Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Man On The Ten-Dollar Bill

Greek dramatists believed that every protagonist has a tragic flaw, usually a fatal pride or hubris. Ron Chernow illustrates this in his biography of America’s most brilliant founder, Alexander Hamilton. Were it not for a tragic personal pride and ambition which would not allow him to back down from a useless challenge, Hamilton might have lived to provide many more years of insight and wisdom to a government still in a state of rapid change.

More than any but Franklin, Hamilton was the self-made man of the Constitutional era. He was born illegitimate on a West Indian island and never truly put it behind him; the experience of poverty and prejudice gave him a drive and the ability to educate himself on any matter of importance, whether clerking a mercantile business as a teen-ager or creating a national bank as treasury secretary. Throughout his life, Hamilton honestly did become "the smartest man in the room" — even Thomas Jefferson hesitated to engage him in debate — and he did it by close application, attention to details, and hours and hours of dedicated study.

As a member of the first administration, Hamilton was possibly the strongest force shaping the precedents that were established. Chernow quotes that if Washington was the father of his country, Hamilton was the father of its government, from his leadership in The Federalist Papers and the fight for constitutional ratification, on to his role as the first treasury secretary. His audacious, interlocking programs converted the ruined finances of the Confederation into a manageable federal debt, a customs service, and a national bank. His expansive view of "good" debt and federal authority, though, made him an easy target for political opponents as national politics began to polarize into Federalist and Republican factions.

His personal life provided more fuel for propagandists, though in fact, Hamilton was completely upright as a Cabinet official, and even in the midst of an adulterous affair and a subsequent blackmail scandal, he never lost his deep affection for his quiet, devout wife Eliza. Always jealous of his public reputation, he initiated the steps to a duel at least seven times, including a challenge to James Monroe over disclosure of the extramarital affair. Still, Hamilton began to rethink the code duello in his middle age; it is one of a train of ironies that he still allowed himself to be drawn into the final confrontation with Vice President Aaron Burr.

Hamilton was a remarkable man; gifted with a blinding intellect, eloquence, and a generous spirit, he also possessed traits that could -- and did -- drive him to achievement or destruction. Even in view of his tremendous contributions to our Republic, Alexander Hamilton could be held up as both good and bad example for succeeding generations. He was just like all of us -- just more so.

The full review of Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton appears in the May 2006 issue of Carolina Journal, online here


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