most influential American period, President or not. All this from a man who was born illegimately in the West Indies, and literally worked his way up from nothing.

Yet in spite of his genius, Hamilton was prone to incredibly bad judgement, such as publishing a pamphlet where he admitted adultery to prove that he had not committed any improper acts in his role as Secretary of the Treasury. With another pamphlet, highly critical of John Adams, he destroyed his own political party, as he tried in vain to swing Federalist voters to John C. Pinckney as the challenger to Jefferson in 1800. And of course, fatally, he refused many chances to avert the duel with Burr.

As my friends know, I am not one to blindy accept any one point of view (as too many today do, accepting without thinking whatever their preferred media tell them, be it Hollywood/New York Times/CNN on the left, or Limbaugh/local right-wing talk show wackos on the right). Therefore I have just started David McCullough's highly acclaimed biography of John Adams, as I want to see if he proclaims Adams to be a total fruitcake as Chernow does, and also see how he portrays Hamilton. Stay tuned for a review of that one, check with me in a year or so, I should be right knowledgeable about early American political history.