This has been an especially good reading summer for devotees of American Colonial and Revolutionary his-tory. First and, in my opinion, the best of the many new books covering this period is Washington's Crossing--by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, $35). Professor Fischer is a noted historian, whose Albion's Seed, published in 1989, tells the story of those descendants of the British who settled here and helped create the United States. His Paul Revere's Ride has also been widely and justly praised.
Washington's Crossing tells the complete story of General George Washington's most daring, risky and successful venture early in the war. Following a succession of victories by the British and their mercenary forces, which had resultedin the loss of New York for the Americans, the British were within sight of Philadelphia, where the new American Congress was sitting.
Washington's army had been all but destroyed, and the British were surging across New Jersey. Washington's decision to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776, when it was considered virtually impossible, was a move both bold and foolhardy. A flotilla of small boats crammed with soldiers, guns and horses somehow rowed across the river through one of the East's worst winter snow and ice storms. (The crossing as painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1851 captured this event spiritually and has become a great icon of the Revolution.) By crossing the Delaware, Washington placed the remnants of his army in a position to trap the British behind Trenton and, a few days later, to give that army and the cause for which it fought its first real victory. In many ways the shots fired atTrenton were the shots "heard round the world."
Professor Fischer conveys in a remarkably realistic way what combat and the fog of war are actually like. But, more important, he tells the story of what it was like for Washington to lead a discouraged, underequipped army that was constantly being micromanaged by a divided Congress that couldn't--at least at the beginning--decide whether it wanted independence or, simply, to get the Stamp Act repealed.
For those who still wonder how the Revolutionaries ever defeated the huge British forces arrayed against them, both on land and at sea, this book makes clear that it was the military genius and leadership of George Washing-ton that turned almost certain defeat into victory. Washington's Crossing is an essential and exciting key to a more complete understanding and appreciation of what our ancestors did to win the Revolution.
A new biography, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press, $35), is another superb book I read this summer. Hamilton served as principal aide to General Washington from the early days of the Revolu-tion. This gave him a ringside seat at the formation of the United States and its implausible victory over the British, who had deployed one of the world's finest military machines but lost to a ragtag army of upstarts.
Chernow's splendid, thorough and brilliantly written biography gives us a new understanding of Hamilton's vi-tal role during the war and immediately after as Secretary of the Treasury of this new entity on the world's stage. I doubt that many people realize how much of our country's financial structure we owe to Alexander Hamilton. This book goes beyond the standard fare offered in most American history classes. Hamilton's towering intellect, as well as his many faults, and his long, fierce disagreements with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and many of the other Founding Fathers are presented here with almost shocking candor.
There have been other biographies of Hamilton, but Chernow's is far and away the most comprehensive and compelling of any I have read. It is a fitting tribute to the man who set the U.S. on the path that has made our nation the economic leader of the world.
Another treat for Revolutionary history enthusiasts is The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood (Penguin Press, $25.95). This delightful new study focuses on the actual aristocratic and elitist views and opinions of this so-called populist leader, who was one of our best-loved, most influential and renowned spokesmen to the world.
Moving away from Revolutionary times, I next read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography byWilliam F. Buckley Jr. (Regnery Publishing, $29.95). Buckley, a major founder of today's sen-sible conservatism, has led an extraordinary life, which fully matches his extraordinary talents. His subtitle is apt, as the book contains essays on sailing, skiing, music, old friends and colleagues and all manner of other diverse subjects, which are united in that they have all been of interest to one of the best minds and writers in America today.
In Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow, the author of The House of Morgan, The Warburgs and Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller, has brought to life the Founding Father who did more than any other to create the modern United States … In this magisterial biography, Chernow tells the story not only of Hamilton but also of his wife, Eliza, a remarkable woman who died at the age of 97 in 1854.
The Washington Post
… Mr. Chernow sets himself a compelling task: to add a third dimension to conventional views of Hamilton while reaching beyond the limits of a personal portrait. If Alexander Hamilton reflects its subject's far from charismatic nature, it also provides a serious, far-reaching measure of his place in history. And Mr. Chernow has done a splendid job of capturing the backbiting political climate of Hamilton's times, to the point that no cow is sacred here. The "golden age of literary assassination in American politics," featuring Thomas Jefferson as a particularly self-serving schemer, sounds astonishingly familiar today.
The New York Times
After hulking works on J.P. Morgan, the Warburgs and John D. Rockefeller, what other grandee of American finance was left for Chernow's overflowing pen than the one who puts the others in the shade? Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) created public finance in the United States. In fact, it's arguable that without Hamilton's political and financial strategic brilliance, the United States might not have survived beyond its early years. Chernow's achievement is to give us a biography commensurate with Hamilton's character, as well as the full, complex context of his unflaggingly active life. Possessing the most powerful (though not the most profound) intelligence of his gifted contemporaries, Hamilton rose from Caribbean bastardy through military service in Washington's circle to historic importance at an early age and then, in a new era of partisan politics, gradually lost his political bearings. Chernow makes fresh contributions to Hamiltoniana: no one has discovered so much about Hamilton's illegitimate origins and harrowed youth; few have been so taken by Hamilton's long-suffering, loving wife, Eliza. Yet it's hard not to cringe at some of Hamilton's hotheaded words and behavior, especially sacrificing the well-being of his family on the altar of misplaced honor. This is a fine work that captures Hamilton's life with judiciousness and verve. Illus. Agent, Melanie Jackson. (Apr 26) Forecast: National Book Award winner Chernow's reputation and track record with a previous bestseller could make Alexander Hamilton as popular with readers as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. With a 300,000 first printing, Penguin is banking on it. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Readers' interest in American history tends to oscillate between two periods: the Civil War and the Revolution. We are currently well into a Revolutionary period. A slew of best-selling historical works has been published in recent years on the American Founders including studies of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. Now, Ron Chernow has produced an original, illuminating, and highly readable study of Alexander Hamilton that admirably introduces readers to Hamilton's personality and accomplishments.
Chernow penetrates more deeply into the mysteries of Hamilton's origins and family life than any previous biographer. And what a family it was. Hamilton, the only immigrant in the first ranks of the Founders, was the illegitimate son of a downwardly mobile Scottish father and a free-living and free-thinking woman of the West Indies. These difficult origins marked Hamilton for life as he struggled to integrate himself into the highest circles of American public life.
In this favorable, hefty biography of Alexander Hamilton, Chernow (The Warburgs; The House of Morgan) makes the case for him as one of the most important Founding Fathers, arguing that America is heir to the Hamiltonian vision of the modern economic state. His sweeping narrative chronicles the complicated and often contradictory life of Hamilton, from his obscure birth on Nevis Island to his meteoric rise as confidant to Washington, coauthor of The Federalist Papers, and America's first Treasury secretary, to his bizarre death at the hands of Aaron Burr. A running theme is the contradictions exhibited during his life: a member of the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton nevertheless felt that the Constitution was seriously flawed and was fearful of rule by the people. A devoted father and husband, he had two known affairs. Lastly, he was philosophically and morally opposed to dueling, and yet that's how he met his end. Although quite sympathetic to Hamilton, Chernow attempts to present both sides of his many controversies, including Hamilton's momentous philosophical battles with Jefferson. Chernow relies heavily on primary sources and previously unused volumes of Hamilton's writings. A first-rate life and excellent addition to the ongoing debate about Hamilton's importance in the shaping of America. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries. [BOMC and History Book Club main selections.]-Robert Flatley, Kutztown Univ. Lib., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
A splendid life of an enlightened reactionary and forgotten Founding Father. "In all probability," writes financial historian/biographer Chernow (Titan, 1998, etc.), "Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and lasting impact than many who did." Indeed, we live in a Hamiltonian republic through and through, and not a Jeffersonian democracy. Many of the financial and tax systems that Hamilton proposed and put in place as the nation's first treasury secretary are with us today, if in evolved form, as Chernow shows; and though Hamilton was derided in his time as being pro-British and even a secret monarchist, Chernow writes, he was second only to George Washington in political prominence, at least on the practical, day-to-day front. The author wisely acknowledges but does not dwell unduly on Washington's quasi-paternal role in Hamilton's life and fortunes; unlike many biographies that consider Hamilton only in Washington's shadow, this one grants him a life of his own-and a stirring one at that, for Hamilton was both intensely cerebral and a man of action. He was, Chernow writes, a brilliant ancestor of the abolitionist cause; a native of the slave island of Nevis, he came to hate "the tyranny embodied by the planters and their authoritarian rule, while also fearing the potential uprisings of the disaffected slaves"-a dichotomy that influenced his views of ordinary politics. He was also constantly in opposition to things as they were, particularly where those things were Jeffersonian; as Chernow shows, Hamilton had early on been "an unusually tolerant man with enlightened views on slavery,Native Americans, and Jews," but became a crusty conservative near the end of his brief life (1755-1804), perhaps as a result of one too many personal setbacks at the hands of the Jeffersonians. Literate and full of engaging historical asides. By far the best of the many lives of Hamilton now in print, and a model of the biographer's art. Agent: Melanie Jackson
"...[N]obody has captured Hamilton better than Chernow..." —The New York Times Book Review
"...[A] biography commensurate with Hamilton's character, as well as the full, complex context of his unflaggingly active life.... This is a fine work that captures Hamilton's life with judiciousness and verve." —Publishers Weekly
"A splendid life of an enlightened reactionary and forgotten Founding Father. Literate and full of engaging historical asides. By far the best of the many lives of Hamilton now in print, and a model of the biographer’s art."—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"A robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all." —Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
"A brilliant historian has done it again! The thoroughness and integrity of Ron Chernow’s research shines forth on every page of his Alexander Hamilton. He has created a vivid and compelling portrait of a remarkable man—and at the same time he has made a monumental contribution to our understanding of the beginnings of the American Republic.” —Robert A. Caro, author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson
"Alexander Hamilton was one of the most brilliant men of his brilliant time, and one of the most fascinating figures in all of American history. His rocketing life-story is utterly amazing. His importance to the founding of the new nation, and thus to the whole course of American history, can hardly be overstated. And so Ron Chernow's new Hamilton could not be more welcome. This is grand-scale biography at its best—thorough, insightful, consistently fair, and superbly written. It clears away more than a few shop-worn misconceptions about Hamilton, gives credit where credit is due, and is both clear-eyed and understanding about its very human subject. Its numerous portraits of the complex, often conflicting cast of characters are deft and telling. The whole life and times are here in a genuinely great book." —David McCullough, author of John Adams