Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ron Chernow - Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton – by Ron Chernow

Anyone who knows me, can attest to my being a bit of a historical bibliophile. My favorite timeframe is the Revolutionary era. Overall, I would hazard a guess that I have read over 100 biographies or historical pieces, and likely over 50 from the Revolutionary period. I will offer the disclaimer that I am partial to Thomas Jefferson, having read 22 books focused on him, including the 5 Dumas Malone definitive, though limited, offerings. Still, I can speak to Jefferson’s hypocrisy, conniving, weaknesses on slavery, and tendency to get carried away when thinking out loud via the pen.

Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating historical figure. I had read a biography on him previously, and naturally he is a key figure in any work regarding Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Burr, and many others. I have also examined the Federalist Papers in detail, and, of course, read the Constitution (something conservative wingnuts might want to try doing).

My opinion of Alexander Hamilton’s place in history is to revere and respect him, yet also be fully conscious of his weaknesses. He clearly is the father of our financial system, though some might argue how much of a positive that has become, or whether it could have been built successfully with more of a soul. There is no doubt that he put the newborn nation on a firm fiscal basis with his many plans and actions. I wonder if Albert Gallatin could have done the same, or perhaps someone else, but Hamilton did do it and deserves tireless praise as a result.

His work on getting the Constitution passed in the various states, and especially New York, also merits high praise. While he questioned the strength of the document, it never would have been enacted without the Federalist Papers, of which he was the prime author. He also was a valued confidante of George Washington, both during the Revolutionary War and during his presidential term, though more so in the first 5 years.

Hamilton also had a great many flaws, among them an epic vanity, a thin skin, a partiality toward monarchy and Great Britain, and an inability to avoid intrigue. He also had his famous interlude with Maria Reynolds, a problem he compounded significantly when he could not let questions about his financial dealings go unanswered and, instead, wrote in excessive detail about the affair as part of his defense of his actions as Treasury Secretary.

Needless to say, Alexander Hamilton was a great man, one of this nation’s brightest lights of the founding era. Because he never became president, he sometimes tends to become lost in history classes and national discourse. For that reason, I am pleased that the current Broadway hit, “Hamilton,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda has captured so much of our attention (I go to see it in August). It has to help whenever people learn our history, even when they do not know they are doing so, and, sadly, even when that portrayal is likely unbalanced and less than ideally accurate.

And that leads me to Ron Chernow’s “Hamilton.” I had never previously read any of Chernow’s work, but there is nothing that would lead me to believe he is anything but a legitimate historian and writer. I avoid like the plague any faux historians like Bill O’Reilly, whose “Murder of” series are a blight on the historical record and not worthy of even a glancing look. The 700 + page Chernow book is well constructed, flows with ease and is a bounty of detail and information. Sadly, it also reads with an excess of bias and injection of pro-Hamilton leanings.

Especially during Hamilton’s time as Treasury Secretary, but almost in any mention of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Aaron Burr, Philip Freneau, and Aaron Burr, Chernow goes too far in tilting the conversation. His disdain for Jefferson borders on being, well, Hamiltonian. Jefferson’s first term success is attributed solely to luck or Hamilton’s financial system and Adams’s keeping the country out of war with France.

Chernow might offer a Hamilton fault, but often after pages upon pages of condemning the “other” side of the story and then qualify everything with unequal, leading adjectives. He immediately is drawn to conjecture of other’s intentions as the worst and Hamilton’s as more noble. There is little doubt from my recollections of biographies of all the aforementioned other historical characters, that Chernow has taken much liberty in his telling of the historical record, omits many details or skims over them, is prone to assumptions that are reaches or worse, and has written with an agenda of an anti-Jeffersonian bent that does a disservice to his own narrative. Burr even gets better treatment than Jefferson, though he, too, is not fairly depicted. The portrait of James Madison, who I am told takes a beating in the Broadway musical, borders on caricature at times.


My advice to anyone interested in history is to read far beyond Chernow (read Chernow, though, too), not only on Jefferson, Madison, Burr, and others, but on Alexander Hamilton himself. Hamilton deserves reverence, respect, his spot on the front of the ten-dollar bill and more appreciation than he receives. Just not as much as Chernow sometimes gives him, often at the expense of other great men.

2 comments:

Bharath Kumar said...

A good lovely read lot to know learn and 22 books centered on a single person that's amazing.

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Scott Wolman said...

Thank you.