Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton

In a radio interview, Tracy Kidder, who’s written quite a few good books and at least one important one, advocated for a sort of Maxwell’s demon approach to book reading. He claimed to divide books into two main categories: books in which he has interest and books in which he does not. He went on to say that he hadn’t read James Frey’s memoir (wherein Frey fabricated some of the details of his battle with addiction)—but simply because trusted friends had told him it wasn’t a good book. The truth or falsehood of the details mattered little to him.

I myself know people who will read only “nonfiction,” and libraries and bookstores oblige the bold fantasy of such a label by neatly dividing and labeling their physical spaces so when patrons and customers tilt their heads sideways to scan titles, they know for sure which they’ll pluck from the shelf: sober edification or mere diversion. Have you noticed the lack of a truth section? That would be too bold for any secular institution.

I myself am reading a book of putative American history “nonfiction” right now (and, no, it’s not Team of Rivals). It’s Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary of the United States and as apposite a personage as there probably is at the close of 2008. The amount of effort that must’ve gone into making such a book makes one’s knees weak. Combing through the writings just of Hamilton, who was prolific even by torrential 18th century standards, must’ve cost Chernow a few pairs of glasses. Add to this the fact that Hamilton’s friends and enemies also wrote as if paid by the word, generating a staggering amount of yellowed, hand-written, and microfiched Hamiltonalia, not to mention the ensuing 200 years of commentaries and biographies—one shudders. Wringing the pertinent tidbits from this Himalaya of materials and organizing them into an actually readable (and it is) relevant and necessary (meaning it provides something previous bios did not) narrative-style 731 page biography deserves praise, and many have heaped it. The NY Times declared it one of the ten best books of 2004. The WS Journal reacted like a schoolgirl to the Beatles.

But aside from the hope for praise and awards, this must have been a case where the subject’s terawatt-grade energy sustained the writer. Basically, there is nothing Hamilton didn’t do. Soldier, political philosopher, duelist, attorney, constant cause celébrè, author, pseudonymous author, Treasury Secretary, Wizard of Oz to two presidents, father to eight, founder of the modern US economy, etc, etc. When raising an army for a possible confrontation with the French, Hamilton begged Washington to come out of retirement to lead it, then designed the uniform the old Mount Vernonian would wear—right down to the color of the epaulets and the length of the boots. He never stopped working and, in a rare and stunning coincidence that made him perfect for his moment, his intellect and ambition matched his energy.

Most people know all this, and Chernow has to do more than rehash all this. Nonfiction has an argumentative burden which is different, slightly, from the burdens of fiction. Fiction’s burden is to not undermine the creation of the fictional world—sometimes called the dreamscape. My old teacher said you have to plunge a reader down into that rabbit hole and not let them out till the end. Fiction fails when readers look up and see sky. Nonfiction, on the other hand, has to make claims and support them. When it comes to Chernow’s Hamilton, the argument is fairly simple: this was an amazing cat who made a variety of mistakes, some big and some small.

Something has been bothering me about this book for a long time and I finally found a sentence which renders plainly explicit the problem I have with this book. In a chapter titled “The Reign of Witches,” wherein is discussed the most disastrous legislative acts passed by the young country, Chernow writes: “Unfortunately, […] Hamilton supported the Alien and Sedition Acts” (572, emphasis mine).

I’m not a political or financial historian, nor am I a biographer or even an avid reader of biographies. What I am, however, is a teacher of rhetoric, and therefore feel qualified to discuss the problem with that word I emphasized and how it explains the whole “problem” of the reading this text. The rhetorical structure of the book prevents it from being what I would call truthful–at least in the way it, as do all books labeled non-fiction, pretends to be. Chernow achieves “balance” by plainly stating, in places, that Hamilton made a “grave error in judgment” or a “mistake he’d soon regret.” But if the portrait overall is sympathetic, the effect of these transgressions on the reader’s imagination is minimized. I suppose it’s the historian’s job to take a position, but it strikes me what a different thing it is to say, “He was a good guy who made some mistakes,” compared to, “He was a bad guy who had some good qualities.”

So that word, “unfortunately” prompts one to ask: unfortunately for whom?  Certainly unfortunate for a biographer attempting to situate Hamilton in the most flattering light possible.

Let me get more specific. Hamilton’s energy was directed toward establishing a particular kind of country – one centered in New York and based on banking and credit and trade, and once he established this, his subsequent machinations focused on preserving this structure by quashing internal rebellions and raising an army to fight the French or anyone else who seized US ships or refused to trade equitably. Chernow unblinkingly supports these activities, and helps his reader see that the Alien and Sedition Acts were just instances of Hamilton extending his reach a bit too far to achieve his desired ends. Does reading this biography in 2008 force one to question whether Hamilton’s relative success against Jefferson and his Republican brethren was a boon for the country? In other words, can we question the ends in addition to the means?

Chernow’s lens forces the reader to see all events a certain way. For example, Aaron Burr pulled the old bait and switch when he created the Manhattan Company, which morphed from a utility company into a bank (which would compete with Hamilton’s creations: the Bank of New York and the local branch of the Bank of the United States) almost before its charter’s ink had dried. (btw-doesn’t this morphing seem a lot like Enron?). You see, Hamilton was in favor of banking and credit, but not competition. As Chernow puts it: “Hamilton opposed the vogue for state banks that proliferated in the 1790s, less from narrow political motives than from a fear that competition among banks would dilute credit standards and invite imprudent lending practices as bankers vied for clients” (586).

Hamilton, of course, had in mind the preservation of the system he’d created. Noble enough, seemingly. But the fact is that banks run by Federalists had the means to shape the credit landscape in such a way as to favor Federalist causes and starve Republican ones. No Republican bank charter would pass the legislature, so Burr elected to weasel his way in through the back door. Sometimes that’s the only door.

Even if I grant, with respect to the sentence quoted above, that Chernow can decipher which motivated Hamilton more, the base angels or the pure ones, I have to take issue with the contention that Hamilton’s desire for control over credit is such a noble one. He certainly understood what credit standards were best for his vision of the country’s economy, but it’s not beyond contention that his vision was most worthy of such monopolaic power.

But I hope it’s clear I’m not really trying to bash Chernow here so much as the deleterious effects of taxonomy when it comes to the good old printed page.  My overall point is that nonfiction is just as fictional as fiction, insofar as it requires of the reader the capacity to understand the nature of the world being created by the text. If a reader of nonfiction lets down her guard because of where she found it in the library, she has poorly served herself.

Alexander Hamilton does have a striking literary parallel. Both were New Yorkers with sketchy backgrounds, looked good in uniforms, achieved success in the world of finance, and died violent deaths. Recall, however, that Nick Carraway tells us Gatsby’s story, and is what’s termed an “unreliable” narrator. His emotional attachment to the characters, the fact that he is a character, compels a reader to regard all he relates with circumspection. The unreliability and subjectivity are what grant the tale its richness and power, which is a discussion for another day. The point here is that Chernow is no more reliable than Carraway, which is not to say that he’s a bad biographer.  He’s actually very good. What does follow, however, is that the book on Hamilton and the book on Gatsby have more in common than might be thought, and deserve to sit more closely together on the shelves of our minds.