The Whirlwind

Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton; drawing by David Levine

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.

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.