Chernow Gets It Right

Nobody has been more critical than me — this statement may even be true — of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Yet Chernow’s Sunday NYT op-ed on the fruitlessness of appealing to the founders for support in contemporary politics could not be more spot on, from my point of view. I won’t discourse on its many virtues of clarity, detail, and logic, just say that I think it’s “must” reading for everyone across the political spectrum who is concerned about the role history can (and can’t) play in framing public debate. Chernow is in a position to put the matter so much less fractiously than I’ve been doing, thus probably far more persuasively, and he has a huge audience that crosses political divides. His weighing in on this issue might actually do some good, and that would be a big help in these wild times.

The Chernow from whom I’ve dissented of old does make an appearance in the final graf:

No single group should ever presume to claim special ownership of the founding fathers or the Constitution they wrought with such skill and ingenuity. Those lofty figures, along with the seminal document they brought forth, form a sacred part of our common heritage as Americans.

Huh? The rowdy, ruthless infighters Chernow has evoked everywhere else in his piece, where he constantly reminds us of their gritty humanity, now suddenly turn into the “lofty,” “sacred” figures of misty-eyed cliché? For a brief and bad moment, it’s as if we’re supposed to assume the usual supplicant position and just be sure to keep our grubby hands off some holy, ingeniously wrought grail.

Hell no. Hence fractiousness.

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2 thoughts on “Chernow Gets It Right

  1. OK, now I feel as though I have to be “that guy” and ask:

    1) What’s the beef with Chernow’s biography of Hamilton?
    2) Might you be a buddy and point a chap in the direction of one that is better? Does one exist?

    Hamilton has always fascinated me. That’s why I ask.



  2. Appreciate the questions, didn’t mean to be mysterious — just wanted to avoid spouting off (well, too much!) in the process of recommending Chernow’s op-ed. I wrote about my problems with Chernow’s Hamilton in Boston Review: But BR now interrupts the piece w/a promo for the book where that essay appears, so, too briefly: Chernow doesn’t understand Hamilton’s finance policy (thinks H wanted to pay off the federal debt, not swell and fund it, which was the actual reflection of H’s genius); C is therefore misleading about — and indeed whitewashes — the (to me) two climactic and most illuminating events of Hamilton’s career: the Newburgh crisis (which began it) and the federal suppression of western PA (its apogee). I’ve read every biography of Hamilton and found none I would call good (but then almost all founder biographies, from then to now, suffer in their own ways from the same kinds of problems as Chernow’s of H). John C. Miller is better than Chernow on detailing H’s finance plan. Thomas Flexner’s book on Hamilton’s early career is fun and interesting. And I (not surprsingly!) recommend my “The Whiskey Rebellion” for a tightly focused look at the finance plan and its politics, and for H’s strange relationship w/Washington. I share your fascination with H.

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