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.

POLITICAL ECONOMIST

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 major role in persuading the country to adopt the Constitution and in expounding the distinctively American theories of politics that the document reflects. As one of the leading lights of the New York Bar, his clear grasp of legal principle helped shape American law. As secretary of the Treasury under Washington, a position that he held from 1789 to 1795, he set the United States on the economic path that would bring it in time to the pinnacle of economic and military power. And as the leader of an emerging political movement -- the Federalists -- Hamilton helped shape the two-party system that still dominates American political life.

Chernow's accounts of Hamilton's contributions to political theory, politics, and the law are compelling. His study of Hamilton's role in the Treasury is particularly effective. Steeped in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of American finance, Chernow is far better equipped than most biographers to understand just what Hamilton accomplished. He understands the relationship Hamilton sought to establish between the federal government and the financial markets and argues that today's capital markets still bear the imprint of Hamilton's genius. Chernow is also a much more eloquent advocate for the ethical and moral values behind Hamiltonian political economy than most writers. Both during his lifetime and after his death, Hamilton has been routinely attacked as an enemy of equality and liberty. From Jefferson onwards, enemies have seen the urban and commercial society Hamilton advocated as a danger to the sturdy yeoman democracy of the rural American heartland.

Noting that many of Hamilton's harshest critics on this score were slave-owning Virginia aristocrats, Chernow argues that Hamilton's advocacy of a commercial, enterprise-oriented society reflected his commitment to liberty and opportunity. It was this society, after all, that had allowed Hamilton to rise to the higher echelons of his country's leadership. Chernow also traces Hamilton's lifelong hatred of slavery, which contrasts with other Founders' indifference to it. Having witnessed the terrible scenes of the West Indian slave trade in boyhood, Hamilton had no illusions about this great evil; he was a founding member of the antislavery society, based in New York, which spearheaded the cause of abolition.

Chernow contrasts the antislavery bias of the commercial and industrial development favored by Hamilton with the agricultural, anticommercial, and (almost inevitably) proslavery course favored by his Southern opponents. The economic triumph of the Hamiltonian North over the Jeffersonian South, in this view, is what made abolition inevitable in the long run: Abraham Lincoln's victory over Jefferson Davis in the Civil War symbolized Alexander Hamilton's ultimate victory over Thomas Jefferson. The importance of a strong federal government to the civil rights movement underscores the progressive, antiracist dynamic that Hamilton helped introduce into American public life.

Chernow is frank and unsparing when it comes to errors in judgment that ultimately frustrated Hamilton's career. Unreasonable hatreds, unbalanced conclusions, devastating misjudgments, an excitable tendency to assume and expect the worst -- these traits recurred through Hamilton's life and ensured that he would never succeed Washington as president. Chernow's treatment of Hamilton's occasionally tumultuous (and public) private life is sensitive and thorough; the biographer's affectionate regard for Hamilton's long-suffering wife, for example, is one of the most charming features of this book. In later life, Hamilton returned to the religious faith of his youth. Initially, he was refused Holy Communion on his deathbed by the rector of Trinity Church, New York, because he was a duelist. But Hamilton's last exercise in the art of persuasion was to convince the hesitant priest that he had genuinely repented and was willing to reconcile his differences with all men -- including his bitter opponent Aaron Burr.

STRENGTH IN DISAGREEMENT

Ultimately, Alexander Hamilton illustrates one of the most important truths of the revolutionary and federalist periods. The luminous galaxy of political superstars who dominated the early years of the republic continually blocked each other's designs. Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, even Washington -- to a surprising degree they were all frustrated by their fondest hopes and ambitions. Hamilton established the strong federal government and commercial republic that Jefferson so dreaded. Jefferson thwarted Hamilton's attempt to secure the political leadership of the country for the Federalist elite. Washington opposed, but was powerless against, the rise of a party-political system that he believed was the bane of republican government. And Adams lived in a perpetual frenzy of envious disappointment.

Much as one admires the Founders, it is impossible to escape the reflection that their political failures were ultimately their most important legacy to the republic. Had any of these powerful men managed to stamp a single vision on the institutions and politics of the emerging government, the subsequent course of American history would almost certainly have been less happy. That the American political system is one in which opposed visions can struggle peacefully for dominance is one of its greatest blessings.

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  • Walter Russell Mead is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Power, Terror, Peace, and War.
  • More By Walter Russell Mead