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Published by EH.NET (May 2005)
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Press, 2004. xi + 819 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 1-59420-009-2.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert E. Wright, Stern School of Business, New York University.
Your letter of February 22nd covering Mr. Chernow's recent biography of General Hamilton came to hand some months ago. The press of other business and the great weight of the volume, however, prevented me, before this very day, from responding to your request for my views of this most prodigious work.
This tome brilliantly elucidates the general's meteoric career and his supreme contribution to the formation of his adopted nation and does so without resort to the hyperbole or exultation that would rightly bring down upon it the epitaph of hagiography, though I daresay General Hamilton's many friends will find Mr. Chernow's efforts highly satisfactory, notwithstanding discussions of Hamilton's carnal and adulterous knowledge of Maria Reynolds, the dim possibility that Hamilton and John Laurens engaged in sodomy, and the likelihood that Hamilton was born in 1755, not 1757, all topics notorious among us who, like myself, love the poor bastard orphan at the center of the story.
Mr. Chernow's biography is learned but not scholarly, a characterization meant mostly, but not completely, in praise. To complete the study, the author traveled widely -- even braving yellow fever and malaria to visit Hamilton's birthplace in the West Indies -- and read all of the most important books heretofore published on this most august of Augustan subjects. He also waded deeply in Hamilton's personal correspondence and the newspaper record, discovering a number of newspaper essays not hitherto attributed to the "Little Lion." Readers who are not blinded by partisan rage should find the discussions of events and descriptions of men accurate and adroit. Documentation is provided, but sparingly, and reference to the endnotes often yields disappointment for the scholar. Moreover, rather than suspend judgment when evidence is lacking or in conflict, as most scholars are wont to do, Mr. Chernow weighs the evidence and makes a call, though a deliberate and informed one to be sure.
This book, like Mr. Chernow's other massive studies of the icons of American financial history, is extremely easy on the senses. The composition is elegance itself, well worthy of Hamilton, a noted wordsmith. Hamilton's phrases generally were not as felicitous as those of Mr. Chernow, but would have carried even more rhetorical and logical force and, of course, would have been finished in a quarter of the time. Hamilton's oratory could bring listeners to tears but his written words rarely had that effect, except perhaps cries of fury from Mr. Jefferson. By contrast, I admit that I often found myself choking back tears teased forth by Mr. Chernow's prose, especially his vivid descriptions of the General's heartbreaking youth.
The embarrassment that I feel at making so startling a revelation is to a large degree mitigated by the fact that Mr. Chernow is a professional writer, not a professor. He therefore passes his days enlarging his own already considerable powers of expression, rather than toiling like Sisyphus to help others to improve their literary prowess. His efforts are more agreeable than almost all other books I've thus far encountered that purport to offer readers more than a fleeting diversion. Were all books of merit so sweetly composed, I daresay more collegians would complete their lessons in good order. I would therefore urge professors and headmasters to consider adding it to their required reading lists. The book easily surpasses earlier biographies of General Hamilton and could even substitute for surveys of the Federalist period like that of Messrs. Elkins and McKitrick, which leans at times toward Jacobinism.
Despite its great girth, Mr. Chernow's opus is less suitable for more advanced students, particularly those of a mercantile or financial bent. Discussions of the Bank of North America, the Bank of New York, the Bank of the United States, the funding system, and other matters financial are of course present, and more or less correctly parrot back the ideas of a few earlier writers, but they lack that perspicuity and precision that characterize the rest of the book. I therefore flatter myself that those interested in the more technical aspects of Hamilton's financial system will find more satisfaction by consulting my Hamilton Unbound, Wealth of Nations Rediscovered, First Wall Street, and Financial Founding Fathers, or perusing the works of Drs. Bodenhorn, Cowen, and Sylla, if not for their literary merits, then for the depth, accuracy, and clarity of their analyses.
No missive can possibly do justice to such a long and masterfully written book, so I can do no more than urge you, and anyone who should see this letter, to read Mr. Chernow's book. It is certain to give pleasure on any long summer sojourn, and is much to be preferred over wallowing in idleness and profligacy. I remain, Sir,
Yr. Most Humble and Obdt. Servant,
Robert Wright of Abington, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, near the old Presbyterian Church on the York Road
Robert E. Wright teaches business, economic, and financial history at the Stern School of Business, New York University, and is a curriculum consultant at Robert Welch University. The University of Chicago Press will publish his fifth and sixth books -- The First Wall Street: Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, and the Birth of American Finance and Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich (with David J. Cowen) -- later this year and early next, respectively, despite the fact that they are not written in the faux eighteenth-century style adopted in this review.