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Hamilton: a flawed portrait

Chernow supposes too much and verifies too little

Alexander Hamilton

By Ron Chernow

Penguin, 818 pp., illustrated, $35

A novelist would have to strain to invent Alexander Hamilton's life.

An illegitimate orphan of 18 when he emigrated from the Caribbean to New York City on the eve of the Revolution with a meager scholarship, he attended a classical academy in New Jersey but was rejected from what would become Princeton when he insisted on the fast track.

Matriculating in premed at what is now Columbia, the future first secretary of the Treasury, inventor of the modern corporation, and founder of the Bank of New York and virtually our entire financial system flunked math. When revolution came, he turned his literary discussion club into an artillery company. With stolen British cannon, he guarded George Washington's rear as winter soldiers fled across New Jersey.

A staff colonel at 21, he became Washington's most trusted aide, running hundreds of spies, handling prisoner exchanges, and leading the charge at the final victory at Yorktown. Emerging a war hero, Hamilton crawled though a loophole that let him pass the New York bar examination in months, not years. When he couldn't find a book on court procedure, he wrote one.

The infant United States was born deep in debt. Its leading financier, Robert Morris, told President Washington that young Hamilton was the only man who could prevent the republic's imminent collapse. More than anyone else, Hamilton, as major co-author of ''The Federalist Papers," assured the ratification of a permanent constitution. Then he turned the nation's debts into its assets. Appointed Treasury secretary on 9-11-1789, he laid out the underpinnings of the nation's economic future in only 120 days in four brilliant ''Reports" to Congress.

Yet Hamilton's own financial and personal affairs were nearly always in shambles. In the new nation's first sex scandal, he faced a Hobson's choice of revealing in print his amours with the promiscuous wife of a Treasury aide or facing a congressional inquiry for commingling Treasury funds with stock proceeds from his own bank.

Hamilton's wife, Betsy Schuyler, learned about this particular affair in the press, but she may never have grasped fully that her own sister was also Hamilton's mistress on and off for 15 years. Then as now, a reputation as a philanderer cost a talented young man any chance for the presidency.

Yet even the faintest outlines of the life of this founding financial father are little known to most Americans except in caricature on the $10 bill. His death in a duel with Aaron Burr is better known than his life.

He was far more famous a century ago. His life was lauded by Henry Cabot Lodge in his 1882 biography. Hamilton's reputation, and most scholarship into his life, died in the 1930s after presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt blamed him for creating Wall Street and held him responsible for the Great Depression. Up onto his vacated pedestal in the Founders' pantheon went Thomas Jefferson, deified when FDR dedicated the Jefferson Memorial in 1943. Since then, there have been only a handful of Hamilton biographies.

Now, Jefferson, Madison, even Washington are being toppled for slave owning. Hamilton, who helped found one of the first abolition societies, seems the perfect replacement.

Hamilton's life needs no embroidery. It also has been thoroughly documented by the Hamilton Papers project at Columbia. Ample material was available for Ron Chernow, author of massive volumes on the Morgan dynasty and John D. Rockefeller, to compress into this 818-page tome, the longest Hamilton biography since Rutgers economist Broadus Mitchell's 1957 two-volume work.

To call Chernow's ''Hamilton" compendious is understatement. Every place Hamilton, his parents, or his wife visited over a century's time is described at length; everyone he met merits at least a minor biographical digression. The result is exhausting.

Chernow devotes much more space to Hamilton's wife and family than previous biographers. His wife outlived him by 50 years. She did much for widows and orphans but, after Hamilton's death, she destroyed any of his controversial correspondence she could find, including her own letters to him. She rebuffed all biographers, leaving the task to her son, the extremely partisan John Church Hamilton. He put it, and her, off until her death. One result is that much of what he wrote is uncorroborated, as all the other witnesses had long since died.

Unfortunately, Chernow, in his first foray into the 18th century, leans too heavily on this and other outdated antiquarian sources as a substitute for deep archival research. Not at all at home in the foreign country of that century, despite the fact that he traveled widely in Hamilton's and his family's footsteps, he depends too much on the kind of history served up by amateur old-house historians and innkeepers. As a result, his account of Hamilton's early life in the Caribbean, for example, blurs centuries and reads like an old-fashioned Errol Flynn-style bodice ripper.

A deeper problem is one of proof. Chernow all too frequently uses speculative constructions such as ''must have," ''it seems," ''one can hazard an educated guess." There are limits to the degree of supposition in history and biography that are stricter than those in historical fiction. It is a line Chernow crosses, imagining more than he can prove.

Bending to the more sensational story, Chernow demolishes Hamilton's mother, turning her into a floozie. He depends on the unchallenged and uncorroborated accusations of her first husband's divorce papers. He depicts Rachel Faucette Lavien Hamilton, daughter of a wealthy and respected Huguenot planter and physician, as the sleep-around daughter of a seamstress.

What little can be proven about Rachel appears in Danish court records translated into English a century ago. Most of all, she was luckless. Teenage bride of a much older, debt-ridden Danish Jewish merchant-planter who squandered her dowry and then had her locked up for refusing to sleep with him, she fled to her wealthy family's estate, where she met young James Hamilton, son of a rich Scottish laird.

Among Chernow's blind spots on the 18th century is the law of primogeniture, by which only the first born usually inherited. Fourth son James Hamilton had to learn a trade in the Glasgow linen business, in which his family was heavily invested, then immigrate to the Caribbean just in time for the linen trade there to collapse. Social slippage was the fate of many aristocrats who could only cling to aristocratic pretensions as they condescended to work as traders and plantation managers.

Also common were common-law marriages. Living together for a decade, James and Rachel Hamilton signed themselves ''Mr. and Mrs." when standing up for others in Anglican church services. Happy if not rich with two sons of their own, they were horrified to learn that, after 12 years' separation, Rachel's first husband had filed for divorce, never serving her papers.

Under Danish law, he could divorce her; under English law she couldn't divorce him. Under Danish law, he could remarry; under Danish law, she couldn't. James Hamilton, a gentleman, sailed away, sparing his wife a felony charge of bigamy. For the rest of his life, Alexander Hamilton was considered a bastard.

The factual details of Hamilton's origins are important only because of John Adams's durable calumny that Hamilton, his bitterest political rival, was ''the bastard brat of a Scots peddler." Little could be farther from the historical record -- which is fascinating enough.

Not satisfied with modern scholarship, Chernow prefers to fall back on a century-old canard and posit an alternate father for Hamilton: Edward Stevens, the family friend who took in the youth at 13, when his mother died. What is Chernow's proof? He turns the clock back to Henry Cabot Lodge's 1882 retelling of a West Indian myth that Hamilton was the son of a ''rich West Indian planter or merchant, generally supposed to have been Mr. Stevens."

Chernow brushes aside the evidence gathered and sifted by the editors of Hamilton's papers at Columbia, which is based on sworn Danish probate court testimony by Hamilton's uncle and guardian. At the same time, he claims that no other biographer has ever thoroughly mined these papers.

To buttress his assertion that Rachel Hamilton was a ''notorious woman," he writes that she was denied burial in an Anglican churchyard as sanction for her sinful life. He seems unaware that Anglican churchyards overseas were customarily reserved for clergy and strangers, especially when Rachel could be buried in her own family's plot under her favorite tree with an Anglican priest reading the prayers.

The greatest strength Chernow brings to this book is his solid background in financial history. But even here he oddly fails to explain the trading network of great mercantile families, like the Beekmans, between New York and island outposts that provided Hamilton the training as an apprentice, the contacts and experience with money and smuggling so vital to him as founder of the Treasury and its customs service, and the scholarship that brought him to America.

And while the literate Chernow still excels as an old-time, armchair raconteur, providing many enjoyable asides for the history buff, his first foray into the 18th century has to be deemed a misadventure. Most amazingly, it allows him to walk away misjudging the classic prose of Hamilton's ''Federalist Papers." By Chernow's own literary standards, Hamilton was ''prolix." Chernow should only hope his work lives so long or makes such a difference.

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