Friday, September 08, 2006

Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton

I finished listening to Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and loved it (this is what I often do when driving alone). I had known very little about his personal background before. The book is beautifully written, and the narrator—Grover Gardner--is excellent.

I just kept thinking it was ironic how barbaric, crude, and wasteful (in terms of human life) duels were, even while the participants saw them as the highest manifestation of good breeding and honor. Hamilton’s own son had already been killed in one, and Hamilton used the same guns when Aaron Burr killed him. What a tremendous waste.

The biography is clearly partial to Hamilton, but I think Chernow does a nice job of showing how his weaknesses caused him serious problems. He had both a massive ego and a massive sexual appetite, and at one point was blackmailed by the husband of a mistress. He was capable of amazing amounts of work (writing parts of The Federalist Papers extraordinarily quickly) and incredible ideas, but his drive involved directing insults to others, and landed him many enemies (many years later, his wife was still angry at James Monroe for his role in leaking papers that discussed one of Hamilton’s affairs).

It is also reading about the “founding fathers” (or as Joseph Ellis has put it, the “founding brothers”) that makes me wonder about the many current arguments claiming that today political debate is more polarized than ever. Although we want to lionize the country’s founders, some of them despised each other with a passion, they had surrogates write nasty and untrue articles about each other, they insulted each other constantly and in this case, they even shot at each other. What we see now is pretty tame in comparison.


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