Reviewed in the United States on May 1, 2020
I am rather surprised at not really liking this biography. My previous experience with Chernow (Grant) was positive, but I think Chernow is so pro-Hamilton in this book, that at times it causes misunderstandings of history. I will concede Hamilton's brilliance, importance, and generally good character, but you would think Hamilton was a prophet or a saint with some of Chernow's descriptions. (All page numbers come from a Kindle version). Also, sorry, this is long.
The main reason I felt annoyed by Chernow's description is how he calls Alexander an "ardent abolitionist" (p. 579), "Hamilton's staunch abolitionism" (p. 579), "uncompromising abolitionist" (p. 592), and "fervent abolitionist" (p. 752). Now, because Chernow does not describe what an abolitionist is, let me point a common one from McPherson as "one who before the Civil War had agitated for immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States". If we use this definition Hamilton clearly does not qualify. I could probably accept that Chernow is using a broader use of abolitionist, but "ardent", "staunch", etc. imply that Hamilton pushed against slavery strong and hard. Chernow never gives us any evidence of this. He certainly proves that Hamilton personally was not fond of slavery and was probably ahead of his time in thinking blacks and whites equals. We are told that his time growing up in the Caribbean must have caused him to sympathize with slaves, but there is never any documentation offered to corroborate this. Hamilton did support arming slaves and giving them their freedom in the Revolutionary War, but he couched it in being the practical thing to do against the British. His economic vision did not have slaves, but I would count that as antislavery rather than abolitionist. The only real leg of this stands on his involvement in the New York Manumission Society (note it is not called the abolition society) which advocated for people slowly, gradually giving slaves their freedom. This is to Hamilton's credit, but he was hardly alone. The book itself points out, "One is further impressed by the sheer number of people in the Manumission Society who had been close to Hamilton since his arrival in America among them Robert Troup, Nicholas Fish, Hercules Mulligan, William Livingston, John Rodgers, John Mason, James Duane, John Jay, and William Duer." There is also the inconvenient fact that Hamilton certainly bought and sold slaves for his extended family, and may have owned slaves himself (many in the Manumission society did), and Chernow only notes as "Hamilton's marriage into the Schuyler family may have created complications on his stand on slavery. ... There is no definitive proof, but three oblique hints in Hamilton's papers suggest that he and Eliza may have owned one or two household slaves as well". This alone means he was not a "fervent" or "uncompromising" abolitionist for me. That these purchases "may have been made for John and Angelica Church and undertaken reluctantly by Hamilton", hardly changes the fact that Hamilton was compromising on slavery. This culminates in Chernow carefully stating "Few, if any, other founding fathers opposed slavery more consistently, or toiled harder to eradicate it than Hamilton". Then Chernow admits that "John Adams never owned a slave and had a good record on slavery, which he denounced as a "foul contagion in the human character" and then faults Adams for defending slaves as a lawyer and not using political power to free slaves (which seems to apply to Hamilton, at least to me). For Benjamin Franklin who was stridently against slavery only in his old age, he points out Franklin owned slaves in his younger years. He does not point out that Franklin wrote a petition to Congress asking for slavery to be abolished. The fact is that all of the Founding Fathers accommodated slavery because they thought the union of the United States was worth the moral stain. Hamilton was a fervent unionist and that took priority for him. He was very likely antislavery but given how prolific a writer he was, he wrote very little on the subject, which may point out the actual strength of his views. Certainly saying he was uncompromising is hyperbole of the worst degree when he bought and sold slaves for others. Because, if we believe Chernow, "Hamilton --- opinionated, almost recklessly candid --- was incapable of this type of circumspection". There is also a Phocion essay by Hamilton (in order to score points against Jefferson) that sheds some light on Hamilton's abolitionism. Chernow describes, "He was trying to turn southern slaveholders against Jefferson by asking whether they wanted a president who "promulgates his approbation of a speedy emancipation of their slaves." Hamilton was trying to have it both ways. As an abolitionist, he wanted to expose Jefferson's disingenuous sympathy for the slaves. As a Federalist, he wanted to frighten slaveholders into thinking that Jefferson might act on that sympathy and emancipate their slaves." Do you think a staunch abolitionist would write that? Do you find Chernow's explanation convincing as to why someone who was an "uncompromising abolitionist" would write such a thing?
This leads to another criticism I have. Chernow's picture of Hamilton as recklessly candid only applies to certain aspects of Hamilton. My problem then is that Chernow is not careful with such language. He says categorical things far too often, I think. For example, "The incident [supporting federal tax collectors] again showed that Hamilton, far from being a crafty plotter, often could not muzzle his opinions", or such as quoting Nathaniel Pendleton on Hamilton as "The frankness of his nature was such that he could not easily avoid the expression of his sentiments of public men and measures and his extreme candor in such cases was sometimes productive of personal inconveniences" or Eliza Hamilton with Alexander having "a character perhaps too frank and independent for a democratic people." And again with "Throughout his career, Hamilton was outspoken to a fault" (which really does raise the question of why he didn't say more on slavery if he was a fervent abolitionist). While at the same time acknowledging that in other cases that "To be sure, Hamilton had been cunning, quick-footed, and manipulative and had placed [John] Adams in an awkward spot". Or "Hamilton was coaxing Washington to dabble in a dangerous game of pretending to be a lofty statesman while covertly orchestrating pressure on Congress. The letter shows Hamilton at his most devious, playing with combustible forces" when Hamilton encouraged soldiers (and Washington to help the soldiers) to exert pressure on Congress. If one were looking at this encouragement of soldiers with very eyes very critical of Hamilton, it could almost seem like a coup, though I'd agree it was just Hamilton being crafty. This Hamilton is not crafty when he voices his opinions but is crafty when pursuing goals seems a bit incongruous.
This really leads to my point that Hamilton was a type of politician, and so he often would say what helped his side. Chernow appears to me to want to minimize, and I think it makes all the other people look like terrible people with Hamilton remaining untarnished as somehow less flawed. The problem is that Hamilton was flawed. The end of Hamilton's life is especially flawed, with him supporting the Alien and Sedition Acts which showed that Hamilton's devotion to liberty was not as strong as one would expect of the person who wrote many of The Federalist Papers. When you support putting people in prison for saying mean things about the government, you have gone wrong somewhere.
In addition, I find Chernow's coverage of the French Revolution (and strangely, he omits the Haitian Revolution) lacks the nuance I would have expected. He gives Hamilton a lot of credit for being mistrustful of the French Revolution, and says Hamilton understood it better than those like Jefferson who had actually lived in France. On the other hand, Hamilton thought France was going to invade the US long after that was a remote possibility, so I feel it is unfair to keep giving Hamilton credit for "prescience" when he predicted so many things. He's bound to get some right and some wrong. Hamilton could be brilliant, but I find it difficult to believe he was especially insightful about the French Revolution. Just in general, Chernow takes a very dim view of the French Revolution (and pretty much lumps all the stages of the revolution together without discussing how much the pendulum had swung back and forth between different parties) and so views it mostly through the prism of the Reign of Terror. That he never speaks of the Vendeé which is where there was far more evil killing tells me he is not analyzing the French Revolution very completely. The amount of literature debating that revolution is immense, and its consequences so huge that it is honestly hard to say anything more than that the number of people who died is a tragedy. It does appear that the end results were most likely a more republican, liberal Europe, though.
If you come at this book aware of the extreme pro-Hamilton bias, the book does offer some positives. It covers the years of Hamilton's life fairly comprehensively, not giving short shrift to his time as Treasury Secretary or after. He does offer insight into Hamilton's psyche and explains the life of Hamilton's wife Eliza, who had important contributions to the country.
This is somewhat marred by Chernow often stating one view and then conceding later that the earlier view was too simplistic. For example, when he talks about the American Revolution, he begins by describing the British as having an "invincible military" (p.70) and crediting Hamilton with prescience for saying that the Americans could use militia to beat the British. The British were the strongest naval power, but their army was hardly considered invincible. It also states America faced "the military strength of the most colossal empire since ancient Rome, they decided to fight back". One need only look at the Spanish empire of the same time period (or at its peak long before 1776) to see the absurdity of this statement. This is not to say that the US would obviously be victorious, just that the British were not a military juggernaut, and were aware of the difficulty of keeping the American colonies; they just bungled it. Later, Chernow corrects this narrative, by noting how important the Continental Army, foreign assistance, the alliance with France, and European powers declaring war on Great Britain were, and so I will give him a somewhat of a break on this.
In the end, Hamilton really was quite important to all sorts of US precedents and history, and so pointing out his deserved role in history is important. I just wish it had been done without overly glorifying Hamilton at almost every turn. The end of the book is actually better in this case, because Hamilton made so many "lapses of judgment" that even Chernow must concede case after case of Hamilton saying and doing problematic things (such as support for the Alien and Sedition Act or his desire to undemocratically change the vote counting when Federalists lost).
I wish I could say that I'd recommend this book, but I cannot. I have to believe there are more objective histories of Hamilton out there that do not frame almost every Hamilton fault as a faulty misjudgment while every one of Hamilton's enemies' missteps are a fault of their character. Hamilton's importance to the US constitution and government structure are undeniable, and a balanced approach to Hamilton would really be helpful in pointing this out without verging hagiography.
The rest of this review is skippable if you accept what I say above. The rest is simply me commenting on why I think Chernow's framing is more misleading than helpful. It is not usually that Chernow is stating a wrong fact, but using an argument that seems more like excusing Hamilton or making Hamilton's enemies sound bad than making a balanced historical judgment. I think this happens every once and a while in all works, but the number is large in this case. I have more, but a sample is below.
"At the time they met, Madison was a priggish bachelor and tight-lipped about his private affairs. No personal gossip ever smudged the severe rectitude of James Madison's image." This is stated as a bad thing, rather than simply pointing out that Madison did not have affairs and kept his private life actually private.
"Hamilton fretted that whether by chance or design Adams might sneak past Washington in the voting. So he approached [electors in states] and asked them to deny their votes to Adams to insure that Washington became president. ... Adams came to view Hamilton's actions as unforgivably duplicitous. In fact, Hamilton had approached only seven or eight electors, so that his actions could have accounted for just a small fraction of Adams's thirty-five-vote deficit. And Hamilton had been motivated by a laudable desire to help Washington, not harm Adams, whom he favored for vice president." If Hamilton had explained this to Adams, it would might be laudable, but I think sneaking to electors to ask them to withhold votes should be viewed as political choice that is not very laudable.
"When Pendleton returned to the scene the next day, he tracked down Hamilton's bullet and discovered that it had smashed the limb of a cedar tree more than twelve feet off the ground. The spot was also approximately four feet to the side of where Burr had stood---in other words, nowhere in the vicinity." I have to think that being shot at at close range is not a pleasant experience and my experience with gunshots has made it clear to me that it is often difficult to determine where they are coming from. Is it really so hard to believe that Burr thought Hamilton had shot at him and simply missed? Some simple trigonometry also shows this. They were ten paces, say that's 8 yards or 24 feet. Four feet to the side means the angle would be about ten degrees off. In the split seconds of a gun firing it would seem a bit cockeyed but I'm not sure I'd say that it was clearly aiming to miss from a being shot at perspective.
"Once upon a time, Thomas Jefferson had lauded Louis XVI as "a good man," "an honest man." Now, he asserted that monarchs should be "amenable to punishment like other criminals."" You will notice that these two statements are not in contradiction with each other. A good person, who is a monarch and has committed a crime, should be amenable to punishment like other criminals is probably something that most people would agree with today.