Americans, perhaps more than most people, have pondered the question of who they are and what their country is. In recent years the question has grown perplexing. Hence, I think, a new attention to the Founding Fathers, who presumably knew what they were founding. Here now is a superb study of one of them who was himself uncertain of who he was and of what he and his colleagues did. Alexander Hamilton had as large a hand as any of them in shaping American government un-der the Constitution of 1787, and his interpretation of that Constitution in The Federalist, dashed off in haste, still carries almost as much authority as the Constitution itself.
Yet Hamilton at the end of his career did not think much of the document or of the kind of government he had helped to create under it. At the convention that drafted the Constitution he had proposed a much more autocratic and centralized government than anyone else would even consider. He had accepted the one the others gave him and did his best to make it work, but it would have been no great surprise to most of them if they could have read his troubled confession to a friend in 1802, two years before the duel that killed him:
Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the U[nited] States has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself. And contrary to all my anticipations of its fate, as you know from the very beginning, I am still labouring to prop the frail and worthless fabric. Yet I have the murmur of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my rewards. What can I do better than withdraw from the scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.
When Hamilton wrote those words, the American world had, seemingly at least, become a Jeffersonian world by the election of 1800, which placed Thomas Jefferson in the presidency. Jefferson had been Hamilton’s rival in the new government’s early years, and Hamilton has figured in the public memory almost as much for that rivalry as for his positive achievements. The rivalry had been between two visions of what Americans were and what their country should become. Jefferson’s vision, in Chernow’s words, was “a fantasy of America as an agrarian paradise with limited household manufacturing” and minimal government. “Strangely enough,” Chernow adds, “for a large slaveholder, he thought that agriculture was egalitarian while manufacturing would produce a class-conscious society.” Hamilton, he notes, was an abolitionist and active in a New York manumission society in the 1780s. Hamilton’s vision of America was an urban one, in which a strong central government would foster the accumulation of capital in private hands as a means of creating the growth of commerce, manufacturing, and national power.
In the 1790s Hamilton, with Washington’s assistance, had got his way in the measures creating a national bank, funding the national debt, and assuming the debts of the separate states. In 1802 it may have seemed to Hamilton that Jefferson was about to undo his work. Actually, that was not to be. Even President Jefferson’s own secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, directed to uncover “the blunders and frauds of Hamilton,” pronounced his work “the most perfect system ever formed.” And Jefferson himself went on to expand the powers of the central government he had intended to weaken. Hamilton went on to the tragic end that had been awaiting him throughout his life.
Chernow’s depiction of that life, while doing full justice to Hamilton’s achievements, is less concerned with explicating what they were (which he does with exemplary clarity and conciseness) than with their role in fulfilling a restless ambition that ultimately proved self-destructive. Hamilton was born in obscurity to an unwed couple in the West Indies who somehow endowed him with striking good looks and an intellectual energy that never flagged. A literary flair first showed itself in a letter to a St. Croix newspaper describing in graphic detail a tropical hurricane that had just rocked the island. The account so impressed his readers that well-placed people took up a collection to send the writer, then a merchant’s clerk, to attend college in New York. This was the first exhibition of the way Hamilton’s abilities, charm, and luck propelled him swiftly up the social and political ladder. Wherever he went, he drew the attention of people who mattered, and he had, as Chernow points out, a decided “knack for being present at historic moments,” where his presence made a difference.
From the time he arrived in New York in 1773, aged about eighteen, he started impressing the right people: William Livingston, who would become the first governor of New Jersey after independence, Lord Stirling, who would become a brigadier general in the Continental Army, Elias Boudinot, who would preside over the Continental Congress. They all became friends and patrons of the young man as he pursued studies at the academy in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and then at King’s College (Columbia) in New York. The Boston Tea Party in December 1773 drew him and them into the political storm, far more turbulent than any hurricane, that was sweeping the American colonies into revolution. In 1774 at a rally for the newly elected Continental Congress he roused the audience to a standing ovation and made himself, not yet twenty, a major figure in the Revolutionary cause in New York. He secured his place by writing two pamphlets, one of eighty pages, predicting American victory should the contest turn to war, even outlining the Fabian strategy that could (and did) win it.
His way with words, both spoken and written, would continue to be a principal asset throughout his career. But when the fighting began, Hamilton had to be part of it. He now craved the honor that might be won in battle. At the age of twenty-one he talked himself into a commission as captain of an artillery company in the New York militia. He then led them in the battle for New York, retreated across New Jersey with Washington, crossed the Delaware with him to fight at Trenton and Princeton, and so impressed the general that on March 1, 1777, he became Washington’s aide-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army.
It was a heady experience. At winter quarters in Morristown, Hamilton’s ebullient energies found expression in close friendships with other young officers and romantic attachments to young women. As always he gravitated to people of distinction. He formed an intimate bond with John Laurens, whose father, Henry, led the Revolution in South Carolina. Their relationship was so close that Hamilton’s son and biographer described it as approaching “the tenderness of feminine attachment.” He or some other nineteenth-century editor expunged embarrassing passages from Hamilton’s letters to Laurens and wrote across the top of a disfigured page, “I must not publish the whole of this.”
Hamilton and Laurens formed a trio, if not quite a ménage à trois, with the young Marquis de Lafayette, who had been appointed an honorary major general in Washington’s army in 1777 at age nineteen. Lafayette later described Hamilton in these years as “my beloved friend in whose brotherly affection I felt equally proud and happy.” Bonding of this kind has always been common among warriors, and what seem today to be extravagant expressions of love by one young man to another can be found in other eighteenth-century letters where the relationships were almost certainly not erotic. Hamilton’s association with Laurens had a practical dimension. The two worked closely on a scheme to enlist South Carolina slaves in the army and “give them their freedom with their muskets,” a project that Washington would probably have vetoed if the South Carolina legislature had not done so. After Laurens died in a foolish skirmish in 1782, Hamilton never found another man with whom he could feel quite so close. Chernow believes that he “shut off some compartment of his emotions and never reopened it.”
The same did not happen in Hamilton’s relations with women. “One thing grew crystal clear at Morristown,” Chernow tells us. “Hamilton was girl crazy and brimming with libido. Throughout his career, at unlikely moments, he tended to grow flirtatious, almost giddy, with women.” In Washington’s camp he let himself grow giddy with the high-born women who occasionally appeared there. He first made passes at Kitty Livingston, daughter of his friend William, while he was governor of New Jersey. She did not respond to his impulsive suggestion that marriage would be possible as soon as the war was over. He did not wait for that event after meeting and falling in love with Eliza, daughter of Philip Schuyler, one of Washington’s generals and a well-known Hudson River land baron. They were married in 1780.
Eliza, a lively beauty, proved a foil to Hamilton’s impetuous personality, her lifelong loyalty unfazed either by his more than brotherly love for her sister Angelica or later by a sordid affair that he felt obliged to make public when he became embroiled in scandal. (To demonstrate that his known visits at the home of James Reynolds were not for the purpose of illegal pecuniary transactions, he confessed to assignations with Reynolds’s wife.)
Hamilton cherished close companionship, but he also needed a leash, someone to keep him from wasting his brilliant imaginative talents in rash pursuit of the unpursuable. Eliza supplied companionship in full measure, but she could not give him the firm guidance that would enable him to make the most of himself. He found it during that first winter at Morristown in George Washington. Companionship would be too strong a word to describe anyone’s relationship to Washington. Washington took pains to keep his subordinates subordinate, and “it was temperamentally hard for Alexander Hamilton to subordinate himself to anyone.” But the two men needed each other. Washington wanted someone sensitive to his aims and ideas who could handle the paperwork that wars always generate for those who run them. Hamilton could write Washington’s torrent of messages with a speed, clarity, and understanding that no one else could.
Washington came to trust him to speak his mind for him and give orders to men twice his age who outranked him. “I am astonished,” the youthful lieutenant colonel could write to General Israel Putnam, the hero of Bunker Hill, “and alarmed beyond measure …that no single step of those I mentioned to you has been taken.” Hamilton doubtless enjoyed the power Washington thus delegated to him, and Washington’s guiding hand kept him from enjoying it too much. “The two men,” Chernow observes in a passage that sums up the book,
had complementary talents, values, and opinions that survived many strains over their twenty-two years together. Washington possessed the outstanding judgment, sterling character, and clear sense of purpose needed to guide his sometimes wayward protégé; he saw that the volatile Hamilton needed a steadying hand. Hamilton, in turn, contributed philosophical depth, administrative expertise, and comprehensive policy knowledge that nobody in Washington’s ambit ever matched. He could transmute wispy ideas into detailed plans and turn revolutionary dreams into enduring realities. As a team, they were unbeatable and far more than the sum of their parts.