Father of US government, grandfather of emancipation: Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton

Alexander HamiltonA truly outstanding, elegantly written, warts and all, biography of a facinating individual. It throws light not only on Hamilton’s life and death at the hands of Aaron Burr, the US Vice President, but also on the Revolutionary war, the drafting of the US constitution, the establishment of US government and finance, and the beginnings of the fault lines that divide US politics to this day: On the one hand the Federalists with their strongly nationalist view of the US and the importance of federal government; on the other hand the Republicans with their promotion of “states rights” and nonsensical fantasies about small government and citizen farmers. Along the way we learn of the first sex scandal in US political history and the strange mores and tragic consequences of the late 18th century duelling culture.

The divisions at this period in US history were described in short-hand by the attitudes to the French Revolution. However it is interesting that while Hamilton and the Federalists were generally Anglophile and deeply distressed by the bloodshed and chaos of the French Revolution, they seem to have been little troubled by the exercise of British power, which between 1796 and 1798 massacred more people in Ireland than died in the entire three years of the French Terror – there is not a single mention of this sanguinary episode of European history in the book.

Towards the end of the book Chernow notes how many of the Republican “slave holding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villanized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth”.

Countering this tendency in histography Chernow casts Jefferson as villian of the piece, even more so than the murderous Burr, for professing himself an abolitionist but, unlike Washington, never freeing his own slaves and advocating both an economy that was only sustainable through the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and a polity that facilitated and rewarded slavery.

In contrast it is clear from Chernow’s work that, in addition to establishing US credit and effective government, a central part of Hamilton’s political project was building in the US an economic system that could not only be sustained without slavery but could also contribute its eradication. While the elimination of slavery ultimately took a civil war Hamilton’s work did provide the North the economic capacity to destroy the slave holding south 60 years after his death. For this, I would argue, that if Lincoln was the “father” of emancipation Hamilton could perhaps be regarded as its “grandfather”.

Chernow makes the argument that, with Washington, Hamilton, for all his faults, was the greatest of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Chernow describes him as the “father of US government”. On the basis of the evidence he presents it is a difficult argument to refute, and, in this time of Tea Party lunacy, his life and achievements are worth celebrating again.

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