At dawn on July 11, 1804, Burr, Hamilton, and their seconds met on the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey to resolve their growing rancor and animosity by fighting a duel, a not uncommon practice at that time. The tradition was not to administer a fatal wound to your opponent, but that practice was often followed in the breach. Burr fatally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day. (I have a review of Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming if you are interested in reading more background on the duel itself.)
I learned to appreciate Hamilton by reading Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s wife Eliza lived fifty years after her husband was killed, and she would frequently say thereafter that she longed for a reunion with “her Hamilton.” After some 730 pages of being enmeshed in Hamilton’s life, I found myself feeling a bit of the same way. It took me around 80 pages until I got truly engaged in the book, but once I did, I enjoyed it immensely, and was sad when it was over!
Hamilton had a remarkable intellect, was a prolific writer, and contributed hugely to the political and philosophical underpinnings of the new American republic. Yet his years in public life were also fraught with unbelievable pettiness and nastiness from his fellow Founders. [Hamilton contributed his share, but the author makes a good case that he spent more time on the defense than the offense. Chernow notes “Through the years, Hamilton was to exhaust himself in efforts to refute lies that grew up around him like choking vines. … These myths were perhaps the inevitable reaction to a man so brilliant, so outspoken, and so sure of himself.” Chernow also surmises that “Since critics found it hard to defeat him on intellectual ground, they stopped to personal attacks.” (Hamilton’s status as a “bastard” by birth facilitated this process.)] Certainly, as Chernow observed, “The contentious culture of these early years was both the apex and the nadir of American political expression.”
Chernow guides us through Hamilton’s life and times with great detail, but this enables the reader to obtain a very good exposure to many important contributions of Hamilton, including his fiscal policies (as he veritably created our entire economic system) and The Federalist Papers (fifty-one out of eighty-five of which have been attributed to Hamilton). We also get a thorough accounting of Hamilton’s close relationship with George Washington: in fact, Hamilton often served as Washington’s speechwriter.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison loathed Hamilton, and did their best to ensure that he did not receive the same veneration as other founding fathers. But the neglect to Hamilton’s reputation is unfounded; he made many significant contributions to the development of the new government.
The Chernow biography is a rewarding book that enlightens readers both on Hamilton the man and on the political landscape and personalities of the country’s beginnings. Highly recommended.