- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003


By Willard Sterne Randall

HarperCollins, $35.95, 476 pages, illus.


In recent years, there has been something of a boom in the publication of books about Alexander Hamilton: Richard Brookhiser’s “Alexander Hamilton: American” and Karl Walling’s “Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government,” both in 1999; the Library of America’s belated publication of Hamilton’s Writings in 2001; and Stephen Knott’s “Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth” in 2002.

Now Willard Sterne Randall has added “Alexander Hamilton: A Life” to this distinguished list. Mr. Randall, who has also written biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Benedict Arnold, and Benjamin Franklin, does justice to his subject, a man Mr. Brookhiser has called the greatest man of the Founding generation, with the exception of George Washington. “Alexander Hamilton” is lively, informative, and generally a pleasure to read.

Mr. Randall’s “Hamilton” will not supplant what remains the standard work on the great man: Forrest McDonald’s “Alexander Hamilton,” published in 1979. To Mr. Randall’s credit, he does not try to do so. Mr. McDonald’s work was an intellectual biography of Hamilton. Mr. Randall’s Hamilton is, in contrast, a “popular biography.” It covers the topic well, but does not purport to explicate the intellectual milieu in which Hamilton operated.

Instead, Mr. Randall provides a fine narrative account of Hamilton’s life, paying a great deal of attention to his early life. Indeed, while most of Hamilton’s other biographers have focused on Hamilton’s roles as a Founder of the American Republic and his tenure as secretary of the Treasury — Washington’s “prime minister” in the words of Mr. McDonald —Mr. Randall doesn’t get to his government work until the penultimate chapter of the book.

Mr. Randall sheds a great deal of light on Hamilton’s wartime service, during which he made himself indispensable to Gen. Washington. Hamilton was a trouble shooter for the commander-in-chief, his alter ego, and a defender of Washington. Given the icon that he has become, it is hard for us to realize that George Washington had enemies. By confronting his enemies, Hamilton made enemies of them as well.

It was also during this period that he developed an antipathy for the “imbecility” of the Continental Congress—a detestation of its incompetence, confusion, and meddling. “Three-fourths of members of Congress,” he wrote to his friend John Laurens, “were mortal enemies to talent and three-fourths of the remainder had only contempt for integrity.” His critique of Congress shaped his views of government in general and the Constitution in particular. To survive as a republic, the United States would need a system of government that rectified the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation.

Hamilton made three major contributions to the establishment of a free, secure, and prosperous American Republic. These contributions were primarily in the areas of citizenship and the meaning of republican government, including interpretation of the Constitution; political economy and public finance; and national defense.

In articulating his views, whether on the necessity of ratifying the Constitution, on the need for a sound public credit, on the constitutionality of a national bank, or on the unjust treatment of Loyalists, by “patriots,” Hamilton was, as Jefferson once called him, “a host unto himself.” Without him, the United States might never have come into existence, or having done so, might have been destroyed by bad credit or rebellion.

While Mr. Randall addresses Hamilton’s great accomplishments, he focuses most of his attention on the personal aspects of his life, although at the time, it was difficult to separate the private from the public. The Maria Reynolds affair is a case in point. Mr. Randall strongly suggests that Hamilton also was involved with his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church. It is possible, but the evidence Mr. Randall adduces seems thin.

Mr. Randall’s “Hamilton” is a lively, easy read. I still prefer Mr. McDonald’s biography, but as an introduction to the life of the American Republic’s most enigmatic Founder, this book more than fills the bill.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is on leave from the Naval War College to write a history of American civil-military relations.

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