Sunday, July 08, 2007

On Alexander Hamilton

I love to read biographies. I believe that through reading them you can learn much about character and organizations.

In the last few years I have especially focused my reading on biographies of significant individuals in American History, particularly American presidents. But as I've read biographies in the past of Jefferson and Washington, the presence of Alexander Hamilton was such a large one and the controversies surrounding him so significant that even though he never attained the presidency, it seemed to me that if I wanted to get a full understanding of the beginnings of the United States I eventually would need to spend some time studying him. And so I decided to read Ron Chernow's recent biography of Hamilton (avail on used for under $3).

I was blown away by both the man and the biography. I had missed Theodore Roosevelt's statement that Hamilton was "the most brilliant American statesman who every lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time" (Longtime emergesque readers will recall that TR is one of my heroes) (p. 4). William Howard Taft spoke of him similarly.

Regarding the book itself, of all the biographies I've read, I would rank Chernow's treatment of Hamilton second only to Robert Caro's masterly multi-volume (though not yet completed) work on Lyndon Johnson.

Regarding the man, I didn't realize

  • the massive influence that Hamilton had on the final form of American governmental institutions,

  • Hamilton's prodigious literary output,

  • his initial intention not to harm Aaron Burr in their duel, and

  • his spirituality, which apparently intensified toward the end of his life.
I also did not appreciate the degree of relational dysfunction that apparently characterized both the nation's first executive cabinet and the initial environment that spawned the first American political parties - the Federalists, which was founded by Hamilton and others, and the Republicans (aka "Democratic-Republicans" and not to be confused with today's Republican party), which was founded by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. (John Adams, the nation's first vp and its second president, uncomfortably did not fit into either political camp, though he technically was a Federalist. )

Seemingly exacerbating this dysfunction was the fact that it was far from a fait accompli that the American experiment would be a successful one, and this was true even after the British were dispatched. It's easy in retrospect to sentimentalize this period, but the major players operated under the significant burden of the potential negative consequences if the American government were not a successful one. The founders labored against the backdrop of the French Revolution, which was characterized by anarchy and much violence. Hamilton predicted that such anarchy inevitably leads to totalitarianism and he was proven correct when Napoleon took the role of Emperor of France the same year of Hamilton's death. Hamilton and others feared the same in the US.

So there was a lot at stake during the years that Hamilton worked with others to craft the Constitution, then to get it approved by the States - this was when he and others published
the Federalist Papers, of which Hamilton was the main author - and then to actually execute and apply the Constitution as the first Treasury Secretary, though his administration took him far outside of strictly Treasury concerns.

As Chernow notes in succinctly summarizing Hamilton's legacy in his introduction,

"At a time when Jefferson and Madison celebrated legislative power as the purest expression of the popular will, Hamilton argued for a dynamic executive branch and an independent judiciary, along with a professional military, a central bank, and an advanced financial system. Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton's America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world" (p. 6).

Hamilton definitely had his faults, though less than those claimed by his primary detractors. Chernow believes that his illegitimate birth on the West Indian island of Nevis precipitated Hamilton's quickness to respond dramatically to perceived slights of honor. Several times he had been involved in duels. He seemed to be a catastrophist, which sometimes seemed to precipitate overreaction. He was unfaithful to his wife Eliza at least once, in an ongoing affair with Maria Reynolds in the nation's first national sex scandal that became very public and very political.

But it becomes clear that Eliza forgave Hamilton and their marital bond not only survived this but even flourished. She lived 50 years after his death and labored through her life to ensure "her Hamilton," as she liked to call him, was sufficiently honored. They had 10 children together.

The book was so engaging that I was very sad to complete it. I walked away from it with at least two take aways:

- the critical importance of a culture of conflict resolution within organizations. I set down the book believing that the Jefferson/Madison - Hamilton differences were too much treated by the principals as either/or situations rather than both/and.

- the importance of not responding to stressful situations from fear but rather responding to them from a position of strength in Christ. Hamilton definitely seemed to have an insecurity streak that at times seemed to precipitate his "protesting too much." Towards the end of the life, it seemed that his thoughts moved more towards the spiritual, and one can only imagine how his life might have coursed differently if his prodigious intelligence would have been grounded in more consistent spiritual contentment. Reflecting on Hamilton's response to difficult situations has brought me back to thinking on the themes we treated in the In the FoxHole series.

This book is highly recommended.

image from Wikipedia

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Wade Hodges said...

I loved this book as well. I came away from it as a fan of Hamilton. Even though you know it's coming, it is truly a sad moment when Hamilton is killed and America loses one of its greatest minds at such a young age.

After this book, I wasn't such a fan of Jefferson however.

Have you seen Gordon Wood's "Revolutionary Character's: What Made the Founders Different?" I'm working through it now and find it to be fascinating as well.

I read these kind of books for the same reasons you do.

Stephen said...

Hi Wade! Thanks for posting. I haven't read that book but I appreciate your giving us a heads up ab it. I just started reading Founding Brothers.

Thanks again!