CHERNOW'S HAMILTON

I like Alexander Hamilton, and so does Ron Chernow, whose cinder-block-sized biography of the financial genius was a non-fiction best-seller this summer. The trouble is, I don't like Chernow's book.

Hamilton was brilliant and tireless, and much of what is brilliant and enduring in our nation — from the Constitution to the financial system itself — owes its origins to him. He loved his country with an unglamored love: He knew the elites were best persuaded to do public good by appeals to their self interest, and he knew an unruly populace needed guide-rails on its power. He helped insure that this awareness was woven into the Constitution.

Historians become historians, in some cases, because they're more comfortable with documents and numbers than with people. When they turn to biography, they sometimes carve shortcuts through modern psychology that even Dr. Phil would find shallow.

For instance, writing of Hamilton's wife, Chernow says, "Eliza was either pregnant or consumed with child rearing throughout their marriage, which may have encouraged Hamilton's womanizing."

Eight children in 20 years was typical of a late 18th century family (and of an Amish one in more recent times); if it "encouraged" Hamilton's womanizing, it ought to have encouraged a general orgy of colonial bed-hopping. Yet a great many men who had large families did not philander. So we're back to where we began, except for an acquired mistrust of Chernow's easy assumptions and apologetics.

Chernow's summation of Hamilton's attitude toward slavery suffers from the same superficiality. "The early exposure to the humanity of the slaves may have made a lasting impression on Hamilton," Chernow writes, "who would be conspicuous among the founding fathers for his fierce abolitionism."

The final word there ought to run up a red flag. "Abolitionist" wasn't even used in the anti-slavery sense until the 1830s, a generation after Hamilton was dead (in his lifetime it refered only to the slave trade). Yet Chernow uses it repeatedly.

According to this view, Hamilton saw slavery first-hand in the Caribbean where he grew up and where his family owned slaves, and this instilled in him a horror of human bondage. Yet Madison and Jefferson, too, as Chernow writes, grew up "against an incongruous background of black hands stooping in the fields." And they are counted among Hamilton's opponents on the issue of slavery. So, once again, the image is insufficient to explain the story.

Chernow's "stooping" (cotton-picking?) slaves are out of place for 18th century Virginia's diverse agricultural system, and are more suited to the huge Deep South plantations of the Civil War era. Modern historians have failed to study colonial slavery, and it shows.

This is exemplified by Chernow's wrong statement that "slavery itself had expanded in tandem with" the Revolution. In fact, the war dealt slavery a heavy blow. Five years of back-and-forth fighting, with both sides competing for the loyalty of slaves, severely reduced slave populations in many states. In Connecticut, one of the major slaveholding states of the north, the black population fell by better than 16 percent from 1774 to 1790. When the British and the American Loyalists pulled out of New York at the end of the war, some 3,000 blacks left with them. Slavery in America in 1790 was as weak as it had ever been, or would be again until 1865.

Yet Hamilton's "abolitionism" is a central theme in the book. "It is hard to grasp Hamilton's later politics," Chernow writes, without contemplating the "raw cruelty" of slavery he witnessed as a boy.

The emphasis on Caribbean slavery and its impact on Hamilton, misplaced or not, is hardly surprising. Hamilton has had many excellent biographers before. To justify a new entry on the Hamilton shelf, Chernow had to somehow expand the interpretation of the man.

Seeking new ground, Chernow did extensive research in the Caribbean. This had been the least-explored period of the man's life, so Chernow naturally turned there. And just as naturally, he looked for links from that to the modern-day thesis that Hamilton was motivated in large part by "abolitionism." Yet the strain here is as obvious as the bid to contain the man in a word that didn't exist in his time.

Hamilton was a voluminous, and often embarrassingly confessional, writer. Some 22,000 pages of his works have been published so far; a pile that daunts even a dedicated historian like Chernow, who writes at one point that Hamilton "must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years."

You'd think, then, that Chernow would be embarrassed by the fact that Hamilton never makes the connection that Chernow takes as a central tenet: he make no reference to any impact of exposure to West Indian slavery on his later political positions.

But the "abolitionist" Hamilton is a creation that Chernow inherited, and he is unwilling to help dismantle it. The current generation of academic U.S. historians, raised in the Sixties, have busily been rubbishing Southerners generally, slave-owners especially and Thomas Jefferson particularly. It seems they've found themselves with a national narrative wanting a hero.

Hamilton, like many founders, had scruples about slavery. Unlike most of them, he avoided being personally involved in it, either through financing slave-trading voyages or owning slaves himself.

Thus the rehabilitation of Alexander Hamilton. Old CW: Hamilton=silk-stocking snob and closet royalist. New CW: Hamilton=The One Who Didn't Have Slaves.

Jefferson is the arch-villain in any Hamilton story, but in this one the third president is never allowed to stray far from the image of his "stooping" slaves, the better to dismiss, without argument, Jefferson's populism and democratic liberalism. Chernow actually blasts Jefferson for spending his own money on books in Paris -- books carefully selected and which he would later donate to the nation as the Library of Congress -- because it "betrayed a cavalier disregard" for the slaves whose labor supported him.

Anyone who knows the Hamilton story knows right where to turn at this point to see whether Chernow is making a serious case that Hamilton was a man of honor while Jefferson and Madison were racist brutes, or whether he's blowing smoke.

Hamilton's 1791 "Report on Manufactures" is one of the most important documents in early U.S. history. In it, the Treasury Secretary outlines and explains in detail America's future as a great manufacturing nation. Along the way, he praises the British factory system — specifically for its employment of women and young children. "It is worthy of particular remark that, in general women and children are rendered more useful, and the latter more early useful, by manufacturing establishments than they would otherwise be."

Just after praising Hamilton for using the word "diversity," which will "please modern ears," Chernow faces the unpleasant task of explaining this passage. Hamilton notes approvingly that in British textile mills, the women and children form more than half the work force, "of whom the greatest proportion are children and many of them of a very tender age."

Yet Chernow will overlook all this, and continue his lionization of Hamilton, because, you see, child labor was "commonplace" in those days, and Hamilton naturally did not see it as exploitation — because he had grown up with it in the West Indies.


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© September 29, 2004 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"