Sunday, October 15, 2006

THE FEDERALIST. Finally finished Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. 700+ pages is a lot of time to spend with anyone, and if Chernow is exhaustive he can also be exhausting, as can his subject.

Little Al was a dynamo, and his energy and intellect clearly awestrike his biographer, who gives us lots of stuff like "Eliza Hamilton remembered the sleepless night when her husband gave immortal expression to a durable piece of constitutional law." The bulk and scope of Hamilton's achievements -- auto-didact, indefatigable pamphleteer, Revolutionary War hero, political activist and intriguer, legal pioneer, most of The Federalist, Bank of New York, Bank of the United States, and oh yeah, the framework for American financial policy which largely persists to this day -- are lilies that hardly need such gilding.

But Chernow slobbers over these. Perhaps in consequence, whenever Hamilton goes clearly off the rails -- the Reynolds affair, the Miranda escapade, "The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq." etc -- Chernow professes astonishment. How could the greatest man in the world make such stupid mistakes? It seems never to have occurred to him -- or he chooses, out of infatuation, not to admit -- that Hamilton was something like a mad genius. His was such a roaring cascade of ideas that some were bound to be indiscriminate, sometimes even insane, and, as even Chernow acknowledges, Hamilton was not one to back off. That's what got him killed.

So enamored is Chernow that he feels it necessary to heap abuse on all who opposed Hamilton: Jefferson ("Dr. Pangloss... Hamilton wasn't the only one who suspected him of cowardice"), Madison ("lacked the charismatic sparkle that made the brashly confident Hamilton a natural leader" -- yet was President for two terms, hm), Monroe ("a plodding speaker and a middling intellect"), and most of all Burr, who is painted as a "supremely cynical" voluptuary, which paint is given a whole Hamilton-posthumous chapter of infernally black lacquer ("William Plumer wasn't the only person who gagged at Burr's incongruous presence in the Senate... this aging roue sampled opium and seduced willing noblewomen and chambermaids with a fine impartiality." Chambermaids! Such very Republican égalité, wot?). Readers not under a spell similar to Chernow's may regard Hamilton's fatal "affair of honor" with Burr -- and Hamilton's persistence, even unto his death agonies, in framing the fault with Burr -- as Wilde regarded the death of Little Nell. And if we have read Vidal -- who gets a slighting mention here -- we may be forgiven for yet feeling that debauched old Aaron played it well and fairly, and was within his rights.

Still, Alexander Hamilton is a good read. Chernow scraped every source and makes it tell. In the heretofore murky matter of Hamiliton's younger days, this book makes it possible to imagine that skinny, intense boy, fired by intellectual passion and ambition, feverishly working in the counting house, reading borrowed books, and cajoling propertied men (the beginning of a lifelong habit) to get out of his poverty, illegitimacy, and nearly savage environment, and into history. Chernow famously visited the ancient prison where Hamilton's mother had been detained, and this seems to have galvanized his sense of mission. We are made to feel both Hamilton's restless energy and his survivor guilt ("What a world of scarred emotion and secret grief Alexander Hamilton bore with him on the boat to Boston") so strongly that it comes back to us all through the book in what breathing spaces Chernow's worshipfulness allows. And it is bracing to see a Founder's reversals as well as his triumphs -- to see Hamilton pelted with stones as well as with garlands -- and humanizing to see him flirt with Angelica Church, suck up to George Washington, and negotiate wary truces with Burr.

I wish, in the vastness of the book, he had allowed us larger portions of Hamilton's prose. I sometimes imagine that Hamilton is the model that makes modern political writers of whatever stripe think they can touch glory by waxing eloquent about the Defense of Marriage Act and other tediosities. But George Fucking Will can scribble through ten lifetimes before he gets close to what Hamilton achieved. Perhaps because of his early deprivations, Hamilton learned to yoke words to ideas right out of the box -- he drafted well in his head, and his mania propelled his reasoning and his eloquence with equal vigor. That explains his follies as well as his masterpieces.

I thank Chernow most heartily for the favor of lingering long over the gloriously incivil newspaper and pamphlet wars of the post-Revolutionary period. The accusations of treason, Jacobinism, atheism, "Angloman"-ism, monarchism, and Caesarism -- like the Journals-Affiche of Revolutionary France, an inspiration to bloggers everywhere. Come, let us slander! The example of our Founders demands it.

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