Ron Chernow has a background in business journalism, but left journalism to write biography full time. I met him when he came through Minneapolis to promote his biography of John D. Rockefeller, Titan. In that book it seemed to me that Chernow wedded the skills of a journalist, a historian and a born storyteller to bring a wooden legend to life. Among other striking facts, Chernow demonstrated Rockefeller’s genius for philanthropy as well as for business. He said at the time that he was undertaking a biography of Alexander Hamilton.
Today’s Sunday New York Times Book Review leads with David Brooks’s review of Chernow’s new biography of Hamilton. Brooks writes:
Other writers, like Forrest McDonald, Liah Greenfeld and Karl-Friedrich Walling, have done better jobs describing Hamilton’s political philosophy, but nobody has captured Hamilton himself as fully and as beautifully as Chernow (who is perhaps best known as the author of ”Titan,” a biography of John D. Rockefeller). Hamilton, we now see, was a dark thicket: aspiring and optimistic, but also pessimistic about human nature and often depressed. He was a modern striver, but also an archaic man with a deeply self-destructive lust for aristocratic honor. He was devoted to his heroic wife, but he was uncontrollable at times, and easily manipulated by his incomprehensibly stupid mistress, Maria Reynolds.
Through much of this book the reader is in awe of Hamilton’s astounding abilities. There are also parts that are unutterably sad, especially when Hamilton’s son Phillip dies in a duel that presaged Hamilton’s own. Finally, with its devastating destruction job on Thomas Jefferson, Chernow’s book will stir up another round of the Hamilton-versus-Jefferson controversy that has been churning for the past two and a third centuries.
Hamilton’s invaluable contributions to the founding of the United States included his participation in the constitutional convention as a delegate from New York (of the three delegates to the convention from New York, Hamilton was the only signer of the Constitution) and his advocacy of the adoption of the Constitution by the states in the Federalist Papers.
Under the pseudonym of Publius, Hamilton wrote the papers together with James Madison and John Jay explicating the frame of government wrought by the convention; Hamilton wrote roughly two-thirds of the essays. Hamilton was a genius of freedom many times over. Brooks concludes his review of Chernow’s book with a remarkable commendation:
Chernow never lets us forget that he was a man inflamed by his desire for honor. The final duel with Burr started over nothing. But the feud between the two men escalated and escalated. Chernow rebuts those historians who have argued that Hamilton was really seeking to commit suicide. Among other things, his attachment to his family was too deep, and his awareness of the suffering that his death would cause them too profound. But Hamilton still went to Weehawken determined to throw away his own shot, fully aware this choice might cost him his life.
His widow outlived him by 50 years, trying vainly to repair his reputation against the assaults from the Jeffersonians. As Chernow is aware, this book finally accomplishes her task.