Thursday, March 31, 2005

What I Read On My Vacation

I took the opportunity of eight free days to tackle Ron Chernow's recent biography of one of America's most controversial founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Having read several biographies of men of the time, it is astounding to me how each man, with the possible exception of George Washington, was at times stunningly brilliant, and at others alarmingly egocentric, insecure and in some cases paranoid.

Hamilton was no different. Born in the Virgin Islands to an unmarried mother and father, orphaned with his brother at 13, and General Washington's aide de camp by 24, Hamilton's life is a stunning tale of an immigrant who had more influence on the future course of the U.S. than any other citizen who never became president. The list of Hamilton's contributions is extraordinary in both it's impact and scope. Constitutional Convention delegate, chief architect and writer of the Federalist Papers, the first Treasury Secretary, designer of the U.S. financial system, and creator of the central bank are just a few of his accomplishments. Throughout his life, Hamilton exhibited the all too rare talent of being able to not only out think other men with his ability to design systems, but then also out maneuver them with his ability to implement his programs with stunning efficiency.

As with the other founders, Hamilton was a mercurical man, who didn't know when to stop. Notoriously thin skinned when it came to questions of his personal honor, Hamilton often resorted to blistering multi-part written assaults on his political enemies. Indeed, it is this trait that led him to his demise at the hands of Aaron Burr on the dueling grounds of Weehawken NJ in the summer of 1804. Hamilton was only 49 years old, and left a wife and 6 children behind.

Chernow, clearly a Hamilton fan, presents a fair view of Hamilton's life with all its successes and foibles. At times Chernow's book becomes a bit hagiographic, requiring the reader to remember that Hamiton was clearly an irksome fellow with a penchant for creating life long enemies. His feud with Thomas Jefferson, was the catalyst for the creation of the Republican party and the dawn of America's two party system.

Chernow, I think, can be excused for his doting on Hamilton as it seems he clearly felt that Americans have failed to fully appreciate the contributions to our country of this immigrant genius. Chernow's book is an excellent reminder that most of Hamilton's contemporaries and enemies had the luxury of polishing their legacies at his expense during long retirements that lasted well into their seventies. I strongly recommend this book, for anyone who has an interest in U.S. history, the transformation of our government from a confederation into a republic, or in the attendant questions of federalism that resulted.

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