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Sunday, April 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Steve Raymond
He is remembered today less for the way he lived than for the way he died, but the life of Alexander Hamilton was "so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up."
Such is the assessment of Ron Chernow in this splendid new biography of Hamilton. Relying on exhaustive research in several countries, in "Alexander Hamilton" Chernow has crafted an incredibly thorough account of the life of a man who had a "unique flair for materializing at every major turning point in the early history of the republic."
"Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive," writes Chernow, author of several award-winning biographies. "He and James Madison were the prime movers behind the summoning of the Constitutional Convention and the chief authors of that classic gloss on the national charter, The Federalist, which Hamilton supervised."
At various times Hamilton was a "clerk, college student, youthful poet, essayist, artillery captain, wartime adjutant to (George) Washington, battlefield hero, congressman, abolitionist, Bank of New York founder, state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Convention, orator, lawyer, polemicist, educator, patron saint of the New- York Evening Post, foreign-policy theorist, and major general in the army."
In short, Hamilton was a genius but one with many flaws. Despite his talents, he "was a mass of insecurities" who felt "cursed by his past" as an illegitimate child born on a tiny Caribbean island. He was often "hasty, erratic, impulsive and capable of atrocious judgment."
Hamilton had been both a friend and foe of the crafty Burr, who was Thomas Jefferson's vice president. But when Burr ran for governor of New York, some unguarded comments by Hamilton at a dinner party, specifically his reported use of the word "despicable" to describe Burr's behavior, led Burr to challenge him.
Hamilton was no stranger to duels. On seven previous occasions he had been involved in preliminaries of so-called affairs of honor, and three times he had served as a second or adviser to duelists. His brother-in-law had earlier fought a duel with Burr in which nobody was hurt, and Hamilton's oldest son, Philip, had been wounded fatally in a duel. Yet Hamilton himself had never actually fought a duel.
But "everything in Alexander Hamilton's life pointed to the fact that he would not dodge a duel or negotiate a compromise," Chernow says. "He was incapable of turning the other cheek. With his checkered West Indian background, he had predicated his career on fiercely defending his honor. No impulse was more deeply rooted in his nature."
So on a July morning in 1804, Hamilton and Burr set out for a dueling ground on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River, "ready to lay down their lives over an adjective," as Chernow puts it. Hamilton was determined to "throw away his fire" that is, purposely waste his shot while simultaneously preserving his honor, then give the seconds an opportunity to settle the affair peaceably but Burr was not so inclined. Shot in the spine, Hamilton died the next day.
His image in history was later tarnished by his political foes, principally Jefferson, Madison and John Adams, who had the advantage of living much longer. They branded Hamilton an aristocrat or monarchist who envisioned himself sitting on an American throne. Chernow doesn't buy that argument; although cognizant of his subject's many faults, he contends nobody was a more faithful champion of constitutional government than Hamilton.
That was important, because in the early days of the fragile republic there was no guarantee the constitution would survive. Chernow tells that story, too, and portrays the Founders now often venerated as near-saints as ruthless, deceitful men who often squabbled like schoolboys.
This isn't a book to take to the beach this summer, unless you're planning to spend summer on a desert island. It requires a substantial investment of time and attention. But, as Alexander Hamilton might have said, you can be assured the investment will pay handsome returns, plus interest.
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