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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, February 18th, 2003


Alexander Hamilton: A Life

by Willard Ste Randall

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Americans lack a great biography of their most brilliant, far-seeing, and dashing Founder, Alexander Hamilton. (This is especially annoying given that even John Adams's effete and neurasthenic great-grandson Henry has been granted not one but two exceptional multi-volume studies.) If, as Progressive historians would have it, American politics was for a century a struggle between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, Hamilton's vision of America triumphed long ago. In his Report on the Public Credit and Report on the Subject of Manufactures he did nothing less than limn America's capitalist development; and of course the Federalist Papers (of which his essays form the bulk) constitutes America's most original contribution to political theory. In short, it is impossible to understand this country without apprehending Hamilton. But the contrast between Hamilton's éclat and the plodding products of his biographers — Forrest McDonald's highly intelligent and lucid, if eccentric, Alexander Hamilton (1979) excepted — has been conspicuous. Sadly, Randall's book, flabby and bereft of analysis, fails to break the mold. For a full-scale examination of Hamilton's history and ideas readers should turn to McDonald; but the best portrait of him can be found in Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick's magisterial and scintillating The Age of Federalism (1993), a somewhat overlooked masterpiece.

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