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Alexander Hamilton: A Life

Alexander Hamilton: A Life

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by Willard Sterne Randall

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From his less than auspicious start in 1755 on the Caribbean Island of Nevis to his untimely death in a duel with his old enemy Aaron Burr in 1804, Alexander Hamilton, despite his short life, left a huge legacy.

Orphaned at thirteen and apprenticed in a counting house, Hamilton learned principles of business that helped him create the American financial


From his less than auspicious start in 1755 on the Caribbean Island of Nevis to his untimely death in a duel with his old enemy Aaron Burr in 1804, Alexander Hamilton, despite his short life, left a huge legacy.

Orphaned at thirteen and apprenticed in a counting house, Hamilton learned principles of business that helped him create the American financial system and invent the modern corporation. But first the staunch, intrepid Hamilton served in the American Revolution, acting as General Washington’s spymaster. Forging a successful legal career, Hamilton coauthored the Federalist Papers and plunged into politics. Irresistibly attractive, he was a man of many gifts, but he could be arrogant and at times a poor judge of character.

In this meticulously researched, illuminating, and lively account, Willard Sterne Randall explores Hamilton’s life—his illegitimate birth, little-known military activities, political and diplomatic intrigues, and scandalous affairs—and its indelible impact on modern America.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Biographer of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, Randall is in his usual engaging form in dealing with the complex Hamilton, who in 1804 died in a duel with Aaron Burr. Creating a bigger-than-life hero, Randall sometimes strains credibility in the interest of color, and the evidence of occasional unreliability is exposed by gaps in documentation or in attributions like "according to tradition." One quotation credited to a Tory historian of the Revolution describes an American gallows erected near Charleston harbor, where "twenty-four reputable Loyalists [were] hanged in sight of the British fleet, with the army and refugees on board." In Randall's pages the close of the quotation is altered incredibly to "the army and thirty-five thousand Loyalists looking on." Randall's restless Hamilton, illegitimate son of a West Indian Englishwoman, succeeds on his energy, industriousness and intelligence, and a little help from distant relatives, becoming the new nation's first Secretary of the Treasury at 34. As a New York lawyer, aided by a loveless but lucrative marriage, he scrambled for riches before becoming a power behind the scenes in the federal government, then by Cabinet appointment. Even after Hamilton's resignation at 40, he is described, too sweepingly, as "a sort of unpaid prime minister in absentia," even though he was disgraced by two adulterous affairs, one with his wife's sister. Most of Randall's narrative is vivid and accurate, but the rest should give the reader pause. Eight pages b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Jan. 10) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Hamilton's ideas on both foreign and domestic policy have resonated through every American generation. To write a first-rate Hamilton biography would be one of the most important and, given the craze for biographies of the founders, most lucrative tasks an American historian could undertake. This book, alas, does not fit that bill. There is too much heavy breathing over incidents such as the Peggy Arnold affair, too much lubricious analysis of punctuation irregularities (don't ask) in Hamilton's letters to his sister-in-law, and much too much attention to side issues such as Vermont's long quarrel with New York. By contrast, major episodes such as Hamilton's role in the fight to ratify the Constitution and his efforts to put the public finances of the new republic on a sound footing receive less attention, and less insight, than they require. Inexplicably, the last ten years of Hamilton's career get fewer than ten pages. The book seems less finished than abandoned.
Kirkus Reviews
A revealing but measured biography of the younger Founding Father, who, to the horror of libertarians ever since, "[drew] up a blueprint for a relationship between government and money."

Who was right about America--Jefferson or Hamilton? Such, writes Randall (Humanities/ Champlain Coll., Vermont; co-author, Forgotten Americans, 1998, etc.), was the single question leveled at him at a meeting of the American Revolution Round Table a few years back. "The hour was late," he writes, "my answer brief: Jefferson for the eighteenth century, Hamilton for more modern times." He capably defends his judgment in this well-written life of Hamilton (1755-1804), who mixed Clintonesque appetites for pleasure and policy-wonking while busily putting the new republic’s economy on a sound footing. Hamilton’s life was wreathed in legend even in his time; more or less adopted by George Washington, he also had a talent for acquiring powerful enemies who made every effort to discredit the young man as a bastard, a closet royalist, and an enemy of democracy. Randall defends his subject on all counts; to be sure, he notes, Hamilton’s parents were not technically married, but "they lived as husband and wife for fifteen years," which was good enough in the eyes of English common law; to be sure, he carried himself with the air of an aristocrat, but Hamilton was no fan of the Hanoverian kings, and if he showed unusual clemency to captured Loyalists, he remained a devoted soldier of the Continental Army all the same, ardently espousing the cause of liberty. Unlike more idealistic revolutionaries, however, Hamilton believed that the chief role of government was to subdue the passions of the people, who "areinherently corrupted by lust for power and greed for property," which put him square up against the Jeffersonian camp and, in time, in the sights of Aaron Burr’s pistol. But before he fell, Hamilton crafted several institutions--among them the national bank and the germ of the IRS--that prove him a modern man indeed, for better or worse.

A sturdy and readable life, in company with Randall’s other portraits of the Revolutionary generation.

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Read an Excerpt

Alexander Hamilton
A Life

Chapter One

The Wish of My Heart

Alexander Hamilton realized instantly that he would die. Before he even heard the shot, the oversize lead ball had torn into his right side just above the hip, crashed through a rib, sliced through his liver, shattering a vertebra. Pitching forward on his face, Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury of the United States, the author of the Federalist Papers, George Washington's strong right hand, the financial genius who had created Wall Street, and as inspector general of the U.S. Army, launched the U.S. Navy, fell to the ground, clutching his dueling pistol. His friend and second in the duel, Nathaniel Pendleton, rolled him over, cupped him in his arms, and held him, half sitting, under a cedar tree, away from the glaring July sunlight.

"Dr. Hosack!" Pendleton yelled. "Dr. Hosack!" Waiting with the oarsman below by the Hudson shore, Dr. David Hosack rushed up the narrow path toward the dueling place atop a small granite outcropping of cliff below the waking village of Weehawken, New Jersey, that steaming Thursday morning of July 11, 1804. He brushed past Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, shielded by his second's umbrella to conceal his face as he hastened toward a rowboat that would hurry him across to New York City.

By the time Dr. Hosack, breathless, reached him, Hamilton had slumped to the ground and was losing consciousness. But he managed to gasp, "This is a mortal wound, Doctor." Once, Hamilton had wanted to study medicine. He knew anatomy. He knew the path of his pain, that his legs no longer moved. He thought he would die on the spot. So did Dr. Hosack. When he pulled up the bloody shirt, probed for a pulse, he could not hear Hamilton breathing. Hamilton had, Dr. Hosack wrote a few weeks later, "become to all appearance lifeless. His pulses were not to be felt. His respiration was entirely suspended. Laying my hand on his heart, I considered him irrecoverably gone."

Hosack and Pendleton carried Hamilton out of the woods and down the steep path. The boatman helped wrestle him onto the barge, placing the ornate case and pistol beside him. The doctor worked over him, rubbing spirits of hartshorne over his face, lips, forehead, neck, breast, arms. The cool massage seemed to have a miraculous effect. About fifty yards from shore, Hamilton sighed, the fresh breeze on the open water helping to revive him. His eyes half open, "to our great joy," recounted Hosack, "he at length spoke: 'My vision is indistinct,'" he said. "His pulse became more perceptible, his respiration more regular; his sight returned." But when the doctor tried to press Hamilton's side, to examine the wound, the pain was too much for Hamilton.

For a while, as the oars groaned in the tholes and slapped the water, Hamilton tried to talk. He spied the pistol, lent to him by his friend John Church. It was the same hair-triggered pistol Hamilton's oldest son had used three years before when he had been killed in a duel. The sight jolted him. "Take care of that pistol!" Hamilton cried. "It is undischarged, and still cocked. It may go off and do harm." He did not realize he had fired the gun into the air when Burr's bullet had struck him. Now he tried to turn his head toward Pendleton, sitting behind him in the stern. "Pendleton knows I did not intend to fire at him." His second nodded. "Yes, I have already told Dr. Hosack that." Then Hamilton fell silent. He remained calm, his eyes closed. Just before the boat bumped into the dock, Hamilton asked his friends to summon his wife, Elizabeth, at home with their seven children at The Grange at Manhattan's northern tip. She had no idea of the duel. "Let Mrs. Hamilton be immediately sent for. Let the event be gradually broken to her, but give her hopes."

Hamilton's old friend William Bayard was looking down at him as the boat docked. A servant had told him that Hamilton had rowed away from Bayard's dock at dawn with two other men. Now Bayard strained to see as the boat neared: he could make out only two figures. Looking down into the boat, he could see why. Bayard had known Hamilton some thirty years since Hamilton, a young artillery captain, had fortified the Bayard family home and turned it into Bunker Hill Fort at the outbreak of the Revolution. I called [Bayard] to have a cot prepared," Dr. Hosack recorded. "He, at the same moment, saw his poor friend lying in the bottom of the boat. He threw up his eyes and burst into a flood of tears." Hamilton alone appeared tranquil and composed. "We then conveyed him as tenderly as possible up to the house."

Alexander Hamilton lasted thirty-one hours after Aaron Burr shot him. When they finally got him into a bed on the second floor of Bayard's house on Chambers Street, he was nearly comatose. The doctor undressed him and administered a large dose of a strong anodyne, a painkiller. During the first day, Hosack gave Hamilton more than an ounce of an opium and cider potion, called laudanum, washing it down with watered wine. But, Hosack noted, "his sufferings during the whole day were almost intolerable." The ball had lodged inside his second lumbar disk, which had shattered, paralyzing his legs. His stomach was slowly filling with blood from severed blood vessels in his liver. Hosack "had not the shadow of a hope of his recovery," but he called in surgeons from French men-of-war anchored in the harbor who "had much experience in gunshot wounds." They agreed that Hamilton's condition was hopeless.

During the night of July 11, the sedated Hamilton "had some imperfect sleep." He knew he had little time left to live: he asked Bayard to summon the Reverend Benjamin Moore ...

Alexander Hamilton
A Life
. Copyright © by Willard Randall. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Willard Sterne Randall is the prize-winning author of thirteen books, including Ethan Allen: His Life and Times; A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin at War with His Son; Thomas Jefferson: A Life; George Washington: A Life; and Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. A finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, he is a professor of history at Champlain College and lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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