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.

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.

What made them a team, what enabled the headstrong Hamilton to serve as the instrument for executing Washington’s wishes as well as for refining and articulating those wishes, was his recognition that Washington was the key to his adopted country’s future, not simply in winning independence from Great Britain but also in realizing its potential as a nation. As an immigrant, Hamilton held no emotional ties to any of the several states that joined to declare independence. It was natural for him to attach his feelings to America as a nation and to see his and the country’s future in a national government. It would never have occurred to him to doubt his capacity to play a role in such a government. He had his differences with Washington—he even dared to walk out on him for a time after a rebuke—but he saw that Washington was the only one who could lead a real continental government, just as he was the only one who could build and lead a continental army. As Chernow puts it, at Morristown in 1777

Hamilton struck a bargain with himself that he honored for the remainder of his career: he would never openly criticize Washington, whose image had to be upheld to unify the country.

As he became, in effect, Washington’s chief of staff, the position restrained him from public attacks on the ineffective national government conducted under the Articles of Confederation. But he was already transmuting wispy ideas into detailed plans. In lengthy private letters to friends he outlined the kind of government he hoped Washington would eventually lead, a government that would annihilate the power of the separate states and operate directly on the people. In the interval between the end of the war and the calling of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he continued to argue publicly and privately in favor of national authority. After learning and beginning to practice law, he argued for it in the courts, in New York state politics, and in the newspapers, always with one eye on Washington over his shoulder and after 1789 with the man in full view again.

Words were always Hamilton’s most effective tool for getting what he wanted, from the time he described the St. Croix hurricane to the six-hour argument for freedom of speech he delivered in court a few months before his death. It was his words that gave meaning to the Constitution in The Federalist, his words in the lengthy state papers that persuaded Washington to support his financial program, his words that gave eloquence to Washington’s Farewell Address. But it was Washington’s restraining, if often silent, presence that gave direction to Hamilton’s words. And when the new Constitution gave Washington the power to turn Revolutionary dreams into enduring reality, Hamilton came into his own with the measures that he had been mapping for a decade.

Hamilton’s economic program was the culmination of their work as a team, a blueprint for the future of the United States that went far toward determining who we now are and what our country has become. When Hamilton took office, it was an axiom of political economy that the abundance of land and scarcity of labor in the American continent dictated an agrarian economy for centuries to come. Hamilton saw that the old truisms had been rendered meaningless by the Industrial Revolution underway in England. Although Congress declined to endorse the recommendations for joining that revolution in his farseeing Report on Manufactures (1791), his other measures enabled businessmen to defy the agrarian axiom and fulfill the Report’s proposals by investing in enterprises that would turn the United States into a commercial and manufacturing giant.

The success of his measures demonstrated to Hamilton that he was as brilliant as he always believed he was. He knew that his measures would make some Americans rich and grateful. Speculators, it is true, were the beneficiaries of his arrangements to pay interest on continental and state debts, with provisions to pay off the principal over time at face value. But the United States was the greater beneficiary in the restoration of its lost credit. Speculators also benefited from the creation of a national bank, but the United States Treasury gained a needed stability. Hamilton was not much interested in making money for himself—he never did make much—but he valued what he had done, and he valued the prestige that came with it. Although it had required Washington’s stamp of approval, it was his program, and everybody knew it. He may have begun to chafe at the subordinate position he had held for so long. Leaving office as secretary of the treasury early in 1795, he continued to be Washington’s trusted adviser, but Washington necessarily loosened the reins that made them a team. Chernow observes a sea change in Hamilton’s life from the time of his leaving office:

After Alexander Hamilton left the Treasury Department, he lost the strong, restraining hand of George Washington and the invaluable sense of tact and proportion that went with it. First as aide-de-camp and then as treasury secretary, Hamilton had been forced, as Washington’s representative, to take on some of his decorum. Now that he was no longer subordinate to Washington, Hamilton was even quicker to perceive threats, issue challenges, and take a high-handed tone in controversies. Some vital layer of inhibition disappeared.

Another layer disappeared when Washington retired from the presidency in 1796. By this time Jefferson and Madison had organized their supporters into a political party, the Republicans, dedicated to opposing Hamilton’s policies, and Hamilton’s sup-porters had organized the Federalist Party in response. The United States was now treated to the spectacle of seeing its most venerated public figures subjected to personal attacks whose savagery has never been exceeded in American politics (not even Washington was spared). John Adams, after two terms in the vice-presidency, was Washington’s heir apparent for the Federalists, but Hamilton did not think him worthy and tried unsuccessfully to block his election in 1796. Under Adams’s ensuing presidency French seizures of American ships and insults to American envoys brought the country close to war with France. When Adams recalled Washington to command a newly enlisted army, Washington insisted on Hamilton as his second-in-command and then left him in absolute control. Hamilton enjoyed being in charge, and before the threat of war ended, he showed what bad use he might have made of the position by intriguing with a Spanish adventurer, Francisco de Miranda, in a mad scheme to liberate South America from Spanish dominion.

At the same time he fractured the Federalist Party by publishing a fifty-four-page personal attack on Adams that Chernow calls “an extended tantrum in print.” As a result of Hamilton’s denunciation and of Adams’s own deficiencies as president (he spent much of his presidency at home in Quincy, Massachusetts), the election of 1800 resulted in a defeat for the Federalists and an unexpected tie in the electoral college between the Republican candidates for president and vice-president, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Before the twelfth amendment of 1804, a tie could be the unintended outcome of voting a party ticket. When the House of Representatives, designated by the Constitution to break such a tie, was itself split in a tie after thirty-five ballots, Hamilton came to his senses. Jefferson, he believed, had many wrong principles, but Burr had no principles at all. Hamilton persuaded a Delaware congressman to break the tie in Jefferson’s favor, thereby elevating his archrival to the presidency with Burr as vice-president. Although Republicans had always intended Burr for that position, the tie may have given Burr visions of grandeur that Hamilton’s gesture eclipsed.

Chernow’s account of the election is by no means the first time that Burr appears in his pages. Anyone who has heard of Alexander Hamilton knows that he is going to wind up with Burr on a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey. Chernow is too good a craftsman not to follow the path that led Burr as well as Hamilton to that confrontation. The two men were about the same age. They had probably rubbed elbows in Elizabethtown the year Hamilton arrived and again in the Continental Army, where Burr was aide-de-camp to Israel Putnam when Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton chewed the general out for failing to follow instructions. After the war Hamilton and Burr both studied law in Albany, and both came to New York to practice, actually taking up residence on the same street. In the ensuing years they enjoyed a good-natured rivalry at the bar and then found themselves on opposing sides in New York politics and finally in national politics.

Burr was a considerable figure in the Republican Party, as evidenced by the party’s choice of him as Jefferson’s running mate in 1800. He had the advantage of an old New England name in a party otherwise dominated by southerners. His father had been president of Princeton, as had his grandfather, the eminent theologian Jonathan Edwards. Despite growing up in an atmosphere of sanctity, Burr himself was something of an opportunist with a penchant for showy and shady enterprises.

Neither he nor Hamilton was a stranger to dueling, still the way that gentlemen favored for answering insults to their honor. Burr had fought a duel with Hamilton’s brother-in-law, John Barker Church, in 1799, in which both men missed and then made up amicably, honor satisfied. That was often the outcome of a duel, but not always. Hamilton’s son Philip died on the dueling ground, defending his father’s honor in November 1801. Hamilton himself disapproved of dueling in principle, but believed that refusal to give satisfaction when called out would undermine the standing of a man who aspired to public office and influence. His resolution of the conflict between honor and morality was to accept any challenge but fire into the air, a practice adopted by Philip but not by his opponent. Philip’s death at Weehawken cast his father into a deep and lasting depression but did not alter his determination to defend his own honor against any aspersion in the way he had advised Philip to do.

Hamilton’s honor was easily offended. He had several times come almost as far as the dueling field before friends were able to arrange apologies on both sides. He knew that his honor, his reputation, rested less on the social status to which he had climbed than it did on the role he had played in war and politics at Washington’s side, in creating a single nation and national government from thirteen disparate colonies. Jefferson’s insistence on the strict limitation of national power had posed a threat to that achievement and thus potentially to the honor that went with it. But Jefferson, as president of the nation, proved to be a nationalist after all, stretching the Constitution to Hamilton-size in the purchase of Louisiana in 1803 and thus more than doubling the national domain. Now the New England Federalists, nominally Hamilton’s allies, became more of a threat than Jefferson had been. Fearing to be outweighed by an immense West full of Republicans, they talked openly of secession, and Aaron Burr, the disgruntled vice-president, listened.

Burr knew that Jefferson, who despised him, would not retain him as a running mate in the next election. Since Burr’s political base had always been New York, he stole a march by running for governor in the state election of 1804, preceding the national election of that year. At the same time he made overtures to the secessionist Federalists of New England. Hamilton was convinced that Burr wanted to preside over a new northern confederacy, “and placed at the head of the state of New York no man would be more likely to succeed.” As it turned out, Burr lost the election by a wide margin. Still smarting from Hamilton’s denying him the presidency, which the election of 1800 had almost placed within his grasp, he attributed his loss in New York also to Hamilton’s opposition. It was in this context that he accused Hamilton of disparaging his honor in a rumored conversation. This was intended and understood as a challenge to a duel.

With his eye on his political usefulness in protecting the union that he had helped to create and that the New England Federalists with or without Burr might destroy, Hamilton had to preserve his honor. He may have thought that the duel could end as Burr’s duel with Church had: he would waste his own shot, firing into the air, and Burr might do the same. He did. Burr did not.

Hamilton was not yet fifty years old when he fell. Washington and Franklin were already dead. Jefferson and Adams lived until 1826, Madison until 1836. But by 1800 they had all finished the work for which they are rightly revered. Neither Jefferson nor Madison was a great president. Adams’s only memorable achievement in that position was his refusal to go to war with France in 1799. Hamilton’s only useful acts after he cut loose from Washington lay in thwarting Burr. But his earlier work in propping up the “frail and worthless fabric” of the Constitution endowed the national government with powers that have withstood every challenge. It is one of the ironies of American history that Lincoln, who considered Jefferson rather than Hamilton to be “the most distinguished politician of our history,” saved the Union from its greatest challenge, which was rooted in the Jeffersonian political doctrine of state sovereignty. In subduing the South, Lincoln set the nation’s course inalterably toward the Hamiltonian world that we now live in.

Chernow’s book is remarkable not for any new disclosures or novel interpretations, but for his unblinkered view of Hamilton’s thought and behavior in a time that generated in him and so many others the capacity to do what none of them had previously dreamed of. Most of the men Hamilton dealt with were engaged in an unparalleled act of political creativity, and Chernow accords them all the same respect and views them all with the same critical eye. He agrees with Hamilton that Burr had no principles, but in the tangled controversy over Hamilton’s disclosure of the Reynolds affair, Burr gives “the most fair-minded advice” to Hamilton’s detractors (namely, shut up) and “was the one upright actor” in the whole unsavory business. When Hamilton’s quarrel with Adams splits the Federalist Party, Chernow chides them both as “two brilliant and unstoppable windbags…hasty, erratic, impulsive men and capable of atrocious judgment.” When Jefferson denies making a political deal that he almost certainly did make, “he did not lie to others so much as to himself,” a harsh but not implausible view of the way Jefferson dealt with the deep contradictions in his character.

Hamilton does not come off unscathed in these appraisals, as must be apparent from the treatment of his career after leaving office. Nevertheless, this Hamilton emerges as a more considerable man than the one who has appeared in more partisan portrayals. Chernow’s Hamilton is a whirlwind of a man, always in action, always in pursuit of a goal not quite within his grasp, and beset by the demons that have so often afflicted great minds. None of the other founders was so troubled by the need to defend a precarious honor, none so racked with doubts about where he belonged in the country they were creating together. Hamilton’s doubts may have grown from his lowly origins outside the country, but his sense of alienation from the world around him was to become almost an American trait, echoed in later years by homegrown Americans of large vision equally sensitive to what the country was doing and becoming: Henry James, Henry Adams, Theodore Dreiser. It has been said that Hamilton was a great man but not a great American. Chernow’s Hamilton is both.

This Issue

September 23, 2004