Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Summary
  1. The life and work of Alexander Hamilton told in a way that only the masterful Chernow can do. An incredible, multidimensional view on the influential and controversial Founding Father
Key Takeaways
  1. Hamilton’s influence is hard to understate. He took over a bankrupt country and turned it into a country with a credit rating as high as any European nation, turned the presidential role into an active policy maker instead of a passive one, wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers, helped set the foundation for a liberal democracy, founded the central bank, rolled the state’s debt after the war into the federal government and much more. He was given a blank slate and can be considered the father of the American government. Hamilton, although the most influential policy maker in American history, never gained even a single presidential vote. He was a moral absolutist, bad at compromise, had little sympathy for the every day voter – overall, not a great politician
  2. Hamilton was shot by VP Adam Burr in a duel when he was only 49 years old
  3. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler, was from a powerful and wealthy NY/Dutch family. She outlived him by more than 50 years and was devoted to preserving his image from opponents such as Jefferson, Adams, Madison and others and from the country’s first major political sex scandal
  4. Few figures illicit more love or hate than Hamilton. He was demonized as a monarchist by opponents because of his desire to make states subordinate to a strong central government. He believed that the state’s sovereignty made the nation inherently weaker. He was extremely hard working, self motivated, intelligent, confident, insecure about his humble and immigrant beginnings and a visionary on many fronts
  5. Hamilton is perhaps the most influential political figure who never was president and he had yet a deeper impact than many who did. No other politician had such a grand yet accurate vision of America’s future and the mechanisms necessary to bind the nation together
  6. Hamilton came from a very modest background and rose up to the zenith of politics in the late 1700s, only behind George Washington himself. He was often the center or catalyst of uproars around race, class, geography and more. Hamilton was very ashamed of his childhood and upbringing (in the West Indies) and refused to discuss it. His mother had to flee the island in order to escape from a difficult and abusive marriage. His mother later met his father but were never married and this tinged Hamilton’s life in many ways. Hamilton was born in 1755 (debated)
  7. From a young age Hamilton was a prodigious poet and essayist and it brought him fame and an eventual scholarship to America after one of his poems received great acclaim
  8. Hamilton quickly progressed up the social and educational ladder when he reached America due to his self confidence, incredible work ethic and newly found connections (William Livingston, Lord Sterling and Elias Boudinot especially). These mentors influenced Hamilton’s political stances, notably his desire for social change but not revolution. And, at least for a time, leaned toward monarchism
  9. Hamilton ended up at King’s College (later Columbia) which provided an ideal education and environment for the future Treasury Secretary
  10. Hamilton was influenced as a youth by Hume’s dark take on human nature. Government must not try to stop man’s selfish actions but harness them for the common good
  11. Hamilton was a stickler for meritocracy and when he was a leader in the army, he treated all men fairly and was known as a tough but just leader who commanded one of the best trained units in the whole army. He quickly gained a reputation as a boy genius and would eventually become Washington’s aide de camp. The relationship between these two men was so important America’s early history that it’s hard to imagine the country without them. They were an excellent team and far more than the sum of their parts. There are rumors that Hamilton was Washington’s surrogate son but the author does not believe this is the case. Hamilton used and developed his excellent writing skills and over time became Washington’s alter ego to the point that he could not be replaced. However, one of the Revolution’s most important and influential partnerships ended towards the end of the war due to conflicts in personality and Washington not allowing Hamilton to move on, get field action or get promoted. They eventually reconciled and worked again very closely
  12. Hamilton was born without a family name or honor and therefore went to drastic measures to protect his reputation and engaged in many duels
  13. Hamilton was a financial savant and quickly grasped many financial intricacies. He realized that military and financial strength are deeply intertwined and this influenced him his whole life (American Revolution was causing severe inflation and he constantly thought about how to remedy it)
  14. Hamilton developed nearly all his political, economic, financial and other beliefs by his mid 20s. He was one of the first to realize they could beat Britain more by reducing their creditors belief in them than an outright win on the battlefield
  15. Hamilton eventually got field action and performed very bravely at Yorktown and gained legendary status which would help him a lot politically post war
  16. After the war, amongst other things, Hamilton practiced law and was very successful. Him and Aaron Burr had a friendly but competitive relationship at their law firm
  17. Hamilton had incredible vision for what America could be as a country and understood the big picture. He knew that how they acted at that time and the laws passed would reverberate through history. He opted to take a lenient stance against Tories and Loyalists as this would show the new country’s mercy and desire for a lawful and just system of government. All mankind had its eyes on this republic experiment
  18. Hamilton established the Bank of New York and wrote up its charter which was used as a model for most new banks and served as the rudiments for the American banking system. One of the main goals was the stabilize and normalize the currency
  19. Hamilton had accomplished so much in so little time that by age 30 he was already part of America’s pontifical and financial elite
  20. Hamilton was staunchly anti-slavery and had the enlightened view for the time that blacks and whites were equal in all respects
  21. Hamilton was always very optimistic on the future of America but was pessimistic on the ability of typical Americans
  22. Nobody did more than Hamilton to bring life into the constitution and make it the working mandate of the country. The new Constitution created great uproar and divided most people between the Federalist and the anti-Federalist
  23. Hamilton organized and did a vast majority of the work and writing of the Federalist papers along with James Madison. The Federalist Papers are the best defense of the constitution ever written
  24. The constitution was ratified by an extremely narrow vote. Having Washington as the first president was absolutely crucial to tie the nation together at this difficult time. He would embody the ideals of this new country and system of government
  25. Washington named Hamilton as Treasury Secretary and Hamilton happily accepted, believing this was the role where he could do the most good. He had been reading up on economic policy for years before he was selected to the post. Hamilton used England, France and several other countries to help design and build out the American financial system and its policies. Hamilton recognized and implemented things like public credit and bonds to help bolster the government and its ability to build and grow. He wanted to use British techniques to beat Britain economically and reduce their reliance on foreign countries. Hamilton believed a well funded debt would help promote and secure a prosperous America. Washington and Hamilton made an incredible team and that they had very different personalities, strengths and weaknesses
  26. In every obstacle Hamilton tackled he is one of histories most incredible combinations of a thinker and a doer
  27. Hamilton appointed Dewer as assistant Secretary of the Treasury and this alliance severely hurt Hamilton as Dewer was corrupt, unethical and a gambler / market speculator
  28. Hamilton made the controversial decision to allow people to fully profit or lose on their securities trading although this would hurt people who had supported the US by buying bonds and later sold them to speculators at a loss. This set the precedent for securities trading in America and the fact that the people buying/selling took the risk and the loss/gain that comes with that
  29. Decided to roll up the national and state debt after the war into one like, Federal debt. This had pervasive repercussions as it made things more efficient, would shift allegiance to central government, states would not want to compete with central government for major revenue sources
  30. Due to Hamilton’s modest upbringing and the fact that he had to fight for everything he got led him to be extremely touchy and protective of his reputation. His volatile emotions plus this need to protect his reputation nearly lead to a duel of honor with a southern judge who accused him of being a liar. This was a telling and prescient event that would unfold later with Aaron Burr
  31. Jefferson was reluctant but eventually joined and supported the new government. Jefferson was extremely talented and hard-working in numerous different fields and became the populist’s spokesperson. Jefferson, like most people, had contradictory characteristics. He believed in the good of the common man but himself was a hedonist who loved the finer things in life. This dichotomy would help lead to the eventual rift which occurred between Hamilton and Jefferson
  32. The temporary and permanent sites of the capital were hotly contested issues but eventually the delayed agreed that Philadelphia would be the temporary site for 10 years and then an area on the Potomac (later to be known as Washington DC) would be the permanent site
  33. The concept of the federal government assuming state debts was a matter of huge contention and this along with the passing of Hamilton’s other reforms created an opposition party known as the Democratic-Republicans which would be center of American political struggles for decades. Hamilton created a strong central government by taking away a lot of the states’ powers but was spot on in advocating for a government which would embrace and foster the self-improvement and entrepreneurial spirit which America would become known for
  34. Hamilton spent an incredible amount of time focusing on customs as more than 90% of government revenue came from imports during this time. Good trade relations with Britain was absolutely vital to the financial and economic success of America at this point. To shore up public credit the country needed a second stream of income. Due to the population’s ingrained anathema to taxes, Hamilton decided to take the unpopular but necessary decision to tax liquor (eventually leading to the Whiskey Rebellion)
  35. Of all his reforms and programs, his advocation for a central bank raised the most constitutional questions. Jefferson, Madison and Adams were staunchly against Hamilton’s reforms but luckily they were not successful in stopping him as their fiscal beliefs were outdated and would have stifled America’s economy
  36. Hamilton took and fought for a liberal view of the constitution where the federal government could take appropriate action and not only vital action (strong central government, Federalist). This gave the government far reaching powers and has been influential since that day
  37. Hamilton had an affair with Maria Reynolds which became public knowledge and tarnished his reputation. Maria’s husband extorted Hamilton for money often. Hamilton’s indiscretion may not have been found out of Reynolds he not been arrested and tried to use his connection to Hamilton to be let free.
  38. Hamilton was aggressive in trying to replicate British manufacturing technology in order to help catapult the American economy from relying on agriculture to manufacturing
  39. The rivalry and feud between Jefferson and Hamilton reached great heights in the 1790s and shaped much of American politics and government policies at that time. Hamilton and Madison also butted heads often but not as frequently or ruthlessly as Jefferson and Hamilton. At this time, political parties were not established and the Founding Fathers wanted to be rid of them. Therefore, most politicians hid their partisan beliefs and colluding was kept secret at this point
  40. Burr and Hamilton butted heads because Hamilton thought of Burr as not having any principles whatsoever. He would do whatever was popular in order to gain power
  41. The French Revolution was a much followed and important topic in American politics. Jeffersonians were for it and believed the violent means were necessary to protect the free world where Hamiltonians were against it
  42. An excise tax on liquor caused the Whiskey Rebellion in West Virginia which ultimately forced Hamilton, Washington and the government to respond with military force. The widespread unpopularity of this tax helped get Jefferson elected as president several years later
  43. Hamilton resigned from his Treasury Secretary post with very little money to his name.
  44. The Jay Treaty caused an uproar and many Jeffersonians called for war with Britain over it. Hamilton took up the debate but exposed himself to debates with violent crowds
  45. Washington set the precedent and stepped down as president after two terms. John Adams was elected president and Jefferson received the second most votes and became VP. Adams completely cut out Hamilton from all his dealings which was devastating to Hamilton and ultimately to Adams himself and the Federalist Party as a whole
  46. Adams was a vain, paranoid man who grew up with a modest background. He didn’t have the social ease of Franklin and constantly worried about his place in history. Adams was not the defacto party head and often fell between the Republicans and Federalists
  47. Hamilton’s adultery with Reynolds was eventually outed and he decided to confess with extreme detail and while he was suspected of having many more affairs and was the most controversial figure of his time, there is little proof of other affairs (i.e., sleeping with his wife’s sister Angelica). James Monroe took a very adversarial stance and Hamilton and his wife Eliza would never forgive him for it
  48. Tensions with France reached a fever pitch due to the Jay Treaty, rise of Napoleon and the spread of revolution in France. Jefferson went behind Adams’ back and urged France to delay talks with Americans. An unofficial war with France was soon underway after the XYZ Letters were released. Hamilton was given a high post in the army to prepare for a potential war with France and while he trained his men well and he an encyclopedic knowledge of military practices, he made many poor decisions without Washington’s guidance
  49. Burr, normally very anti-bank, passed a bill for the Manhattan Company, a water company which in fact had loopholes so that it was in all but name a bank which would compete with Hamilton’s Bank of NY and national bank branch. This very much hurt Burr’s and the Republican’s reputation
  50. The feud between Adams and Hamilton got so nasty that Hamilton said he’d prefer Jefferson as president because it is better to have an honest enemy than a dishonest friend. Hamilton published an essay trying to show Adam’s deficiencies and ruin his political career. It was one of Hamilton’s biggest mistakes and he ended up ruining his own political career and helping Jefferson, Burr and the Republicans win the presidential nomination and the ultimate demise of the Federalist party. The Federalists also struggled by not appealing to the average voter and being seen as elitist. However, America owes the federalists a debt of gratitude as they helped establish America’s foundation – tax system, coast guard, central bank, funded debt, high credit rating and more
  51. Burr almost gained the presidency over Jefferson but Hamilton fought hard against Burr though he still very much disliked Jefferson. Burr’s push for presidency put him in political limbo forever after
  52. Hamilton’s oldest son Philip died in a duel when he was only 20 which left Hamilton and his wife extremely distraught
  53. Jefferson exercised a great act of executive power with the Louisiana Purchase. This new western frontier was mainly republican and every state that joined up to 1845 was a slave state which helped keep the republicans in power
  54. Burr was a sneaky politician with few principles and was accused every sin imaginable. His dislike for Hamilton was bubbling to the surface after years of Hamilton denouncing Burr and his scruples
  55. Some have hypothesized that Hamilton entered the duel with intentions of suicide as he was very depressed at this point in his life but the author disagrees. He contemplated not shooting at all and let Burr contemplate taking a second shot but felt like he had to show up to protect his honor. The man who organized the nation’s finances left his own family in massive debt at his death. Burr was in heavy debt too. Hamilton missed widely as planned but Burr shot to kill and managed a mortal shot. NY had lost its greatest citizen and the city shut down to mourn one of the country’s most important founders. Burr was indicted for murder and flew south for a while but he was safe in DC and still presided over the senate. Once he was no longer VP, he was immediately a political and social pariah
  56. Eliza outlived Hamilton by 50 years and deeply mourned his loss. She established an orphanage in his honor and finally received some recognition for her husband’s greatness under president Fillmore
What I got out of it
  1. Amazing how much Hamilton was able to accomplish (central bank, funding of debt, high credit for US, Federalist papers, Secretary of the Treasury and much more in such a short life!). His youthful insecurity of coming from a modest background with little money or honor behind his name spurred his ambition and his deep need to protect his new honor at whatever cost – eventually leading to his dual and death with Aaron Burr