Author Willard Sterne Randall didn't plan it this way, but his Alexander Hamilton: A Life comes at a time when a group of political devotees is hoping that Congress will remove Hamilton's portrait from the $10 bill and replace it with that of President Ronald Reagan. Randall's biography, which offers a fresh look at the many-faceted career of one of the Founding Fathers, becomes a persuasive response to that group's wish.
If Hamilton's only accomplishment were rescuing the infant nation from financial disaster, that would have been enough to ensure him a lasting name and America's gratitude. But many readers, remembering from their school days only that George Washington's "money man" was mortally injured in a duel with Aaron Burr, will be astonished to learn of Hamilton's truly momentous achievements and a legacy equaled by few others in U.S. annals. Randall details Hamilton's battlefield performance, which led to his becoming Washington's most trusted aide-de-camp in matters of war and a favorite adviser in affairs of government; his authorship of most of the Federalist Papers, essays that helped to win New York's ratification of the Constitution and to otherwise shape U.S. political institutions; his principal roles leading to the creation of the Coast Guard and the Navy; and, of course, his critical goals and decisions as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Randall contends that if Washington was the nation's "indispensable man," Hamilton was Washington's indispensable man, even writing his Farewell Speech.
Author of previously acclaimed biographies of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin, Randall provides more than a time-line of Hamilton's accomplishments. We are given a flesh-and-blood Hamilton. While we sometimes encounter the man at his tactful best, we also find him in moments of despair, such as when he confides to a friend, "I hate the world. I hate myself," and in times of frustration as he lashes out at most members of Congress as "mortal enemies to talent" who have "only contempt for integrity." We see Hamilton engaging in vitriolic and mudslinging exchanges with other politicians, and, yes, even committing adultery. (A perceptive Martha Washington once noticed an amorous tomcat and named it Hamilton.) Above all, Randall skillfully traces Hamilton's untiring efforts to establish a financial system based on a currency that has become the most trusted medium in the world and is still graced by his portrait. A retired newsman, Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami.