I’ve been listening to Ron Chernow’s giant 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton for a while now, but it’s finally finished. This is a kind of exhausting book, but I liked it much better than his Washington biography. Insofar as Founding Father bios seem destined to be hagiographies, Hamilton is a great subject because his flaws are really undeniable. Chernow can’t defend the guy’s wilder excesses. Not the plan to make the presidency a lifelong post, not the madcap scheme to conquer South America, not the Alien and Sedition Acts, not the weird effort to undermine Adams in the 1796 election, and certainly not the bizarre effort to undermine Adams in the 1800 election. But what you get instead is a sincere effort to explain how it is a person Chernow clearly admires could have reached these weird conclusions.
Meanwhile, Chernow really has the chops to explain how and why it is that Hamilton was right about the big questions he was in fact right about — federal debt assumption, the creation of a banking system, the tariff and customs service, and the idea that a strong and effective federal government wasn’t a slide into tyranny. Chernow also rightly highlights the existence of meaningful slavery debates even in the 18th century and the fact that some people, Hamilton among them, were on the right side and the Jeffersons and Madisons of the world weren’t just “men of their time” but legitimate bad guys in a live political controversy. Personally, I think it’s a bit odd that Chernow is able to get himself so emotionally invested in the partisan politics of the 1790s but the zeal makes for a good book.
For my part, as a non-hagiographer I will say that something I find impressive about Hamilton is his ability to be an extremist. He was an extremely clear thinker, who saw problems and didn’t shy away from proposing what he saw as the correct solution. Especially as we better understand the depth of the economic slump into which the country slid in the 1770s and 1780s the clear-sighted guidance of U.S. economic policy in the early days is really impressive. Doing the minimum necessary to stave off catastrophe seems like a perennially tempting option. Making the bold moves to in succession of initiatives restore the credit and trade of the country is pretty amazing.