I’ve spent the last six weeks reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the biography that inspired the Broadway musical Hamilton. I reviewed it at Goodreads, like I do almost every book I read, but that review got pretty long. And since the big deficiency in the book is something about American historiography that really matters to me, I figured I’d reproduce my review here.
So much of this book is a cogent, thorough biography of Alexander Hamilton and his times. At points it can get preemptively defensive, but it’s natural for biographers to have sympathy with their subjects, and besides, Chernow certainly doesn’t shy away from criticizing Hamilton, highlighting his severe lapses in judgement like the Reynolds pamphlet and the John Adams pamphlet. And this extends to other figures, too: he paints pictures of multifaceted individuals with qualities both to admire and admonish. The chapter introducing John Adams, for instance, is probably the best summation I’ve ever read of the second American president, covering both his vanity and ever-growing persecution complex, as well as his unmatched philosophical and rhetorical contribution to the causes of independence and limited government. Even Aaron Burr gets his moment of praise, when he attempts to mediate the feud between Hamilton and James Monroe over the Reynolds affair and Chernow tells us that Burr “was the one upright actor in the whole affair”.
It’s such a shame that all this good work is clouded by instances of bias and even outright disingenuity. The first of these comes with the author’s note before the book’s frontispiece, in which Chernow tells us that in his direct quotations from letters and newspapers, he has modernised eighteenth-century spelling and style for the reader’s comfort. In point of fact, there are literally only two people for whom the original spelling and capitalization are preserved: James and Maria Reynolds, the married couple with whom Hamilton formed a triangle of adultery and blackmail. Coming after four hundred pages of quotations that have been seamlessly sanitized for the modern reader, the sudden reversion to the Reynoldses’ jarring prose style (idiosyncratic and poorly educated even for the 1790s) serves only to make the Reynoldses appear seedier and more ignorant, so that Hamilton—whose actions here, let’s remember, involving cheating on his own wife and then paying his mistress’s husband hush money—can be more comfortably presented as a victim in the matter.
And then there’s Aaron Burr. Eighteenth century politics was a vicious business, full of slanderous and ridiculous personal smears hurled by leaders on both sides at their opponents. When those smears are thrown at Hamilton—that he was Washington’s illegitimate son, that he used his position as Treasury secretary to corruptly enrich himself from the public purse, that he plotted with the British minister to install a younger son of George III as King of the United States—Chernow is genuinely offended and at pains to show how false and preposterous each one is. But when the slanderers’ target is Burr, Chernow reports each one and, by refraining from offering any comment on their illegitimacy, actually insinuates they’re true.
For instance, in two consecutive paragraphs (page 662 in my edition), Chernow details the character assassinations that publisher James Cheetham launched on both men in his newspaper the American Citizen. In the first paragraph, the accusations against Burr are simply repeated verbatim: “he put into operation a most extensive, complicated, and wicked scheme of intrigue to place himself in the presidential chair.” But when Cheetham moves onto Hamilton in the second paragraph, Chernow cannot let a single statement pass without labelling it “far-fetched” or telling us that “the reality of” Alexander Hamilton “did not suit Cheetham’s needs” or that these attacks came because “Cheetham knew little and cared less about” the truth about Hamilton.
Chernow seems to accept Hamilton’s visceral hatred of Burr as proof that Burr deserved such visceral hatred. When he details the prominent New York Federalists who supported Burr in 1804, such as the eminent John Jay or Hamilton’s own brother-in-law Stephen Van Rensselaer, he doesn’t so much demonstrate how chameleonic and untrustworthy Burr was as how unreasonable and obsessive Hamilton’s opposition to him was. An entire chapter is devoted to the election of 1800, with Burr supposedly scheming to rob Jefferson of the presidency, with a single paragraph grudgingly inserted in the middle conceding that “recent scholarship has tended to exonerate Burr from charges that he did anything untoward” and that his letters show that he spent the electoral crisis far more concerned with his love life, the preparations for his only daughter’s wedding and local New York politics. He cites Burr’s involvement with the Holland Land Company’s bribes as evidence of his conniving nature, but omits any mention that it was Hamilton who secured the single biggest bribe the company paid, a quarter of a million dollars to his father-in-law Philip Schuyler’s canal construction company. (Chernow’s Hamilton is always—always—above even a hint of corruption when it comes to public finance.)
He opens his description of the exchanges leading up to the two men’s fatal duel with the sentence, “It is hard to escape the impression that in the early stages of negotiations it was the headstrong Hamilton, not Burr, who was the intransigent party.” But why would you feel inclined to escape such an impression unless you’re already expecting that Hamilton should be cast as the hero of the piece and Burr the villain—that is, unless you’ve mistaken the role of chronicler of events for that of advocate for one of the parties?
I’ll admit that a blinkered picture of Burr is the quickest way for a historian of Federal and Jeffersonian American to lose my sympathy. For two centuries, historiography of the Jefferson—Hamilton—Burr rivalry has been dominated by partisans of Jefferson, with a minority composed of Hamiltonian historians to rebut them. This has meant that, while Jefferson’s attacks on Hamilton and Hamilton’s attacks on Jefferson have both had counterarguments in response, both major camps have been naturally inclined to treat Burr with distrust and give credence to the two men’s politically-motived vitriol against him. But now that Jefferson is being reevaluted as a hypocrite and a rapist, and that Hamilton (in no small part thanks to Ron Chernow) is being brought forward to displace him, I had hoped that Burr would be able to take the place formerly occupied by Hamilton and get a fairer hearing.
Burr is, after all, a fascinating figure: an early abolitionist in the Northern state that had been as pro-slavery as any in the South (Chernow repeatedly snipes at Burr’s abolitionist credentials), an advocate for such complete women’s equality that even by modern standards he qualifies as feminist in his views, and the one political figure who appealed to partisans of both parties in the incredibly vicious political climate that took hold as Americans divided into a party system for the first time. That seemed to be happening with Kennedy’s Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character, followed by the excellent popular histories of the last decade: Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder, Stewart’s American Emperor and Brands’s The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr. (I haven’t read the Brands book yet, so I can’t rightly include it under “excellent”, but it’s apparently the book on which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrayal of Burr in the Hamilton musical was based.)
I want to see historians really examine why the two most powerful politicians of their day, the men around whom America’s first two political parties formed, were both so unnerved by Burr as their rival that they gave way to an unreasoning obsession with bringing about his downfall that completely jettisoned any sense of perspective or rationality. Because by casting Aaron Burr in his received role of villain, we allow Alexander Hamilton to escape responsibility for something that’s just as much a part of his legacy as the party system or as the modern finance and banking system that’s so key to American prosperity: the jealousy with which he guarded his own petty political kingdoms. His fear of losing the Federalists to John Adams, and of losing preeminence in New York to Burr, led him to attack both men with such viciousness that all three of their political careers were ruined, effectively eliminating each other so that the real rival of each man—Thomas Jefferson—was left so free that he not only emerged as the only national leader in the United States, but established his Virginia slaveowning cabal as the dominant political force in the country for a generation.