Ron Chernow’s Hamilton is suited to the times, but leaves a lot out

Historians in the News
tags: Alexander Hamilton

Andrew M. Schocket is Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University. He is the author most recently of "Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution."

First, on its own terms. Having penned well-received biographies of Gilded Age tycoons, Chernow aimed to produce a “large-scale, go-for-broke, authoritative text on Hamilton.”[1] Two out of three ain’t bad. Weighing in at 731 pages (exclusive of footnotes), Alexander Hamilton delivers a compelling sense of its subject as an ambitious, dashing, combative, brilliant, tireless striver, a man always on the make who appeared incapable of sustaining having made it. Chernow sifted through Hamilton’s prodigious output, and provides the fullest account of Hamilton we’ve seen, including the best illumination of his Caribbean early years, readable accounts of his various political maneuvers, and a sensitive consideration of his complex marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. It offers perhaps the most extended treatment of Hamilton’s personal relationships.

That said, Alexander Hamilton is far from definitive on the Federalist Papers’ most prolific contributor. Chernow deeply mined Hamilton’s writings, but barely scratched the surface of the prodigious scholarship on the founding era’s politics and culture, and it shows. The resulting close focus fails to give readers a sense of Hamilton’s broader meaning in his time and place. Worse, it enabled Chernow to indulge his own instinct to go to great lengths to elide or defend Hamilton’s mistakes, excesses, and questionable actions in ways that a broader knowledge of the period might have tempered, better serving readers and history. Chernow failed to report on Hamilton’s subtle encouragement of a military coup, seemed not to notice Hamilton’s extremely disdainful view of democracy, and vehemently denied, despite Hamilton’s own assertions, that Hamilton’s financial program was specifically geared toward the wealthy. Chernow also exaggerated Hamilton’s abolitionism, arguing with little basis that his “staunch abolitionism formed an integral part of [Hamilton’s] economic vision,” and greatly oversold Hamilton’s abolitionist activities, for example, strangely touting that in 1788, amid Hamilton’s whirlwind of activity, he “stepped up his involvement in the Manumission Society,” a commitment that even Chernow admitted consisted of attending a single meeting.[2] In sum, Chernow bestowed many strikingly crafted words on Hamilton, but not the last ones.

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