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 “are inherently 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.