The 20th century was not kind to Alexander Hamilton. His fame peaked early, spurred by Henry Cabot Lodge's admiring biography (1882) and by Republican eulogists as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. Though many Progressives liked Hamilton's expansive view of federal power, his support for banks and bonds rankled them; they felt it wiser to combine his principles with those of his bitter rival, Thomas Jefferson. In that alleged synthesis, Hamilton was not so subtly demoted: in the famous formula of the political journalist Herbert Croly, Hamiltonian means were to be mustered for the sake of Jeffersonian ends.
Today, circumstances are much altered. The time has therefore become ripe for a Hamilton revival, and signs of it have been visible in everything from editorials in the Weekly Standard propounding a Hamilton-inspired vision of “national greatness” to a major Hamilton exhibition at the New-York Historical Society this fall.
If this rehabilitation succeeds, it will be thanks in no small part to Ron Chernow's outstanding biography, which has seized a favorable moment to make the strongest possible argument for the man and his policies. Alexander Hamilton is not only the longest and most comprehensive biography of its subject to appear in nearly 50 years. It is an impassioned defense and the most absorbing psychological portrait of him ever produced.
An Interview with Ron Chernow
Kenneth T. Jackson and Valerie Paley
Is this Hamilton’s moment?
Chernow: In a way, as a subject for a book, Hamilton was the founder left standing. I don’t mean to suggest that all the other books written about him in previous years don’t have merit, because they do. But I felt that the large-scale, go-for-broke, authoritative text on Hamilton didn’t exist. Everyone was taking a piece of the story writing about his youth, or his intellectual inﬂuences, for example. I also think that the publication of thirty-two volumes of Hamilton papers by Columbia University Press acted as a deterrent, even though that sounds counterintuitive. It scared people away. In addition, writing about dead white males seems to be out of favor among academics, and a lot of journalists who might ordinarily be attracted to this subject get a six-month leave of absence, during which time you can scarcely get through volume two of the papers!
As a result, there was a gap in the literature. For a variety of reasons, Hamilton has been the most underrated and most misunderstood of the founding fathers, and we have arrived at a moment in American history in which it is easier to appreciate his value. Partly because his life ended before the age of ﬁfty, Hamilton, to an unusual degree, was deﬁned by the other founding fathers, and he managed, with amazing consistency, to alienate most of them. Very often their grievances against Hamilton can be traced back to values that were widespread at the time, but not values that we share today. It was not just Jefferson, or Madison, or John Adams, who considered banks, stock exchanges, and to a certain extent general commerce and trading to be parasitic, or even evil, activities. The comments of Hamilton’s enemies should be viewed through the ﬁlter of those attitudes.
George Will said something like Hamilton’s monument is not a physical building; it is the world that we see around us. In many ways the shape of the government today is much closer to the shape of the government that Hamilton had envisioned.
What do you think about the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit title: “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America”?
Chernow: Well, maybe I would have called it “The Man Who Imagined Modern America,” simply because Hamilton was ahead of his time, which is one reason he was demonized. He imagined things that don’t sound so frightening today, but which were controversial then. But you could have done worse with the title. I’m his biographer; I can live with a little hyperbole.
An honors graduate of Yale and Cambridge, Ron Chernow is one of the most distinguished commentators on politics and business in America today. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has hailed him as “one of the pre-eminent biographers of his generation” and Fortune magazine has dubbed him “America’s best business biographer.” His first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award as the best non-fiction book of 1990 and is considered a modern classic. The Modern Library Board voted it one of the 100 best nonfiction books published in the twentieth century. His second book, The Warburgs, won the prestigious George S. Eccles Prize for the best business book of 1993 and was cited by the American Library Association as one of the year’s ten best works. In reviewing his 1997 collection of essays, The Death of the Banker, The New York Times called Mr. Chernow “as elegant an architect of monumental histories as we’ve seen in decades.” His 1998 biography of John D. Rockefeller, entitled Titan, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for sixteen weeks. Both the Times and Timemagazine voted it one of the ten best books of the year while The Times of London praised it as “one of the great American biographies.” A frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Chernow is a familiar figure on national radio and television shows—he has appeared on “Today,” “NBC Nightly News,” “Nightline,” “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” “CBS Evening News,” “Charlie Rose,” “Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” C-Span, CNN, Fox News Channel, CNBC, CNNfn, the History Channel, and National Public Radio—and has appeared in numerous documentaries.
His much anticipated biography of Alexander Hamilton, five years in the making, has already been selected as the Main Selection of The Book-of-the-Month Club and the History Book Club.