Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 92 (April 1999): 64-68.
Alexander Hamilton: American. By Richard Brookhiser. Free Press. 256 pp. $25.
Reviewed by George McKenna
National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser has followed up his successful 1996 biography of George Washington (Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington) with a biography of Alexander Hamilton. Like the Washington biography, this is a compact, readable volume filled with vivid anecdotes and neatly put observations. But unlike the author’s confident treatment of Washington, this book seems to have trouble getting a handle on its subject.
This is not entirely Brookhiser’s fault. Hamilton is one of the most elusive of our Founders. John Adams called him "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar," but this wild caricature only gets his story started. Born in the British West Indies of an émigré Scot who never married his mother and deserted the family when he was nine, Hamilton went to America in his teens, got a cram legal education at King’s College (now Columbia University), wrote pamphlets supporting the revolution, and began his career under Washington. Where he went from there, and what kind of man he became, is harder to summarize.
With George Washington, Brookhiser could fasten upon a single trait, Washington’s impressive silences. Deliberately adopted, Washington’s laconism proceeded from his lifelong regimen of self–control as well as his understanding that men are moved more by character than by argument. But with Hamilton there were no impressive silences; he was always talking. "Hamilton’s public life was conducted in a torrent of words." Everything was reports, debates, articles, speeches—and, apparently, rehearsals of speeches.
Brookhiser quotes from a letter that Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father–in–law, wrote to his daughter. A storeowner in Kinderhook, New York, had seen a man walking up and down in front of his store, "his lips moving rapidly as if he was in conversation with some person." When the man came in afterwards and asked to change a $50 dollar bill, the owner refused, not wanting to be held responsible if the madman later lost the money. "Pray ask my Hamilton," Schuyler said at the end, "if he can’t guess who the Gentleman was." At one point Brookhiser suggests that there was nothing more to Hamilton than arguments. "He was his arguments. Failure to persuade threatened his existence, as well as his citizenship." If that were literally true, we wouldn’t need a biography of Hamilton, we could just read the arguments. Brookhiser in fact has much to say about Hamilton beyond his arguments, but he has trouble finding a focus.
Let’s turn again to Brookhiser’s Washington biography. He ends it with Richard Henry Lee’s famous characterization of him as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Hamilton, in his early twenties during the Revolution, was the First in War’s "aide–de–camp," a factotum. (Washington had the unfortunate habit of referring to him as "my boy.") He was also a distance away from being first in peace, but not too far. He pushed hard for the Constitutional Convention, and got himself appointed delegate, though he absented himself from much of it after the members pointedly ignored his own quasi–monarchical plan of government. He signed the Constitution without enthusiasm, but then worked feverishly for its ratification. Brookhiser reminds us that Hamilton wrote two–thirds of the eighty–five Federalist Papers published in New York newspapers. These articles, with their serene and even tone, were tossed off in enormous haste, in some cases as the printer waited in the next room for copy. Hamilton’s gonzo journalism played a critical role in moving New York—a key state—to ratify the Constitution.
Hamilton’s final stretch of public service came during his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury in Washington’s cabinet. His reports to Congress on public credit, manufactures, and the Bank of the United States charted the future of industrial capitalist America at a time when 95 percent of the nation was rural and the term "capitalism" hadn’t yet been coined. He even launched an ambitious project for utilizing the waterfalls at a site on the Passaic River in New Jersey to produce manufactured products and create a manufacturing village. It failed—lack of sufficient capital and skilled workers were among the reasons—but it anticipated by several decades the mill towns of the Northeast.
Indeed, some of Hamilton’s observations anticipate the uglier aspects of those mill towns. "Women and children are rendered more useful, and the latter more early useful, by manufacturing establishments, than they otherwise would be," he wrote in his Report on Manufactures, and went on to note with approval that most workers in British cotton mills "are women and children, of whom the greatest proportion are children, and many of them of a tender age." Hamilton, Brookhiser explains, had started work himself, clerking at his mother’s store, at age nine, and couldn’t understand why American children couldn’t do the same. The more likely explanation for Hamilton’s attitude is that poor kids everywhere in those days worked at a "tender" age, and working them in cotton mills may not have been worse than working them on farms that bore absolutely no resemblance to the one in Charlotte’s Web.
Useful in war, prescient in peace, how did Hamilton stand in the hearts of his countrymen? He made enemies literally left and right. Jefferson disliked him largely because of his elitist, anglophile politics, but John Adams, whose philosophy was much closer to his, called him "the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States." As for Aaron Burr, who had no philosophy beyond his own ambitions, Hamilton’s relentless attacks finally goaded him into the fatal "interview" at Weehawken.
Even praises of Hamilton tended to be convoluted and defensive. Fisher Ames, who admired him deeply, said that Hamilton "had not made himself dear to the passions of the multitude by condescending . . . to become their instrument." Before Hamilton’s funeral, Gouvernor Morris, a longtime friend, confided to his diary that Hamilton "was indiscreet, vain, and opinionated." In his eulogy, this was transformed into "he bore" his heart "as it were in his hand." But that doesn’t sound right either. Hamilton seldom showed his heart in public; his polemics relied more on cold logic than sentiment. As Brookhiser notes, Hamilton tended to think in big solid blocks of argument, making it harder for us to pull out defining epigrams than we can with Jefferson’s writing.
So, then, how can we define him? Can we do it by connecting him with the early influences in his life? The least impressive passages in Brookhiser’s book are his desultory attempts to explain Hamilton the man by finding links to his boyhood in the West Indies. As we have seen, he makes a try at tracing Hamilton’s approval of child labor to young Alexander’s drudgery as a store clerk, without considering the simpler explanation that in those days hardly anyone voiced disapproval of child labor.
It is, to be sure, tempting in Hamilton’s case to find the child in the man. Many commentators have noted that Hamilton’s foreign origins may account for his "continental" vision, his ability to grasp America as a whole instead of seeing it as a mosaic of states and localities; and the fact that Hamilton’s father was a deadbeat may help explain his lifetime quest for respectability and lineage. (The Grange, the name he bestowed on his country retreat in upper Manhattan, he took from the Hamilton estate in Scotland.)
But "Rosebud" explanations ultimately fail to explain Hamilton’s mature thought and character, as is evident in Brookhiser’s unpersuasive attempt to find a link between Hamilton’s boyhood environment, his dislike of slavery, and his devotion to contracts. "He came from islands where slaves outnumbered freemen twelve to one. . . . Some combination of temperament, principle, and marginality caused him to dislike the institution rather than support it. But he could not ignore it. Nor could he ignore contracts. The islands were both dependent and isolated. . . . Contracts were their lifeblood." The latticework gets so complicated that he finally abandons it and goes on to a safer discussion of Madison and Jefferson.
If we can’t find the man through the child, can we find him at all? I believe we can, or at least get a glimpse of his characteristic strengths and weaknesses, in the "Reynolds affair." Brookhiser touches on it inter alia, but I think he could have made more of it. It sheds light not only on Hamilton’s character but on the broader issues of public and private morality that Americans have been pondering (or dodging) for the last year or so.
It began one day when Hamilton was working in his Treasury Department office in Philadelphia. A beautiful woman in her early twenties, Maria Reynolds, came in and told him a pathetic story of being abandoned by her husband. She was without funds. Could Hamilton give her means to get back to New York? He said he had no money on him but that he would bring a bank bill to her lodgings that night. When he arrived, it soon became clear, as Hamilton later wrote, "that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable." They had sex that night and several nights thereafter, over a period of months.
In the midst of the affair the husband reappeared, expressed outrage, but promised to be consoled for a $1,000 cash payment. Hamilton paid, and the husband not only kept quiet but encouraged the affair. Soon, however, new demands were made—for "loans," in exchange for worthless IOUs. Hamilton paid again. James Reynolds now discovered that there was a vacant clerkship in the Treasury Department, and asked Hamilton for an appointment. Hamilton refused, so Reynolds demanded another "loan."
Then, suddenly, Reynolds and an equally crooked partner were arrested for an earlier swindle involving forged claims against the government. He sent word to Hamilton that his silence would continue if Hamilton would use the influence of his office to get him out of jail. Hamilton refused, whereupon Reynolds and his partner, who was in jail with him, began talking to some political enemies of Hamilton—three Republican Congressmen, including future President James Monroe. Reynolds and his partner not only revealed the sexual affair but also charged that Hamilton had been speculating in government securities while in office, and produced incriminating letters that they claimed Hamilton had written.
Confronted by the Congressmen with these charges, Hamilton invited them to his home that night, and told them the whole story of his affair—in such detail that they begged him to stop. But he continued to the end, and showed them letters proving that the letters supposedly written by him were forgeries. Satisfied, the Congressmen left, promising to keep the sexual affair secret. But word soon leaked out, was whispered about in political circles, and got into print five years later in a publication by James Callender, the Larry Flynt of his day. (Callender later turned on Jefferson, his onetime patron, and broke the story of Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.) Not content with the true story of Hamilton’s affair, Callender embellished it with the false allegation that Hamilton had conspired with Reynolds in corrupt speculations.
Here is how Hamilton reacted. Against the advice of his friends, who said that he should not open up old wounds, he published his own pamphlet confessing to an "irregular and indelicate amour," again telling the story in near–salacious detail. But in his pamphlet he scornfully denied the charge that he had had any corrupt dealings with the likes of James Reynolds. One would have to suppose him, he said, "not only meanly unprincipled but a fool" to imagine him stooping "to employ such vile instruments for such insignificant ends." Just as his friends warned, Hamilton’s confession supplied new ammunition to the Republican press; to the end of his life Hamilton was portrayed in it as a lecherous intriguer—an admitted adulterer—and a destroyer of female virtue.
What does the episode say about Hamilton? On the one hand, it reveals a serious weakness; yes, he was the victim of a well–planned scam, but he was a willing victim, and he recklessly continued the affair long after the blackmail began. Where Hamilton drew the line was when he was asked to use his office to cover up the affair, first by finding Reynolds a job in the Treasury Department, later by using his connections to get him out of jail. He refused these demands even though he had to know that his refusals would lead to Reynolds’ exposure of the affair. And when the public exposure came, what bothered Hamilton most was not the charge of being an adulterer and a fool. What really bothered him, what horrified him, was the thought that people could suspect him of using his office for private gain. He could have ignored Callender’s charges, or he could have said, "Well, what can you expect from a libeller like Callender?" (which is what Jefferson had his friends say about the Sally Hemings revelations). He could have simply let it alone; the whole business was long over and no one was subpoenaing his testimony. People would soon forget. Why pick at old scabs?
But no, against the advice of his friends, to the mortification of his wife, to the glee of all his enemies, he shouted to the nation that he had betrayed his marriage. He shouted it to refute the charge that he could ever betray his nation.
George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy.