Founding Father Knows Best
By James Aley

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Reading Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Press), Ron Chernow's superb new biography, you can't help but lament that the most brilliant of the Founding Fathers never knew when to shut up. That's not because Hamilton was verbose, although he was that. Rather, it's all those missed opportunities in Hamilton's life when his combativeness overtook his genius, and intellectual disagreements turned into blood feuds. With a little more humility and a little less force-five-hurricane rhetoric, the chief architect of the American economy could have accomplished so much more.

Or at least he might have aged past 49 years and prevented his enemies from damaging his reputation posthumously. Hamilton was a lifelong abolitionist who understood the importance of a stable central government and banking system to liberty and economic opportunity. Those ideas, and his stridency in proclaiming them, appalled gentlemen farmers with states' rights on their mind--formidable, long-lived gentleman farmers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who became Hamilton's foremost detractors.

And so for 200 years, to paraphrase this tome's 818 pages, Hamilton has been getting screwed out of his rightful place in history. "No other founder," Chernow writes, "articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America's future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together."

Chernow is a shrewd student of power, and he couldn't have chosen a more compelling subject. He weaves clear explanations of Hamilton's thinking into abundant melodrama--the horrific childhood in the Caribbean, the Revolutionary War heroics, the exploits as a framer of the Constitution, the triumph as the first Treasury Secretary, the vicious infighting, the affair that became the country's first big political sex scandal, and of course the lethal duel with Aaron Burr.

The duel is all the more tragic for its being so avoidable. Burr had challenged Hamilton after some perceived slight; Hamilton refused to back down. But the episode underscores the heartbreaking irony of Hamilton's life. The feverish passions that kept him fighting with Burr and others also sustained him during his historic battle with the Jeffersonians over the country's future. The modern capitalist economy won, pastoral utopianism lost, and we have a diminutive hothead to thank for it. --James Aley