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Alexander Hamilton: A man for our time

BOOK REVIEW

One skilled in all ways of contending: The words-in-translation of those
tribal poets known as Homer seem to linger as unexpected laurels over the
subject of scholar Ron Chernow's latest biography, "Alexander Hamilton."

From 1777, when Hamilton joined General Washington's wartime staff, to
1796, when his writings got the Jay Treaty through Congress with
protections for American seagoing trade that proved crucial, and then
forged passages of the first president's farewell address that would
resonate through centuries, Hamilton was the extra gear in the middle
period of the American Revolution. In his last biography, of John D.
Rockefeller, Chernow summed up his subject in a one-word title: "Titan."
Had he followed the same approach here, the only candidate would have been
Dynamo.

With 731 pages at his disposal, Chernow brings exhilarating detail, some of
it new, to Hamilton's jaw-dropping accomplishments. A partial list of these
would have to include transcending a tormented childhood in the slave
islands of the West Indies, mastering and then recasting the economics of
the period at a time when even leaders of state were all fog on the
subject, advising Washington on how to fight the war and win, handling much
of Washington's all-important Revolutionary War correspondence and some of
his diplomatic tasks, translating for French-speaking von Steuben's
military training program in the do-or-die winter at Valley Forge, leading
a decisive bayonets-only infantry charge at the siege of Yorktown
(Cornwallis surrendered three days later, though not before directing small
pox-infected black men, former slaves who had fought for the British,
toward the Continental Army trenches in an attempt to raise the siege.),
envisioning a Constitutional Congress to revise the Articles of
Confederation and then politicking to see they were overthrown and
replaced, leading the bitter fight to ratify the Constitution in the
classic "Federalist Papers", restoring the national economy to
post-revolutionary health as Washington's Treasury Secretary, rescuing the
essential federal assumption of state debt left over from the revolution by
brokering the political deal that eventually made Washington D.C. a capital
city, steering the new nation ineluctably toward a market economy against
battalions of contrary forces, founding the Coast Guard, issuing a "Report
on Manufactures" so prescient it wouldn't come into its own until after the
Civil War, establishing the Bank of New York and a national banking system,
naming and framing the key constitutional concepts of implied powers and
judicial review, arguing (as the attorney he also found time to become) the
first case ever in which the Supreme Court settled the constitutionality of
a congressional act, fighting slavery consistently on several fronts,
opening his home to a regular procession of orphans (a cause his wife would
make her own after his death), and lending his eminence to an educational
academy for Oneida Indian children who were taught in both English and
their own tongue.

It is worth noting that the Oneida were allies in the revolution.
Hamilton's involvement with the tribe must have gone all the way back to
Valley Forge, where its deliveries of corn could not have been more needed
- "American soldiers were starving in the midst of fertile American
farmland," Chernow noted, one of several mysteries that led Hamilton to
contemplate the revolution and its discontents and elaborate solutions he
would enact in later years.

And for good measure, in his declining years, Hamilton addressed a full
courtroom for six hours in the case that ultimately established freedom of
the press.

For all his successes, he became one of the most despised men in America in
his time. His reputation since has tended to rise and fall - he is on our
currency after all - but until now its "brazen radiance" has never shone
clear. He was his own man but he was always seen in Washington's shadow;
because Washington was off-limits to public criticism, Hamilton got all the
blame that fell to both. He thought in terms of one nation and its welfare;
yet because vociferous public criticism of slavery was tantamount to
sabotaging the fragile post-colonial grope toward nationhood, a de facto
taboo "spared the southern economy from criticism" - leaving the rival,
fully public Hamiltonian capitalism, to fend off more than its share of
attacks.

In addition, Hamilton had need of Washington's magisterial character
traits. Once they went separate ways, Washington into retirement and
Hamilton into the practice of law, Hamilton "lost the strong, restraining
hand ... and the invaluable sense of tact and proportion that went with it
... Some vital layer of inhibition disappeared." In short order, the former
treasury secretary and bank founder got into actual street fights over
policy issues, gave America its first political sex scandal, shattered his
political standing with a pamphleteering attack on John Adams that all but
called out the second president to a duel, and died at the hand of Aaron
Burr in the actual, famous duel, also avoidable. Hamilton was 49.

Chernow's summation of this misunderstood career is a treat to read: "The
American Revolution and its aftermath coincided with two great
transformations in the late 18th century. In the political sphere, there
had been a repudiation of royal rule, fired by a new respect for individual
freedom, majority rule, and limited government. If Hamilton made
distinguished contributions in this sphere, so did Franklin, Adams,
Jefferson and Madison. In contrast, when it came to the parallel economic
upheavals of the period - the industrial revolution, the expansion of
global trade, the growth of banks and stock exchanges - Hamilton was an
American prophet without peer. No other founding father straddled both of
these revolutions - only Franklin even came close - and therein lay
Hamilton's novelty and greatness. He was the clear-eyed apostle of
America's economic future, setting forth a vision that many found
enthralling, others unsettling, but that would ultimately prevail. He stood
squarely on the modern side of a historical divide that seemed to separate
him from other founders. Small wonder he aroused such fear and confusion."

We no longer fear Hamilton the free marketeer. But are we quite over our
confusion about him?

Chernow is too solid a scholar to recruit Hamilton for contemporary
argumentation, but some opinion leaders have greeted his masterpiece with
the triumphal view that Hamiltonian capitalism advances in a post-Cold War
world much as it advanced in America after the Civil War - inevitably, by
harnessing individual gain to the good of the many through a free market
economy. But several times and in several ways, Hamilton wrote that greed,
the extreme face of the gainfulness at the heart of Hamiltonian capitalism,
could destroy capitalism by moving individual entrepreneurs to extreme
measures against the good of the many.

How would we know when that destruction was among us? The words Enron,
globalization, Halliburton and Iraqi oil could all prove to be clues.

Chernow's book gives us good reason to appreciate Hamiltonian capitalism
and its architect as enduring foundations of American prosperity. But as
regards their progress in the rest of the world - best withhold the laurels
here. The founder skilled in all ways of contending has left other
monuments fit to receive them.