Courtesy Reuters

First Principals

In This Review

Alexander Hamilton

By Ron Chernow
Penguin Press, 2004
608 pp. $35.00

Readers' interest in American history tends to oscillate between two periods: the Civil War and the Revolution. We are currently well into a Revolutionary period. A slew of best-selling historical works has been published in recent years on the American Founders -- including studies of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. Now, Ron Chernow has produced an original, illuminating, and highly readable study of Alexander Hamilton that admirably introduces readers to Hamilton's personality and accomplishments.

Chernow penetrates more deeply into the mysteries of Hamilton's origins and family life than any previous biographer. And what a family it was. Hamilton, the only immigrant in the first ranks of the Founders, was the illegitimate son of a downwardly mobile Scottish father and a free-living and free-thinking woman of the West Indies. These difficult origins marked Hamilton for life as he struggled to integrate himself into the highest circles of American public life.

Hamilton seems to have searched all his life for a father. One patron after another helped him -- to move from St. Croix to New York, to attend university, and to mix in increasingly exalted circles, until he finally met the ultimate father figure: George Washington. The partnership between these two men was of great historical significance. As Washington's chief aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, and as his closest political partner during Washington's presidency, Hamilton had the trust of the father of his country as no one else did. Their relationship was stormy at times: Hamilton knew Washington's flaws perhaps better than anyone except Martha, and his own subordinate status bothered him at times. Nevertheless, if the two had never met, it is likely that the reputation of both individuals would be much lower today.


Hamilton yearned for military glory, and he led a gallant charge at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. But his reputation today rests primarily on civilian achievements. As co-author of the Federalist Papers (with James Madison and John Jay), he played a

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