Ron Chernow, whom the New York Times called "as elegant an architect of monumental histories as we've seen in decades", now brings to startling life the man who was arguably the most important figure in American history, who never attained the presidency, but who had a far more lasting impact than many who did.
With masterful storytelling skills, Chernow presents the whole sweep of Hamilton's turbulent life: his exotic, brutal upbringing; his brilliant military, legal, and financial exploits; his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe; his illicit romances; and his famous death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July 1804.
Alexander Hamilton was one of the seminal figures in our history. His richly dramatic saga, rendered in Chernow's vivid prose, is nothing less than a riveting account of America's founding, from the Revolutionary War to the rise of the first federal government.
On the night of April 18, 1775, 800 British troops marched out of Boston
to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock and seize a stockpile of
patriot munitions in Concord, Massachusetts. As they passed Lexington,
they encountered a motley battalion of militia farmers known as
Minutemen, and in the ensuing exchange of gunfire the British killed 8
colonists and then 2 more in Concord. As the redcoats retreated
helter-skelter to Boston, they were riddled by sniper fire that erupted
from behind hedges, stone walls, and fences, leaving a bloody trail of
273 British casualties versus 95 dead or wounded for the patriots.
The news reached New York within four days and a mood of insurrection
promptly overtook the city. People gathered at taverns and street
corners to ponder events while Tories quaked. The newly emboldened Sons
of Liberty streamed down to the East River docks, pilfered ships bound
for British troops in Boston, then emptied the city hall arsenal of its
muskets, bayonets, and cartridge boxes, grabbing a thousand weapons in
Armed with this cache, volunteer militia companies sprang up overnight.
However much the British might deride these ragtag citizen-soldiers,
they conducted their business seriously. Inflamed by the astonishing
news from Massachusetts, Alexander Hamilton, then a student at King's
College (later Columbia University), was that singular intellectual who
picked up a musket as fast as a pen. Nicholas Fish recalled that
"immediately after the Battle of Lexington, [Hamilton] attached himself
to one of the uniform companies of militia then forming for the defence
of the country by the patriotic young men of this city under the command
of Captain Fleming." Fish and Robert Troup, both classmates of Hamilton,
were among the earnest cadre of King's College volunteers who drilled
before classes each morning in the churchyard of nearby St. Paul's
Chapel. The fledgling volunteer company was named the Hearts of Oak. The
young recruits marched briskly past tombstones with the motto of
"Liberty or Death" stitched across their round leather caps. On short,
snug green jackets they also sported, for good measure, red tin hearts
that announced "God and our Right."
Hamilton approached this daily routine with the same perfectionist ardor
that he exhibited in his studies. Troup stressed the "military spirit"
infused into Hamilton and noted that he was "constant in his attendance
and very ambitious of improvement." Never one to fumble an opportunity,
Hamilton embarked on a comprehensive military education. With his
absorbent mind, he mastered infantry drills, pored over volumes on
military tactics and learned the rudiments of gunnery and pyrotechnics
from a veteran bombardier. There was a particular doggedness about this
young man, as if he were already in training for something far beyond
lowly infantry duty.
On April 24, a huge throng of patriots massed in front of city hall.
While radicals grew giddy with excitement, many terrified Tory merchants
began to book passage for England. The next day, an anonymous handbill
blamed Myles Cooper, the Tory president of King's College, and four
other "obnoxious gentlemen" for patriotic deaths in Massachusetts and
said the moment had passed for symbolic gestures. "The injury you have
done to your country cannot admit of reparation," these five loyalists
were warned. "Fly for your lives or anticipate your doom by becoming
your own executioners." A defiant Myles Cooper stuck to his post.
After a demonstration on the night of May 10, hundreds of protesters,
armed with clubs and heated by a heady brew of political rhetoric and
strong drink, descended on King's College, ready to inflict rough
justice on Myles Cooper. Hercules Mulligan recalled that Cooper "was a
Tory and an obnoxious man and the mob went to the college with the
intention of tarring and feathering him or riding him upon a rail."
Nicholas Ogden, a King's alumnus, saw the angry mob swarming toward the
college and raced ahead to Cooper's room, urging the president to
scramble down a back window. Because Hamilton and Troup shared a room
near Cooper's quarters, Ogden also alerted them to the approaching mob.
"Whereupon Hamilton instantly resolved to take his stand on the stairs
[the outer stoop] in front of the Doctor's apartment and there to detain
the mob as long as he could by an harangue in order to gain the Doctor
the more time for his escape," Troup recorded.
After the mob knocked down the gate and surged toward the residence,
Hamilton launched into an impassioned speech, telling the boisterous
protesters that their conduct, instead of promoting their cause, would
"disgrace and injure the glorious cause of liberty." One account has the
slightly deaf Cooper poking his head from an upper-story window and
observing Hamilton gesticulating on the stoop below. He mistakenly
thought that his pupil was inciting the crowd instead of pacifying them
and shouted, "Don't mind what he says. He's crazy!" Another account has
Cooper shouting at the ruffians: "Don't believe anything Hamilton says.
He's a little fool!" The more plausible version is that Cooper had
vanished, having scampered away in his nightgown once Ogden forewarned
him of the approaching mob.
Hamilton knew he couldn't stop the intruders but he won the vital
minutes necessary for Cooper to clamber over a back fence and rush down
to the Hudson. Of all the incidents in Hamilton's early life in America,
his spontaneous defense of Myles Cooper was probably the most telling.
It showed that he could separate personal honor from political
convictions and presaged a recurring theme of his career: the
superiority of forgiveness over revenge. Most of all, the episode
captured the contradictory impulses struggling inside this complex young
man, an ardent revolutionary with a profound dread that popular
sentiment would boil over into dangerous excess.
Excerpted from "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow. Copyright © 2004 by Ron Chernow. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.