Friday, November 28, 2008
Our book today is Robert Hendrickson's massive two-volume biography Alexander Hamilton, the best work on the most remarkable Founding Father of them all. There've been many, many Hamilton biographies in the two centuries since he became fair game, and many of those biographies have been superb - Ron Chernow's recent book on Hamilton comes to mind and is very, very good.
But nothing written about Hamilton really comes close to the epic reach, the effortless command of infinite detail, and most of all the sharp writing ability of Hendrickson's 1976 work. The two volumes are immensely heavy, densely packed even in their slightly oversized dimensions - they're out of print, and they're likely to remain that way forever, and that's a shame.
Hendrickson was himself a war veteran (wounded twice in World War II), like Hamilton, and he was also a veteran of New York politics, also like Hamilton, and something of these resonances informs Hendrickson's mind-bogglingly thorough crawl through the vast heap of record available on Hamilton's life and time. Given the sheer scope of this work, it's amazing that the narrative always manages to stay vital and even gripping.
Hamilton's story is as problematic in historical retrospect today as it was in the living, two hundred years ago. He was born in the British West Indies, a total outsider to the internecine war brewing in the American colonies, and he came to fight for those colonies not out of any deep-seated philosophical urge (much less simple patriotism) but at first for the prospect of actual physical glory and then later out of loving loyalty to George Washington.
And when the fighting was over and that most unlikely thing, independence, had been won on the battlefield, Hamilton focussed with typical energy on the hydra-headed problems of keeping that independence and making it grow and adapt. It can be fairly said that immediately after the United States won their freedom from Great Britain, an unspoken murmur went up and down the Eastern seacoast: now what? Fewer men than you'd think actually had an answer to that question.
Hamilton saw it the clearest, although the clarity of this thoughts made them bitter medicine at the time - and maybe still. He saw the disjointed, squabbling federation of independent duchies that constituted the United States in the wake of Yorktown, and he knew what needed to be done to weld them into a truly unified organism that could live and adapt and thrive. Hamilton himself, more than any other Founding Father, knew the value of adapting to survive, and his vision of a strong centralized federal government ruling the individual statehoods lost him some friendships (never a small thing to a man who valued friendship as deeply as he did).
Hendrickson is a magnificent biographer, not least because he restrains himself from pushing a political agenda of his own (he most certainly had such agendas, but he was from a proper Thucydidean school of magisterial remove, and his book is all the stronger for it). Hamilton is very often ideologically manhandled by modern-day historical writers, but Hendrickson is content simply to tell his subject's story - in huge amounts of detail that he manages to keep entirely engrossing throughout.
He starts in the least promising of places: Hamilton's house in Harlem, the Grange, at 267 Convent Ave. - a seedy and violently depressed area of New York real estate in 1976 (much changed today, by recent reliable accounts, and all of it changed from the heart-soothing view of natural grandeur that made Hamilton pick the spot in the first place). "It is well to have the number firmly in mind," Hendrickson writes, "because all routes and approaches to it are singularly barren of directional arrows, enscrolled plaques, trail blazes, or other indicia of landmark significance." But as you're making your way past the thieves and pimps and drug addicts, you abruptly reach your destination:
Suddenly there he is!
On a granite pedestal near the stunted flagpole is the grimy bronze statue of a man in greatcoat and knee pants who seems to be striding purposefully westward toward the river. His back is to the muddy little weed patch of yard in front of a foursquare frame house set back about 25 feet from the sidewalk building line. His head is turned slightly southward, and his eyes look across the river past the Weehawken palisades toward the continental empire beyond. His distant view is completely shut out now by a row of brownstone tenements across the street.
When he was still basically a fiercely intense, beautiful, red-haired boy, Hamilton became a star of Washington's beleaguered Continental Army, eventually becoming the general's closest aide. Hendrickson's extensive military background really shows when he writes of the Revolution's battles and alarms (one wishes he'd written a military history of the war). He shows an insider's hard-won expertise:
At this desperate hour of the American Revolution, nothing really remained of it but the courage and resolve of George Washington and the little band of officers and men like Hamilton and his company who remained faithful through the long, bitter marches, retreating with him. Cornwallis and his army could cover a good 20 miles in a single day. In pursuit, the miles are shorter than in retreat. When the Americans flung themselves down to rest at night after fleeing only the same distance that Cornwallis had pursued them, the Continental Army was twice as weary and spent.
Hendrickson's story is full of main and secondary characters, for he excavates every corner of Hamilton's life (Gouverneur Morris, as usual, gets all the best quips), the successes, the failures, the public and private scandals, the point-by-point creation of all the famous writings and opinions. But Hendrickson's main focus never turns far from Hamilton and the crucial role he played in the formation of a new nation. Hamilton was the foremost architect of the Constitution of that new nation, and Hendrickson pauses mid-point in his story to dwell on that for a moment:
There is nothing especially unique about a written constitution. In itself it is nothing more than a skeletal outline of old ideas. Since 1787 innumerable fine-sounding constitutions have been composed; Soviet Russia has a find-sounding one. When the Constitutional Convention adjourned that September 17, 1787, there was a Holy Roman Emperor; Venice was a republic; France was ruled by a king; China, by an emperor; Japan, by a shogun; Russia, by a czar. Great Britain was a monarchy tempered by the barest beginnings of democracy, in which less than 2 percent of the population enjoyed voting representation. All these proud regimes - and scores of others - have passed into history. Among the leading nations of the world, the only government that stands essentially unchanged is the Federal Union put together in 1787 by thirteen states on the East Coast of North America. It has survived foreign wars, a civil war, panics, depressions and recessions, Teapot Dome, Bobby Baker, Watergate, impeachment, and pardons.
Hendrickson's underlying thesis is that "the unique strength, character, and freedom of the nation that has lived under this one momentous Constitution owes more to Hamilton for what it is, as we see it plain after almost 200 years, than it does to any other man, of his own time or since ...
Of course Hendrickson's two-volume biography comes to the same final destination as even the shortest pamphlet on Hamilton must: a wooded ledge at what is now Weehawken, on the west bank of the Hudson, where Hamilton fought a duel with reprobate and scoundrel Aaron Burr. This ending of Hamilton's life is more famous than anything in the living of it, and Hendrickson does his duty to the end, carefully examining the many controversies and conspiracy theories that have sprung up about who fired when, and why, and where. But the end result is the same: Burr was unhurt and fled, and Hamilton was shot in the torso and lay propped up in his second's arms when the doctor hurried over. "This is a mortal wound, doctor," Hamilton told him.
He was right about that too.