Alexander Hamilton By Ron Chernow – 731 pages, The Penguin Press, 2004
The sold-out smash hit “Hamilton,” the hip-hop musical now on Broadway, is reaping astounding plaudits.
It has been nominated for 16 Tony Awards, more than any other show in Broadway history. The nominators deemed the show worthy in every category of theater-making: acting, writing, directing, dance, music and design. Seven “Hamilton” performers were cited for Tonys.
The super-show is based on Ron Chernow’s history of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
Whatever the hip-hop version, Chernow tells the remarkable story of an unsung American hero. Hamilton was principal designer of the federal government. He was the most important of the Founders who never became president.
Hamilton, a brave battlefield hero, was a youthful aide-de-camp to General Washington. (Washington called him “my boy.”)
Hamilton railed at the lack of sufficient money from Congress to support the independence struggle. He was a member of the Constitutional Convention and leading author of the historic “The Federalist Papers.
He headed the Federalist Party, forerunner of today’s Republican Party. He established the nation’s tax and budget systems and the central bank. He was an unabashed apologist for business and the profit motive. No wonder he has been called as patron saint of Wall Street.
In the Federalist essays he pushed the idea that federal judges should serve for life, subject to impeachment only for misconduct, not for unpopular decisions. The absolute independence of the federal judiciary is essential, he argued.
In Federalist essay 78 he wrote: “no legislative act contrary to the Constitution can be valid.”
Supreme Court Chief John Marshall embedded that Hamiltonian view in the Constitution. Marshall gave the nation the doctrine of judicial review in the Marbury v. Madison decision of 1803, declaring “an act of the legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void.”
The Federalist essays reveal “the extraordinary breadth of his thinking,” Chernow writes.
That is fact. But Chernow, like many historians, is often plagued by conjectureitis: “Hamilton might have,” “he must have,” “he could have” or “probably.” If historians don’t know the facts they should admit it.
Chernow guesses that Hamilton became an insatiable reader of the classics. He writes that he probably read works by Plutarch, Machiavelli and the poetry of Alexander Pope. He thinks Hamilton was born on Nevis, British West Indies, in the Caribbean. But mostly the book is packed with facts.
Among this copious reading was the art of warfare and military discipline. Although a British subject, Hamilton proved invaluable to young America. His father vanished, his mother and all relatives died by the time he was 14, leaving him an orphan.
But the poor lad was soon he was arguing for and fighting for colonial independence. He attended King’s College in New York (now Columbia) and graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). At the battle of Yorktown his valiant performance was death-defying.
He was a fierce proponent of abolition 75 years before the Civil War. He demanded black battalions for the war effort. (As British essayist Samuel Johnson complained” “Why do we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from slave drivers?”)
Hamilton rightly complained that the Articles of Confederation promised little more than a fragile alliance of 13 miniature republics. He denounced the masses. He called democracy folly because the politicians simply catered to the popular will.
As a lawyer, he defended colonial Tories who criticized the revolution. “He was not a politician seeking popularity but a statesman determined to change minds,” Chernow writes.
This was the man Aaron Burr murdered in a duel in 1804 in Weehawken, N.J. The two had a long-standing bitterness and antagonism. After Hamilton savagely attacked Burr in a pamphlet, he demanded a duel.
The book is repetitious, 300 pages too long and tells non-scholars more than they want to know. Chernow, however, does give us a much greater appreciation of Hamilton. Indeed, he suggests that Hamilton was the greatest of the Founders.
Be that as it may, Hamilton deserves the accolade of British statesman Lord Bryce: “the one founding father who has not received his due from posterity.”
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor from the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)