A remarkable account; justice to Hamilton's legacy
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 9 February 2021
Alexander Hamilton’s story has been made famous by the popular musical that bears the same name. The musical has successfully roused my interest in his biography on which it is based because I want to fill the gaps in between scenes and have a deeper grasp of the relationships and antagonism between characters. I also find Hamilton an intriguing, controversial and complex character worth exploring, something that a musical does not permit.
First let’s appreciate the skills of the biographer. His subject was a great man with eloquence and many talents. His breath of knowledge and knowhow few could match, covering first and foremost law, then finance and economics, military administration and tactics, and science of government. He was “a thinker and doer”, “unashamedly brainy to appeal to the masses” (p.627). He was a visionary, well ahead of his time, and a fierce pioneer, who was effective in meticulously forging a way to turn his vision into reality. He laid down the constitutional framework and built the federal financial system – institutional infrastructure needed for the flourishing of this modern market economy when America was still a largely rural economy. He was a powerful steam engine spearheading towards a future that only few could see. When he was so far ahead of time, he found himself a lone voice in the wilderness. He was given the opportunity and he did not squander it but made something out it – he could because he was full of ideas. Proposals after proposals, he never lost sight of his vision. He tried to explain but out of self-interest or out of their wildest imagination, he invited critics and suspicions all his life. He put his head down as the doer, but calumnies plagued his whole career. For a man of honour, he fought many battles to clear his reputation. Sadly he “was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth” (p. 629) which was quite the opposite to who he was – a self-made man, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy.
Hamilton was a prolific writer; he incessantly published papers, official reports, pamphlets, essays, newspaper articles. In addition, there were private papers and letters. Because his life intertwined with so many prominent figures of the time, one can imagine the colossal volume of materials to sieve through and sort for the biography, which demonstrates the biographer’s excellent organisational skills. The end product flows smoothly as if without effort. Secondly, I am most impressed by the versatility of the biographer’s writing skill. A biographer is naturally a narrator. However, Hamilton is a challenging subject as the biographer is required to make lucid many varied technical details of his pioneer thinking in historical critical moments that shaped the world, such as the development and debate on the Constitution, Hamilton’s federal fiscal and financial system and its opposition, the development of political thoughts for a new country, in particular the inner conflict of Hamilton if a republican government could deliver a proper balance of liberty and order. I believe the biographer has done a marverllous job in introducing us to the controversies that Hamilton was embroiled in.
But my biggest enjoyment of this biography is probably not the intent of the biographer! It reads to me the redemptive story of Hamilton – his testimony of God! To me who shares his faith, it is an exhilarating read to see the providence of God working marvellously in his life. His life, plainly and faithfully told by the biographer, speaks for itself. Things that the biographer finds puzzling, like Hamilton’s injudicious behaviour in the whole Reynolds Affair at the height of his power and fame, his vision for the army during the Quasi-War with France in 1798-1800, the “execrable” idea of the Christian Constitutional Society, and his preoccupation with religion in his final years, make sense if one understands the challenges of Christian walk. For example, I see striking parallels in David sinning with Bathsheba and Hamilton sinning with Reynolds – the injudicious behaviour, the coverup and the subsequent compulsion to confess when exposed. His many inner struggles also makes perfect sense in the light of the Bible.
I find his dying scene particularly moving for its gospel light. When Eliza was called to his deathbed following the duel with Burr, Hamilton’s words of comfort to her were, “Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian.” Do we feel the weightiness of that name? He was entreating her to live like one worthy of that call. However powerful, influential and capable he was on earth, at his deathbed, he could promise nothing except to point Eliza to their Almighty God who is greater than he, loves her more perfectly and in whom their hope is found. He died a repentant sinner, having “a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He repeated to the Bishop present that “he was dying in a peaceful state, and that he was reconciled to his God and his fate.” On our measures, it was a tragic end to a great man’s life, but God single-handedly turned it into a good ending of eternal hope that we all share.
Burr, on the other hand, was a contrast to Hamilton. Both were orphaned from a young age. Who was more likely to be a principled and religious man with integrity from family background? I imagine it would have been Burr because he was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the renowned American theologian of all time, while Hamilton was illegitimate. But then Burr was “a dissipated, libidinous character” and “had been openly accused of every conceivable sin: deflowering virgins, breaking up marriages through adultery, forcing women into prostitution, accepting bribes, fornicating with slaves, looting the estates of legal clients. The grandson of theologian Jonathan Edwards had sampled many forbidden fruits (p. 682).” He lived to 77 while Hamilton died in his hand at the age of 49 in the infamous duel. What memory did he leave? “The death mask of Aaron Burr is haunting and unforgettable, with the nose twisted to the left, the mouth crooked, and the expression grotesque, as if all the suppressed pain of his life were engraved in his face by the end. John Quincy Adams left this epitaph of the man: “Burr’s life take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in profound oblivion.” (p.722)” What biblical doctrine does it shine out for us? Election of God’s people – i.e. they are chosen by God and not the other way round.
How does the biographer achieve telling all these without it being intentional? He seeks to tell the story faithfully and authentically and comprehensively, and the story will speak for itself.
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