Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a massive and comprehensive account of this American Founder’s life. In this work the author presents a balanced account of Hamilton’s momentous existence. The narrative is interesting as it is detailed. This book spans over seven hundred pages of fairly dense writing and will satisfy all but the most serious scholar. For all its intricacies it is a page-turner that is difficult to put down if one has any interest in the subjects covered. Though sometimes a little too apologetic about Hamilton’s enormous character flaws and questionable actions, Chernow honestly illustrates the good, the bad and the in–between that encompassed Alexander Hamilton.

Of Scottish and French descent, Hamilton was born around 1755 in Charlestown, on the island of Nevis. He later spent most of his impoverished and tumultuous childhood on the nearby island of St. Croix. Hamilton experienced misery at a young age. His father abandoned his family and his mother died when Hamilton was only eleven, leaving the boy to be raised by relatives.

In 1772 Hamilton immigrated to America. After several years of college, he joined the Revolutionary Army in the war for independence against Britain. Though he saw combat, Hamilton’s most notable role in the conflict was as the secretary and aide to General George Washington. The association and friendship that developed during this period spanned the remainder of Washington’s life. During this time Hamilton also established relationships with such key personages as Henry Knox and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Hamilton possessed a vast intellect. Even during the war years he studied and became extremely versed in the subjects that we would label today as economics and finance. These interests would serve both himself as well as the young United States for years to come.

In the post war years Hamilton was elected to the pre-Constitution Congress under the Articles of Confederation and pursued a distinguished and successful legal career. During this period Hamilton, who was always a prolific writer, began to shine as a political and economic theorist and philosopher.

Hamilton really came into his own during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. A major architect of the blueprint of the American Government, Hamilton advocated for a more elitist and less democratic system. As one of the founders who recognized that America needed a strong central government, Hamilton helped to fashion much of the framework of the document. Of particular note, at the convention Hamilton distinguished himself as a fierce opponent of slavery and was arguably the most pro-abolitionist of the founders.

Ratification of the constitution by the individual states was not guaranteed after the Convention, as it faced stiff opposition by the Anti–Federalists. Perhaps the key factor in winning acceptance was Hamilton’s co–authorship of the Federalist Papers. These voluminous treatises were written as an argument in support of ratification. These documents serve as a great philosophical landmark that extolled the virtues and benefits of strong and balanced republican government.

After successful ratification, Hamilton once again served Washington as the young nation’s Treasury Secretary. In this position he established a new financial structure for the country. This included the establishment of a central bank, a credit system and a structured and planned national debt. He also strongly encouraged a market economy. During this time he engaged in bitter and, at times, personal debates with enemies of these policies. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led this opposition.

After leaving the Washington administration, Hamilton continued to exert influence. It was during this period that Hamilton’s actions became the most questionable. When war with France loomed in 1798, Hamilton was slated to be the de facto commander a newly organized American Army. It was during this phase that Hamilton, through his statements and actions, indicated that he had designs on suppressing political opposition in America using military force. He also began to engage in an unauthorized planning of the military conquest of Spanish territories using the reconstituted American army.  Around this time Hamilton became somewhat paranoid about his enemies. Hamilton’s scheming was halted when President John Adams, one of Hamilton’s bitter rivals, initiated an unexpected compromise with France that averted all-out war. Subsequently Adams ordered the new army disbanded, infuriating Hamilton.

Hamilton’s feud with President Adams, as well as revelations concerning an extramarital affair, eventually knocked the former Treasury Secretary from his position as leader of the Federalist Party. Though no longer the head of that faction, Hamilton continued to play a vigorous part in American political and economic debate.

Hamilton was extremely combative with political opponents. He often engaged in anonymous, personal and vituperative attacks on his rivals. He was involved in long running and bitter feuds with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and even his fellow Federalist John Adams. He nearly had a fistfight with James Madison. In 1804, his conflict with Aaron Burr ended in the duel where Hamilton was fatally wounded.

Chernow presents an account of Hamilton’s and Burr’s rivalry and subsequent duel that is very different from the account that Nancy Isenberg presented in her Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. My commentary on that work is here. I will likely focus on this conflict and differing versions of it in a separate and upcoming blog post.

For of all his faults, it is worth contemplating the enormous influence Hamilton had on the history of American and Western economics and finance.  Beginning with his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton almost single handedly created the modern economic and mercantile United States that emerged in the nineteenth century and helped shape the concept of the capitalistic democratic state that eventually spread throughout the world.

Hamilton espoused various principles and structures that were extremely controversial in his time and afterwards. Starting with the economic and mercantile model of Great Britain, Hamilton fashioned an economic structure that propelled the United States into an economic and military empire. Over the strenuous objections, Republicans (not to be confused with the modern day American Republican Party, this early Republican Party has actually survived into present times and is now the modern day American Democratic Party) like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Hamilton created a national bank, a system of financial securities, organized the national debt and helped institute a national system of taxation. In complex economic treaties he postulated that such innovations were necessary for a modern commercial based republic.

Hamilton advocated for a strong capitalistic system and fiscal policy based upon manufacturing and trade, that was supported but also regulated by a strong, active and involved central government.

I observe that today, many Americans, particularly those on the far right as well as the far left of current political thinking, continue to vilify Hamilton’s policies. He was one of architects of the modern, trade based capitalistic world of activist governments and strong central banks. Currently on both sides of the American political spectrum, one often hears calls for the abolition of the United States Federal Reserve as well as the modern banking and finance system. While I consider myself a strong progressive who can be often heard excoriating the power and abuses of the world banking and financial structures, I believe this system, partially founded by Hamilton, has done more good then harm and I would be loath to abolish it. This system is a necessary part of the infrastructure of the contemporary world, without which poverty and misery would be much, much more prevalent. It has been one of the key drivers of human progress. (I grant that there is a strong argument, with technology and industrialization potentially threatening the very existence of humanity and civilization, that it would have been better had a technological-industrial society never developed. That argument is beyond the subject of this particular blog post). I advocate for major reform that curbs on the power and abuses perpetuated by this system. When I look at the policies that Hamilton advocated, I think that he would support such reforms.

In our time, many mistake Hamilton for a laissez-faire small government conservative. Hamilton would have recoiled at that description. He advocated a strong central government, with relatively high taxes, that was involved in all sorts of projects ranging from public infrastructure to public education. He championed a government that would take an active approach in both encouraging and regulating commerce. In other words, he established a blueprint for the modern, market-orientated democracies that include healthy doses of government intervention in their economies. Hamilton is often caricatured as an unabashed supporter of the wealthy and financial markets, Chernow points out that this depiction is inaccurate. In terms of a macroeconomic world view, I think that Hamilton got it just about right.

There is so much more to Chernow’s book and to Hamilton’s life than his economic theories and accomplishments. In meticulous detail Chernow explores Hamilton’s equally important contributions to Republican government, the American military cause during the Revolution, as well as his upbringing and personal life. For all of its detail, Alexander Hamilton is an engrossing read and should be of immense interest to anyone interested in the man, his time, or the world that he helped to create.

My commentary comparing Nancy Isenberg’s “Fallen Founder” and Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” can be found here.


Violet said...

I have no clue about American history, apart from the major events. Hamilton sounds like an interesting man with ideas that were neither too heavily weighted towards rampant capitalism, nor too far to the left. He sounds pragmatic, which is what we need in politics today. Less posturing, and more pragmatism. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Yes, in retrospect I do think that his views for the most part were pragmatic and in retrospect moderate. However, he engaged in vicious and at times wild political battles with his rivals that spilled into personal attacks and even violence. I will be devoting a separate blog post dedicated to his rivalry with Aaron Burr.