Two of America’s Founders:
Alexander Hamilton and
Benjamin Franklin

By Harold Frost

San Jose Mercury News – 2004, 2003

Alexander Hamilton

A Review of “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow (2004)

Theodore Roosevelt, who knew history, believed Alexander Hamilton to be the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived. The French diplomat Talleyrand, who knew everyone worth knowing, said that his friend Hamilton could stand alongside Napoleon as one of the truly great leaders of a mighty epoch.

Hamilton (1755-1804) served as Secretary of the Treasury during the presidency of George Washington and was the “main architect of the new American government,” writes historian Ron Chernow, implementing his ideas about many aspects of policy, paying special attention to the pulsating beat of New World capitalism, which many of the founders found unappealing, noisy, declasse. Hamilton was thrilled by factories, trading floors, cargo ships, and banks, and loved the habits of mind fostered in such places, seeing them as cornerstones of democracy. (John Marshall also made a large contribution in this realm among the founders.) Hamilton wrote, “As to whatever may depend on enterprise, we need not fear to be outdone by any people on earth. It may almost be said that enterprise is our element.” We can draw a straight line from that mindset to Silicon Valley today.

With this excellent book, Chernow continues his mission of explaining enterprise and money by writing well about people. His 1998 bestseller “Titan,” about John D. Rockefeller, is one of the best books ever written about American business history. This new effort is not quite as un-put-downable as “Titan.” Hamilton is riveting, but the backdrop to his life – the founding of modern democracy – is not as spectacularly juicy as the birth of modern business in the second half of the 19th century. But to say that “Alexander Hamilton” doesn’t equal “Titan” is to say that a Porsche isn’t as nimble as a Ferrari in the turns on Highway One; the new book is outstanding in its own right, one of the best of the bounty of recent works about America’s founders.

See Here for a Critique of Chernow’s Work by
Historian Nancy Isenberg.

What made Alexander run?

He ran hard every day of his life because he was (a) talented and ambitious and (b) could never shake a feeling of social insecurity from his youth. Born illegitimate in the West Indies, his boyhood was difficult – “no other founder,” Chernow notes, “had to grapple with such shame and misery” in youth, including poverty, a notorious mother about whom people gossiped, and becoming an orphan at age 13. He learned early to hustle; to the end of his life, his scrappiness often morphed into prickliness.

Local businessmen recognized his potential and sponsored his education in America. He arrived in New York City in 1773 at age 18, five-foot-seven, slim, handsome, and exceptionally graceful in movement. He was formidably bright and had what might today be called emotional intelligence – an intuition about how to connect with his fellow humans. He also possessed a certain androgynous or feline quality, perhaps akin to some modern-day rock star – Mick Jagger, let’s say, or Elvis Presley. Chernow, cheerfully venturing where many a fusty historian has declined to go, speculates briefly about the possibility that Hamilton had an affair with John Laurens, a South Carolinian and abolitionist, and later a superb soldier who was killed in the Revolutionary War. At the least, Chernow says, Hamilton responded to Laurens with “something like an adolescent crush.”

History has never offered  a better setting to be young, gifted, and feisty than the American Colonies in the 1770s. On July 6, 1774, the 19-year-old Hamilton delivered a speech in New York City supporting a boycott of British goods. Upon conclusion of his pep talk (which was apparently impromptu), “the crowd stood transfixed in silence,” writes Chernow, “staring at this spellbinding young orator before it erupted in a sustained ovation.” This is one of the most interesting brief speeches of American history. Hamilton was suddenly a hero of the American cause. His genius for words, spoken and written, would take him far.

The American Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775. Hamilton had a good war, serving on the staff of Gen. Washington and also seeing combat, risking his life exuberantly, beguiled by the prospect of dying gloriously for a worthy cause. Chernow devotes about 100 pages to describing the war from Hamilton’s perspective, a very fine short summary of that long and confusing conflict.

In 1778 Hamilton arranged a complicated prisoner exchange with the British. Certain members of Congress wanted him to fudge details in order to attach extra blame to the Brits. Hamilton declined to cheat, believing that warriors should pay attention to legality and morality; as Chernow writes, he saw “America’s character being forged in the throes of battle, and that made honest action imperative.” A concept to give pause in the year 2004, when honest action is a secondary consideration to the guardians of America’s character.

In 1780 Hamilton married the lively and well-connected Elizabeth Schuyler; together they raised eight children. He later got entangled in an affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds. Blackmail entered the picture; his reputation suffered serious damage when the matter was revealed by a political enemy.

After the war he became a lawyer in New York City, blazing through his legal education in nine months rather than the standard three years, meanwhile devoting his spare time (did the man ever sleep?) to pondering how the incipient U.S.A. might organize itself, carefully studying Britain’s financial system, among other topics.

In the late 1780s Americans got serious about nationhood. Hamilton contributed to creation of “The Federalist,” a collection of 85 essays examining the proposed U.S. Constitution and delving into the problems of representative government. He supervised the project and wrote about 50 of the pieces, working with James Madison and John Jay. (They were all heavily influenced by the Scottish philosopher David Hume.) The articles were widely read at the time and are regarded today as classic, fundamental to democracy.

As the American Constitution took shape, Hamilton favored a president and Senate that would serve for life, a point of view (and/or an error of judgment) that gave fodder in later years to his critics, who suspected him of monarchist tendencies. However, once the Constitution was written, he threw himself into support of ratification. In common with most of the founders, he had a gleaming capacity for principled compromise. (Another concept to give pause in 2004.)

In 1789 he became the nation’s first treasury secretary, forming a wonderful partnership with his friend President George Washington, serving as virtual prime minister. He gave robust life to the executive branch, creating a budget and tax system, resurrecting America’s moribund credit, chartering a central bank, and breathing life into the abstract principles of the Constitution.

He made enemies, of course, including Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s secretary of state. Chernow examines the layers of their rivalry. A core issue was their different conception of America’s future. Jefferson (a slave owner) idealized the “placid, unchanging rhythms of rural life,” writes Chernow. He denigrated unruly cities and coarse commerce, believing that democracy would grow like a young tree if watered by farming, a strong legislature, and state’s rights, and would wither if corrupted by cities, a strong executive, and subordination of the states. Jefferson’s basic principle was a sweet trust in the wisdom of the common citizen.

Hamilton had doubts about the wisdom of the common folk and looked to the patrician class for governing wisdom. A paradox of Hamilton’s career, writes Chernow, was that “his optimistic view of America’s potential coexisted with an essentially pessimistic view of human nature. His faith in Americans never quite matched his faith in America itself.”

In 1800, Jefferson won the presidency thanks partly to Hamilton’s influence in the House of Representatives. (The politics of this period are convoluted. Chernow explicates them well.) But despite this fact, the triumph of Jeffersonians in ’00 cast Hamilton into the political wilderness.

Hamilton out of power is not as compelling as Hamilton seeking and exercising power. Chernow’s book drags a bit in its later chapters, but reaches a stunning climax in the last 40 pages with a description of the most famous duel in American history, Hamilton vs. Vice President Aaron Burr. (See here for more on Burr.)

At 7 a.m. on July 11, 1804 – 200 years ago this summer – Alexander Hamilton, age 49, found himself standing on a patch of ground in Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from his beloved New York City, armed with a flintlock pistol, facing Aaron Burr, 10 paces away.

Burr fired and hit Hamilton square in the gut. Hamilton’s shot did not strike Burr in return. Very possibly, says Chernow, Hamilton had no intention of hitting Burr. Hamilton required 31 hours to die.

Was Hamilton’s death a disguised suicide by a depressed man? The great historian and depressive Henry Adams thought so. Ron Chernow finds a different motivation for the duel. Hamilton, writes the author, “never wavered in his belief that if he did not face Burr’s fire, he would lose standing in the political circles that mattered to him.” Hamilton’s dance with death in Weehawken was not about depression. It was about what is, for many people, the most sought-after nugget of human life, the sovereign commodity that trumps love and happiness. The duel that killed Alexander Hamilton was about the lust for power.

Benjamin Franklin

A Review of “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” by Walter Isaacson (2003)

Earlier this summer, Walter Isaacson likely enjoyed a pleasant day when his buddies at Time magazine informed him they were putting Benjamin Franklin on the cover of their Fourth of July issue. Isaacson’s book about Franklin was published the same week. Isaacson’s a former managing editor at Time. Nice synergy.

In July, Isaacson made a clean media sweep, appearing with Terry Gross on NPR and Charlie Rose on PBS and getting his book on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. I found myself thinking about H.W. Brands, who published a splendid biography of Franklin three years ago and got nothing like Isaacson’s exposure. The same can be said of Edmund S. Morgan, who published his fine, concise Franklin book last year. Well, when it comes to marketing muscle, all authors are not created equal. (See also Carl Van Doren’s Franklin biography.)

Happily, Isaacson’s book deserves significant attention. “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” is first-rate popular biography – well-researched and accessible, a charming introduction to a compelling figure.

Born in Boston on January 17, 1706, Benjamin Franklin’s vocational roots were in journalism – he apprenticed as a printer, and became, at age 24, the owner, printer, editor, and publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia. He married Deborah Read around the same time. He matured into a remarkably interesting man, combining attributes that are rarely found in a single soul – he was at once a charismatic leader and a careful, cautious, skeptical observer.

In 1727, when he was in his early 20s, he organized a philosophical club in Philadelphia, the Junto, that met on Friday evenings over a pint or two. This association of secular humanists was a pure manifestation of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement sweeping Europe and the colonies, which, reacting to the religious wars and witch hunts of previous centuries, proposed that humanity should govern its affairs with reason, freedom, justice, scientific experimentation, and tolerance. (Historian Kenneth Clark sums up those values: “Not bad.”) With Franklin presiding, members of the Junto merrily discussed a variety of questions: What constitutes human happiness? What is the nature of freedom? Why does fog form on a beer mug on a summer’s night?

At age 42 Franklin turned over day-to-day operations of his business to an associate, drawing a comfortable income and having time, he wrote, to “read, study, make experiments, and converse at large.”

Franklin was interested in a certain type of knowledge, Isaacson notes – that which is “most practical and useful….His greatness sprang more from his practicality than from profundity or poetry….He had a feel for the mechanical workings of the world….” Isaacson adds that Franklin was “geeky.” Wasn’t Ben therefore a patron saint of Silicon Valley? Shouldn’t someone here recognize him with a brass plaque?

He was one of the great polymaths of history, a classic fox, to use Isaiah Berlin’s typology. Among his interests were astronomy, ballooning, crime prevention, education, electricity (including his risky kite experiments), eyeglasses (he invented bifocals), fire safety, geography, health, home heating, libraries, mail delivery, music, ocean currents, population growth, refrigeration, self-help (Stephen Covey owes a large debt to Franklin and acknowledges it), turkeys (which he favored over the bald eagle as the national symbol), and weather. He also found time for much congenial correspondence.

(Background on Franklin’s study of electricity can be found here. A good children’s book on this topic is described here.)

And he loved politics. In 1751 he won a seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly. Six years later he was chosen by assembly members to represent their complicated interests in London.

England suited him. He basically saw himself as a Briton in these years and gave thought to settling in the mother country. But in 1765 his life was turned upside down when the British government passed the Stamp Act without consulting the Thirteen Colonies, a precipitating event of the American Revolution.

Franklin, a true child of the Enlightenment (he was its apotheosis in the New World), was ever rational, ever confident that reasonable people could work things out. (He lacked deep insight into the chaos of the human soul.) He labored in London to find a formula that would reduce Parliamentary authority over America, but realized in 1774 the matter was hopeless – the British government, he decided, was not behaving rationally. He allowed himself a rare expression of outrage at the British ministers: “I am very angry….I am at a loss to know how peace and union is to be maintained or restored….” He saw that he was no longer a Briton. He was something new – an American.

Franklin sailed for the colonies in the spring of 1775 as sabers rattled. What an amazing moment to be alive, crossing the high seas and contemplating the sweeping waves of change. He hated the idea of war but knew that if fighting were necessary, the only acceptable outcome was victory. As he later said of the colonies, “We must hang together, else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.” (In fact, as Franklin knew, the founders faced not just a quick hanging, but were subject, if defeated, to being hanged, drawn, and quartered, one of the more gruesome deaths imaginable, described here. The process was often dragged out deliberately and could take long minutes to complete.)

War began on April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord. In May, Franklin attended a meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia; here gathered Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Madison, Hancock and the rest. Franklin helped nudge the group in the direction of independence. In June of 1776 Thomas Jefferson wrote the case for freedom from Britain, and, with some editing help from the savvy old journalist Franklin (and others) the document was approved on July 4, 1776.

Franklin spent most of the war in Paris in the supreme effort of his life, guiding the creation of an alliance between the United States of America and France. “Into his hands,” writes Isaacson, “almost as much as those of Washington and others, had been placed the fate of the Revolution.”

The French people adored him and he reciprocated. He conducted a brilliant public relations campaign for the U.S.A., dressing with conspicuous plainness, wearing a fur cap, and displaying himself as a rustic frontier philosopher, though he had been a city boy all his life.

Historians speculate about Franklin’s possible extra-marital relationships in France and elsewhere. Isaacson doubts he consummated affairs. Maybe this depends on how you define “consummate” – Isaacson reprints a drawing of Franklin with a young woman on his knee, made by an artist after he inadvertently walked in on the couple. One of the woman’s hands is firmly nestled in the great man’s spacious lap.

In 1787, the 81-year-old Franklin was back in Philadelphia helping to create the U.S. Constitution. He was unhappy with the position taken by the Constitutional Convention on the slave trade. Always trusting what he perceived with his own senses, he observed in the 1760s that blacks have equal intelligence to whites. He was an abolitionist by the 1780s. His opinion on slavery did not carry the floor at Philadelphia, needless to say, and he eventually agreed that compromise on the issue was necessary if the Constitution was to find completion. That compromise saved the new nation but sowed the seeds of the American Civil War.

In his 80s Franklin was as intellectually curious as ever. A visitor describes the sage: “I was highly delighted with the extensive knowledge he appeared to have of every subject….Every thing about him seems to diffuse an unrestrained freedom and happiness.” He became ill in April, 1790, in Philadelphia. He slipped into a coma at the very end; until then he was alert and serene, curious about what might come next. He died on April 17 at the age of 84.

Benjamin Franklin, though not a profound political thinker along the lines of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, examined a profound political question in a nuts-and-bolts way – what might hold together a democratic nation? The answers for Franklin were hard work, free inquiry, compassion for those who suffer, skepticism of big-noise authority figures, a dollop of prayer to a non-denominational and benevolent God, a belief in the nobility of compromise, and above all, tolerance. ●