The Young Hamilton: A Biography
by James Thomas Flexner
Little, Brown, 497 pp., $15.00
Everybody knows that Alexander Hamilton was a founding father of the United States, a young father to be sure, only thirty at the time of the Constitutional Convention and just turned thirty-eight when he left behind his brilliant career as Secretary of the Treasury. James Flexner, fresh from his triumphant biography of Washington, now gives us Hamilton, but not Hamilton the founding father. This is an even younger Hamilton, his career traced only to the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, when he had reached the age of twenty-six.
If we did not know what came later, we might wonder why the book was worth writing, for the young Hamilton in these pages, for all his precocity, seems to be forever falling short both of what he wants and of what (quite differently) his biographer appears to expect of him. The unhappy illegitimate child of a promiscuous mother, he fought his way upward but never found enough success to satisfy him. It was not enough to be aide-de-camp to Washington at the age of twenty and to be trusted by the commander in chief above his other aides. Hamilton yearned for an independent command. When he was unable to wheedle it out of his chief after three and a half years, he walked off in a huff over a trivial disagreement. By breaking security in a letter to his wife he risked giving away the strategy that brought victory at Yorktown. When Washington humored him at last by letting him lead an assault, he sulked because his capture of a British redoubt did not bring him special recognition by Congress (nor does it bring recognition by Flexner, who gives the credit to a lack of discipline in his soldiers: “There was no way Hamilton could have stopped them”).
Hamilton in politics wins no more points from Flexner. His arguments against British taxation in The Farmer Refuted in 1775 simply repeated “the standard rhetoric of the time.” His famous letter to James Duane in 1780, outlining the defects of the Articles of Confederation and calling for a constitutional convention, was similarly unoriginal (Thomas Paine had urged as much in 1776) and at the same time completely out of tune with the times and thus impracticable. It would have been a “disaster” if made public. When he argued for a stronger central government publicly in “The Continentalist” in 1781, “Perhaps most of the readers…were led to opposite conclusions from those Hamilton intended. They were induced not to desire the reforms he advocated but to fear them.” When he volunteered advice to Robert Morris, the Secretary of Finance, he told Morris only what “a veteran like Morris would obviously know and understand ten times as well.”
When he entered Congress as delegate from New York in 1782, he tried to get Washington to lead his officers in extorting pay from Congress in the famous Newburgh Conspiracy. The threat of the army’s wrath might be a means, Hamilton suggested, of frightening …