three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
By: 
Ron Chernow
user_rating: 
0

A-AlexanderHamiltonAlexander Hamilton was the most progressive—yet the most neglected—founding father. An early immigrant to the colonies, a lifelong abolitionist, and a self-made man, Hamilton was the first exemplar of the American dream. From his early years as an illegitimate orphan in the Caribbean, he rose to serve as the first secretary of the Treasury, and, through the Federalist Papers, was an essential voice in the framing of the Constitution and founding of the American government. Yet his reputation, coupled with his involvement in the young nation’s first sex scandal and his infamous death in a duel, has obscured his far-sighted contributions.
Penguin. 818 pages. $35.

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Other writers … have done better jobs describing Hamilton’s political philosophy, but nobody has captured Hamilton himself as fully and beautifully as Chernow. … Hamilton’s [loving] relationship with his wife and family is one of the revelations of this book." David Brooks

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"… impressively thorough, superbly written and carefully researched. … The only thing missing in Mr. Chernow’s biography is a proper discussion of Hamilton’s decision to put the dollar on the gold standard, where it remained—except for the Civil War period—until 1971." Steve Forbes

NY Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Chernow sets himself a compelling task: to add a third dimension to conventional views of Hamilton while reaching beyond the limits of a personal portrait. If Alexander Hamilton reflects its subject’s far from charismatic nature, it also provides a serious, far-reaching measure of his place in history." Janet Maslin

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, to get to the heart of Hamilton’s story, readers have to slog through a couple of hundred pages that are both dry and speculative. … Once Hamilton’s life enters its well-documented period, the story takes on shading and dimension." Justin Martin

San Diego Union-Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Although Chernow’s story is lively and beautifully written, at 818 pages it is too long to hold the attention of any but the most intrepid reader. … [The first and last sections] read like a good novel." Anne Lombard

Boston Globe 1 of 5 Stars
"…[Chernow] depends too much on the kind of history served up by amateur old-house historians and innkeepers. As a result, his account of Hamilton’s early life in the Caribbean, for example, blurs centuries and reads like an old-fashioned Errol Flynn-style bodice ripper." Willard Sterne Randall

Critical Summary

With this carefully researched biography, Chernow, winner of the 1990 National Book Award for The House of Morgan, supports his claim that Hamilton was "the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency." Reviewers welcomed the opportunity to reinterpret Hamilton’s accomplishments and applauded the robust depiction of this complex, contradictory personality and the era of political sniping in which he operated. The author’s elaboration on the minutiae of Hamilton’s life pushes the book to an exhausting length, and some critics, particularly Randall (author of the recent Alexander Hamilton: A Life) questioned the speculative, novelistic nature of the book. But Chernow’s considerable skills as a storyteller will please history buffs with reading time to spare.

Supplemental Reading

A-FoundingBrothers.epsFounding Brothers The Revolutionary Generation | Joseph J. Ellis (2001): If you’re reading the Hamilton review, you’ve probably already read Founding Brothers. And if you haven’t, you probably should; Ellis studies Hamilton and his peers at key moments during the nation’s formation.