Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

    [Y]ou wanted to organize the country so that we should all/
    stick together and make a little money.
        -William Carlos Williams, Paterson

In two previous books Richard Brookhiser sought to explain, with considerable success, the most elusive of the Founders, George Washington.  Here he seeks to reclaim the reputation of the most underrated and misunderstood, again successfully.  Though he won a spot on the $10 bill, Alexander Hamilton--because he favored a strong federal government--has traditionally been portrayed as some kind of enemy of democracy.  The fact that his main political opponent was Thomas Jefferson, the darling of the Left, has led to much ill treatment by historians.  And his untimely demise at the hands of Aaron Burr has tended to link him in our minds with that least worthy of men.  In this short but sufficient biography, Brookhiser demonstrates the surprising degree to which Hamilton was responsible for creating and shaping the American nation, both through the force of his ideas and, at the vital moment, by getting the United States' financial house in order.

Like many of the Founders, Hamilton's own talents and the extraordinary events of the day allowed or required him to prove himself adept in a variety of endeavors.  In addition to being perhaps the only leader of any influence to really understand economics, Hamilton was a successful lawyer and soldier.  But the real revelation, and considering the Federalist Papers it should not be, is how influential he was as a writer.  His sheer output was voluminous, and he both addressed all of the important issues of the day, and actually convinced people to change their minds--whether advocating that the Constitution be adopted, that the Federal government assume pre-existing debt, or that an industrial economy was better suited to improving the lot of most citizens than an agrarian economy (Report on Manufactures).

Because Madison is a co-author of the Federalists, and was the main author of the Constitution itself, he has tended to overshadow Hamilton.  But Brookhiser makes a strong case for Hamilton being the more influential advocate.  He also makes the case that Madison was something of a chameleon, taking on the coloration of those around him, and that the Constitution's delicate system of balances might have been much different had Hamilton not presented and argued for his more powerful and centralized federal plan.  This would certainly explain why Hamilton became such an impassioned defender of the Constitution that Madison drafted, that it represented an even handed attempt to meet Hamilton's concerns.

The most heart breaking of Hamilton's writings is his explanation of his affair with Maria Reynolds.  When Hamilton realized that she and her husband were running an elaborate badger game he ended the affair, but it was later publicized by his enemies.  In a move of remarkable candor, Hamilton published a brutally frank pamphlet which laid bare his role in the whole sordid mess but defended himself from false charges of corruption.  Though the romance is a black mark on his record, his handling of it redounds to his credit.

The Reynolds Affair is only one of several points where this two century old story intersects with or casts light on current affairs.  Here's Brookhiser discussing Burr :

    [A]n old man who had met an old Aaron Burr when he was young was asked about Burr's 'rare
    attraction,' and said it came from 'his manner of listening.  He find so much more
    meaning in your words than you had intended; no flattery was more subtle.'  Listening is a virtue of
    the judicious and the compassionate.  But narcissists also do it surpassingly well.  We associate
    Narcissus with beauty and self-regard, but the key to his myth is that it is about surfaces.  Narcissus
    was captivated by his reflection because that was all he had.  Narcissists must live through their
    interactions, because there is no one home.  Burr's charm, attentiveness, and promiscuity; his ability
    to get schemes going, and his failure to follow them through; his lack of principle--all flow from
    his character.  He was like a new refrigerator--bright, cold, and empty.

It is frightening how easily Bill Clinton's name can be substituted for Burr's in that savvy assessment.

In the end, Hamilton's greatest contribution may have been in the realm of financial affairs.  His writings reveal him to be perhaps the only one of the Founders who anticipated the coming of the industrial world.  He certainly had a clearer vision of the future than his more celebrated rival Thomas Jefferson, whose fetishistic love of the land led him to countenance slavery, which Hamilton opposed.  Beyond theory, it was Hamilton's concrete achievements as the first Secretary of the Treasury--founding the first National Bank, accepting responsibility for Colonial debt, and installing tariffs to provide a steady source of Federal revenues--that put the young nation on a sturdy financial footing and make him one of the greatest Cabinet Secretaries of all time.

Hamilton's too short life was so event filled and Brookhiser is such a good writer that the book seems almost too brief.  But wanting more is a pretty paltry criticism and the book is an invaluable corrective to our woefully inadequate understanding of Hamilton's service to the country and his character as a man.  At one point Brookhiser sums up the reason why Hamilton is not as well regarded as some of his peers :

    There are three modes of leadership.  The highest is inspiration: rare, sometimes false, but
    impossible to live without.  Next is demonstration--honestly sharing all your reasons with all
    comers; explaining where they come from, and where they lead.  Lowest is flattery, which either
    fools both the leader and his followers, or fools no one, but is indulged because followers and
    leaders are too tired to think of anything else.  Hamilton seldom rose to the highest level, and would
    not sink to the lowest.  His greatest rivals, such as Jefferson, inhabited all three, especially the first
    and the third; hence their success.

This is nicely stated and is just one example of the author's really penetrating insight into his subject.  Read the book and you'll look at those $10's with a newfound appreciation for an American hero.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Richard Brookhiser Links:

    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Gentleman Revolutionary by Richard Brookhiser
    -Rediscovering George Washington (PBS)
-ESSAY: The American Revolution, Today (Richard Brookhiser, 5/28/24, Yale University Press)
    -INTERVIEW: Forgotten Founder: Rick Brookhiser talks about Gouverneur Morris. (A Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez, 6/06/03, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Gentleman Revolutionary by Richard Brookhiser (Carol Berkin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris (Alan Taylor, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris--The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution by Richard Brookhiser (Noemie Emery, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Glorious Lessons: John Trumbull, Painter of the American Revolution, by Richard Brookhiser (Paul Beston, City Journal))
    -REVIEW: of Glorious Lessons (Emina Melonic, Real Clear Books)
    -REVIEW: of Glorious Lessons (Stephen Brumwell, WSJ)

Book-related and General Links:
    -National Review
    -ARCHIVES : "richard brookhiser" (NY Observer)
    -ESSAY : THE FORGOTTEN GEORGE WASHINGTON (Richard Brookhiser, American Enterprise Institute)
    -REVIEW : of A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War by Harry V. Jaffa (Richard Brookhiser, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam: Paladin Of Liberal Protestantism. By Robert Moats Miller (Richard Brookhiser, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of American National Biography John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, general editors (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of SISTER REVOLUTIONS French Lightning, American Light. By Susan Dunn (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of EX-FRIENDS Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. By Norman Podhoretz (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE COUSINS' WARS  Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America.  By Kevin Phillips (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Other Powers The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. By Barbara Goldsmith (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Strange Death of Vincent Foster An Investigation. By Christopher Ruddy (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Long Affair Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800. By Conor Cruise O'Brien (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PARTNERS IN POWER The Clintons and Their America. By Roger Morris (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of KENNEDY & NIXON The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America. By Christopher Matthews  (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE POLITICS OF RAGE George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. By Dan T. Carter (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, by James Wilson (Richard Brookhiser, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of Jim Sleeper (Liberal Racism) and Tamar Jacoby (Someone Else's House:  America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration) (Richard Brookhiser, NY observer)
    -REVIEW : of The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America by Elinor Burkett (Richard Brookhiser, Commentary)
    -ESSAY : Yes, Character Counts (Richard Brookhiser, NY Post)
    -ESSAY : S E N S E L E S S : Not only is censure extra-constitutional, it's a non-punishment.  (Richard Brookhiser, National Review, October 1998)
    -ESSAY : A Drug War Against the Sick (RICHARD BROOKHISER, NY Times)
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: Richard Brookhiser Title: The Way of the WASP: How It Made America and How It Can Save It . . . So  To Speak  Air date: March 24, 1991 (C-SPAN)
    -INTERVIEW : Richard Brookhiser (Marty Hergert, January 1996, Atlantic Monthly)
    -INTERVIEW : Conversation with Brookhiser (David Gergen, Online Newshour, PBS, MARCH 28, 1996)
    -DISCUSSION : History On Hold: Margaret Warner discusses the difficulties facing the
next president with Wendy Kaminer, of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; Richard Brookhiser, senior editor at National Review magazine; and Yale Law School professors Akhil Reed Amar and Stephen Carter (Online Newshour, PBS, November 9, 2000)
    -ETEXT : Washington's Rules of Civility  (Papers of George Washington, UVA)
    -George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior (Foundations Magazine)
    -ESSAY : George Washington's Character (Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune)
    -ESSAY : What George Washington teaches the Age of Clinton (Tony Snow / The Detroit News )
    -ESSAY : Before Amy Vanderbilt, there was George Washington (Women's Quarterly, Independent Women's Forum)
    -ESSAY : Reviving Hamilton (Richard Leone , The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : To Hamilton, corruption was a more heinous charge (E.A. FRY, Amarillo Globe-News)
    -ESSAY : Why the Founding is Back in Fashion (Jean M. Yarborough and Richard E. Morgan, City Journal)
    -REVIEW : of ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AMERICAN By Richard Brookhiser (Michael R. Beschloss , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Gordon S. Wood: An Affair of Honor, NY Review of Books
               Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser
               Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government by Karl-Friedrich Walling
               A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Arnold A. Rogow
               Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming
               Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character by Roger G. Kennedy
               Scandalmonger by William Safire
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton, American (George McKenna, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton, American (Terry Eastland, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton, American (Mackubin Thomas Owens, Claremont Institute)
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton: American by Richard Brookhiser (Richard A. Samuelson, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser (Richard K. Matthews, American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton, American (Michael Hull, History Net)
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton (Brian C. Anderson,
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton, American (Christopher Cartmill, Book Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Rules of Civility (Alan Pell Crawford, American Enterprise Institute)
    -REVIEW : of Rules of Civility : the 110 Precepts that Guided our First President in War and Peace by Richard Brookhiser (Steve Fosselman, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser (Harevy Mansfield, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of  Founding Father Rediscovering George Washington. By Richard Brookhiser (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Founding Father Rediscovering George Washington. By Richard Brookhiser (Joseph J. Ellis , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW :  Edmund S. Morgan: The Genuine Article, NY Review of Books
               Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser
               The Invention of George Washington by Paul K. Longmore
               Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment by Garry Wills
               George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol by Barry Schwartz
    -REVIEW : of Founding Father (Thomas J. Kuegler Jr., Horizons)
    -REVIEW : of FOUNDING FATHER, Rediscovering George Washington  (Monmouth University)
    -REVIEW : of The Way of the WASP How It Made America and How It Can Save It, So to Speak By Richard Brookhiser (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE WAY OF THE WASP How It Made America, and How It Can Save It, So to Speak. By Richard Brookhiser (Maureen Dowd, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE OUTSIDE STORY: How Democrats and Republicans Elected Reagan. By Richard Brookhiser (Walter Goodman, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE OUTSIDE STORY: How Democrats and Republicans Elected Reagan. By Richard Brookhiser (Timothy Noah, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of RIGHT REASON By William F. Buckley Jr. A Collection Selected by Richard Brookhiser (Mort Kondracke, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing edited by David Brooks (Richard von Busack, Metro Active)

    -Alexander Hamilton on the Web
    -iGuide : Alexander Hamilton (Newsweek)
    -ESSAY : Reviving Hamilton (Richard Leone , The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : To Hamilton, corruption was a more heinous charge (E.A. FRY, Amarillo Globe-News)
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton : Writings (Library of America) (Caleb Crain, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt and The Failure of U.S. Tax Policy: Revenue and Politics (Brad Zuber , Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW : of Karl-Friedrich Walling. Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Govenment (R. B. Bernstein, American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Alexander Hamilton: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall (Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly)